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Michael Torke

Book Of Proverbs World Premiere

Michael Torke

Composers Programme Notes


The World Premiere performance of Book of Proverbs took place on Sunday 15th September at the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht in the Netherlands as part of the Startschot 96 festival. The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, soloists Susan Chilcott and Kurt Ollmann with Edo de Waart conducting performed this eight part work based upon Biblical quotations from the Book of Proverbs.The Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned the work to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

As if to emphasise the forces Michael Torke has employed for this work, its first performance was preceeded by an intimate performance of music by Ignaz Biber by the eight strong Combattimento Consort. Once completed the stage proceeded to fill to overflowing with the orchestra, choir and soloists.

My expectations for this work were high….this was a major work in terms of the forces employed and timing compared to Torke's previous work and it was my first attendance at a World Premiere of one of Torke's works!

The first section is the only one employing orchestra only. The following sections using different combinations of instruments and sections of the choir as well as the soloists progressively building to a climax in the final section ' Boast Not of Tomorrow '.

Torke has, for the first time, it appears to me combined the 'essential' elements of his language into one work! Emotionally the music is 'uplifting' – sacred music expressing joy and optimism as if the church windows had been blown open!

Composers Programme Notes

I remember from my childhood how I curiously leafed through the family Bible, searching for something that I could understand in this book that in my eyes was full of important wisdoms and yet to be unveiled secrets of the moral. The short, vigorous verse lines of the Book of Proverbs that were read as ' Fortune Cookies ', were the first texts that immediately appealed to me. To this day they belong to my favourite parts from the Bible, not only because of their scenic poetry but also because of their humour.

In an earlier composition, named 'Four Proverbs' for soprano and small ensemble (1993), I started to develop the idea of short texts, put on to simple melodies, where each word or each syllable is coupled to one defined part of the melody. This way the words of the text get into different sequence when I start to manipulate the notes during the composition process. When the notes of the melody slowly get back into the correct sequence the words also fall into place again. This way each word not only carries its own meaning but works also as a signal; like a flag, put on each note, that signals to the listener what is happening to the notes. For example, in the third part 'Better a Dry Crust' the text is presented as a springy lively melody in the sopranos and the altos.

'Better a Dry Crust with Peace Than a House Full of Feasting with Strife'

"What would happen", I deliberated, "if I arranged the notes of the appropriate melody from low to high and kept to the rhythm?" Not only a whole useful new melody comes into being but also the corresponding words get a new arrangement, as follow:

'House a Strife Better Than with Full Feasting Crust with of Dry Peace a'

The one-to-one relationship of words and music may look abstract at first sight, but it is my experience that a listener better remembers words in combination with certain music (just think about jingles in an advertisement) and that he remembers a certain melody easier with the words that go with it (for instance, like the chorus of a pop song). In this way I could vary endlessly with little material of which the words were inseperably connected to certain notes.

Now, with a large choir and orchestra at my disposal to develop these ideas further, it was a challenge to me to compose music in the same way on a much larger scale than that of 'Four Proverbs' with its more introvert expression. but this didn't mean that I abandoned my original habit to introduce my melodies as duets for two instruments. In the first three parts of 'Book of Proverbs' I restrict myself for those duets to the use of only two sections of the choir. During the eight parts the use of the choir is expanded more and more, slowly working towards a climax and finally the whole choir together sings the last part; 'Boast Not of Tommorrow'.

The use of a soprano soloist in the fifth part 'The Way of an Eagle' and of baritone soloist in the sixth part 'Drink our Fill of Love' lends even more colour to the developing composition. In both cases the choir joins the soloists, the female voices with the soprano and the male voices with the baritone, and supports the soloists with longer notes, parts of the melodies we have just heard.

Clarity in my composing always comes first for me. I look for transparent orchestrations and strive to let the music unfold logically and clearly. But above all I believe that a listener can hear in this work what I do with my music, owing to my use of the text, so that the meaning of the different Proverbs has the chance to penetrate the soul of the listener through the different arrangements of the words.

Michael Torke, 1996


1. Opening
2. The Door Turns
The door turns on its hinges,
the sluggard, on his bed!
Proverbs 26:14
3. Better a Dry Crust
Better a dry crust with peace
than a house full of feasting with strife
Proverbs 17:1
4. The Whip for the Horse
The whip for the horse, the bridle for the ass
and the rod for the back of fools.
A proverb in the mouth of a fool
hangs limp, like crippled legs.
As the dog returns to its vomit
so the fool repeats its folly.
Proverbs 26:3,7,11
5. The Way of an Eagle
Three things are too wonderful to me,
yes, four I cannot understand:
The way of an eagle in the air,
the way of a serpent upon a rock,
The way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden.
Proverbs 30:18-19
6. Drink Our Fill of Love
And I saw among the simple ones,
I observed among the young men,
a youth with no sense,
Going along the street near the corner,
then walking in the direction of her house-
In the twilight, at the dusk of day,
at the time of the dark of night.
And lol the woman comes to meet him,
robed like a harlot, with secret designs-
She seizes him, she kisses him,
and with an impudent look says to him:
"I come out to meet you,
to look for you, and I have found you!
With coverlets I have spread my couch,
with brocaded cloths of Egyptian linen:
I have sprinkled my bed with myrrh,
with aloes, and with cinnamon."
"Come let us drink our fill of love,
until morning, let us feast on love!
For my husband is not at home,
he has gone on a long journey;
…not till the full moon will he return home."
She wins him over by her repeated urging,
with her smooth lips she leads him astray;
He follows her stupidly,
like an ox that is led to slaughter;
Like a stag that minces toward the net,
till an arrow pierces its liver,
Like a bird that rushes into a snare,
unaware that its life is at stake.
Such is the way of an adulterous woman:
she eats, wipes her mouth,
and says "I have done no wrong."
Proverbs 7:7-10,13,15-23
Proverbs 30:20
7. Like a Man Who Seizes
Like the man who seizes a passing dog by
the ears is he who meddles in a quarrel
not his own
Proverbs 26:17
8. Boast Not of Tomorrow
Boast not of tomorrow,
for you know not what any day may bring forth.
Proverbs 27:1

If you have any comments, additions or questions I would be really pleased to hear from you!

Copyright © David Charlton, 1995, 1996.

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The music of Michael Torke is published by Boosey and Hawkes

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