Iowa State Commencement today marks the end of an academic year. I’ve already had to say goodbye to a number of students. And with last month’s Holy Week, Triduum, Confirmation, and First Communion squarely behind us at the parish, we enter our long summer.
I’ve begun devoting some serious attention to my next production. Three songs for scene two are done, only awaiting instrumentation. The are based on this section in the biblical book:
But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’
She said to them,
‘Call me no longer Naomi,
call me Mara,
for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.
I went away full,
but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
when the Lord has dealt harshly with me,
and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’ (Ruth 1:16-21)
How do I get three songs out of this? Ruth’s insistent companionship of her mother-in-law is an obvious one. It’s the anchor of the story in the consciousness of Christians who might know little else about the book. That song has to be good. It’s been set so often, and people will notice it as the initiation of the whole story. I had a good theme, I thought. I set it aside in February and, while it might still get reworked a bit, it seemed to fit the other night.
My choice for drawing out Naomi’s bitterness was to contrast two songs. The women of Bethlehem sing a light tune in a jazz waltz, “Is this Naomi, the sweet girl, who left so long ago?”
Naomi’s response is to sing the blues. Literally. My choice was to start in the Phyrgian mode, adding A-flat and even D-flat to a minor scale based on G. In my mind, cello and clarinet, too.
How to handle the author’s introduction of the characters in 1:1-5? I don’t believe in using a narrator. While I haven’t set the text to music yet, I’m leaning to staging it as a prologue–Naomi telling her grandson her sad backstory. The main production will get bracketed in that perspective. Naomi doesn’t move much in the book. She’s kind of a static anchor of lament. Around her, Ruth is quite busy, the townspeople work and play.
I wasn’t satisfied with the final amount of spoken dialogue in Tobit, which admittedly, wasn’t much. My wife’s suggestion was not to write Tobit as an opera. But for Ruth, I’m nearly certain it will be all singing. Call it an opera, operetta, or whatever. More dancing and choreography, too.
When I wrote the music for Tobit, it was scattered across eleven years. The later songs pick up bits and pieces of the earlier ones, and it seemed to hold together well enough. With Ruth, I’m leaning to writing whole scenes with their stretches of songs as much as I can. We’ll see how this approach improves on the earlier work. And also, I want to study a bit more how different composers, from Hildegard to Gershwin, construct a longer narrative and get it to exemplify a unity. Looks like I have a good summer ahead of me.