A Father’s lament doubly received: Robert Alter, Nigel Butterley, and David’s lament for Absalom

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David’s lament in 2 Sam 18:33, on hearing of Absalom’s death, has been an extremely popular text for composers to set to music. The traditional English language settings utilise a text that begins ‘When David Heard’, though these words are absent from the 1611 King James Bible, and the 1560 Geneva bible, and no other extant text supports this rendering. However, a cluster of some thirteen settings of the text in the seventeenth century which appropriated this translation established somewhat of a ‘tradition.’ Settings through to the twenty-first century have continued to utilise this text, with one prominent composer assuming that the textual tradition came from the King James Bible. However, Australian composer Nigel Butterley has produced a setting which makes use of Robert Alter’s translation of the David story. Rather than focus on the single verse, Butterley redacts four chapters of Alter’s translation into a comprehensible narrative, punctuated by the refrain ‘Beni Avshalom. Beni, veni Avshalom’ which appears three times, and the full lament which occurs on the last two occasions. This paper examines Butterley’s appropriation of Alter’s translation, and the musical vocabulary which is employed in conveying this deeply moving text. Interested as it is in issues of interpretation, it reveals Butterley as a both sensitive and powerful reader of scripture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-60
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of the Bible and its Reception
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 05 Sept 2018


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