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Words and Music 7 The Song of Abigail

The Song of Abigail (1986) is a melodrama. Not in the sense of the moustache twirling nonsense of the Victorian melodrama, but in the 18th century sense of spoken text with music.

There are a few major 20th century pieces of this sort – such as Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian and Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. And of course there is Pierrot Lunaire (Schoenberg’s not mine) which is described as a melodrama, and has a bit of both definitions – spoken text (sort of) and histrionic performance. The Song of Abigail has singing in it, but most of the text is spoken, in order to tell a quite intricate story very clearly.

I was commissioned by the ensemble ‘Lontano’ for a concert in St John’s Smith Square, at a time when I had begun to be very interested in the Old Testament as a source of colourful stories packed with intrigue and sprinkled with violence. There are a number of ‘The Song of…’ passages in the OT – The Song of Ruth, The Song of Deborah etc. But there is no ‘The Song of Abigail’ (that was my idea), just a lengthy account of a characteristically dubious episode in the career of King David in which Abigail plays a central part. It seemed to me a nice idea to have Abigail tell the story herself.

The story can be summarised as follows: David and his men occupy land belonging to a wealthy land owner, Nabal. They demand gifts from him, but he refuses. David is angered and vows to kill Nabal for his insolence. Nabal’s wife, Abigail, intercedes on her husband’s behalf, begging David to spare him. David agrees not to kill Nabal. But Nabal, furious that Abigail has negotiated with the enemy, has a heart attack and dies anyway. David then marries Abigail.

I adapted the text from a few different English versions of the Bible (King James, Good News etc) and added occasional little extras of my own. The character I had in mind for Abigail was that of a quite ordinary but also quite clever and very chatty woman. Actually the character I had in mind was Sybil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers). At the premiere, though, the part was performed by the wonderful Frances Lynch with her normal Glasgow accent. The narrative begins like this (imagine Glaswegian if you like, or imagine Sybil):

“Perhaps I should explain. The story you are about to hear is a true story, and you can read it for yourselves in the First Book of Samuel, chapter twenty five. It concerns a protection racket, and the manner in which David – shepherd, harpist, giant killer and eventually King of Israel and Judah – came to acquire the land and possessions of the wealthy Nabal. Chief among the chattels which David won for himself was Nabal’s wife; the beautiful and intelligent Abigail – that’s me. OK?”

The character thing is really only possible with spoken text. It’s a commonplace in opera to have characters whose costume and spoken material presents authentic lower class attributes, but who become immediately upper class when they sing. Opera singing can only do posh. There are often attempts to get round that, but they tend to be unconvincing.   Spoken text can solve two problems: intelligibility and character. The question then arises, though: so is the music just ‘incidental music’?

In The Song of Abigail there is a lot of music.   The ensemble of 11 players provides a colourful prelude and postlude, shorter interludes along the way and textural accompaniment and punctuation during the spoken passages. And there is some singing. Some of the text is presented as a cheerful song which is predominantly on a monotone, but whose accompaniment is harmonically interesting. And at the climax of the story there is ‘The Plea’. This is where Abigail falls to her knees to beg David to spare her husband. This is a lengthy and insanely repetitive passage in the original text (Samuel 1 xxv) which I set exactly as it appears in the King James version. My Abigail delivers this as a kind of high speed Anglican chant – “Upon me, my Lord, upon me let this iniquity be, and let not thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience and hear the words of thine handmaid….” – and it continues in this breathless vein for a few minutes.

As in Schoenberg’s Pierrot, there is a ‘light ironic tone’ in this piece, but its message is actually quite serious. David is portrayed (by the singer/actress) as a Mafia boss. Why? Because he behaves like one. He tries to acquire Nabal’s property through intimidation. When that doesn’t work he engineers Nabal’s death (of course it wasn’t a heart attack!). He then marries Nabal’s widow (Abigail) and acquires the land that way. This kind of greed for power is the main point of the David story, and there is worse behaviour elsewhere. For example, there’s the famous affair with Bathsheba which also necessitated the murder of her husband. That’s a story that has captured the imagination of many artists – a beautiful wife bathing on her rooftop etc. But then also an innocent soldier sent into the thick of battle to his certain death, all in order to cover up David’s role in making his wife pregnant. And after the husband’s death, David then marries Bathsheba too, although: “The Lord was not pleased with what David had done”.  All the same, Bathsheba went on to bear David a second child, and that was Solomon.

You can listen to The Song of Abigail here

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