Celebrating the King James Bible at 400

King James Bible of 1611 (Image: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy)King James Bible of 1611 (Image: Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy)

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, a work that took 47 scholars seven years to translate from the Greek (for the New Testament) and from the Hebrew (for the Old). As a work of literature, the King James Bible stands on a par with the greatest works of the English language, and it has inspired millions of people down the ages, including numerous musicians. Ed Breen reflects on its remarkable power to draw extraordinarily powerful music from the composers who set it. 

Celebrating the King James Bible may for many musicians feel like a slightly tangential event, but to those of us who grew up as cathedral choirboys it holds special significance as the language of many anthems that we sang long before we knew what the words meant and which first persuaded us into a life of music. Yet we are all influenced by the King James Bible whether or not we know it; one of my students commented recently that certain composers were ‘a law unto themselves’ and I’m pretty sure she has never read the bible. Indeed one can find many examples in casual speech just like this, but not all such cherished biblical English is solely due to the King James Version; there is also an enormous debt to earlier translations and, in particular, the work of William Tyndale. But at what point did the King James Version itself start to infuse the musical world? 

The King James Bible Trust has made a series of compositions available to download as part of their celebrations. Interestingly, the first work they choose is Tallis’s famous setting of If ye love me a piece written by a composer who died almost 20 years before the King James Version was begun! This seems fanciful until we read that Tallis set words translated by William Tyndale in a passage which was later incorporated lock-stock into the King James Version. In this vein, it is interesting to note that William Byrd, a composer often mentioned in the same breath as Tallis, and who did live to see the publication of the King James Version, is conspicuous by his absence. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising for a composer who refused to attend Protestant services and used his royal pension to pay the fines. However considering that first prints were notoriously full of errors it is possible that Byrd’s reluctance to use the text might not have been entirely political. 

In the beginning [sic], no one was forced to use the King James Version (or Authorized Version as it often gets called) but a quick glance through The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems, ubiquitous in cathedral choir libraries, shows that two of the most famous pieces in modern circulation are settings of this very text. Tomkins’s unforgettably moving When David Heard and Gibbons’s verse anthem This is the record of John, now synonymous with the English countertenor voice. When David Heard is an anthem closely associated with King James himself – who, having lost his eldest son, may have unwittingly spawned settings of the David/Absalon story offered as tributes to his grief. Certainly related English settings are of an outstanding quality and were recently explored on albums by the ensemble Gallicantus (Signum – buy from Amazon) and the famous Westminster Abbey Choir (Hyperion – buy from Amazon). Personally, I find this is a curious case because here the English text is unexpectedly more resonant than the Latin. Just consider the setting Lugebat David Absalon (probably by Gombert), which begins with such an awkward cluster of consonants. When David Heard... invokes softer sounds that draw the listener towards a heart-stopping ‘Oh my son, Absalon my son, would God I had died for thee’ which in Latin possesses none of that whispering quality: ‘…ut moriar, O fili mi?’ strikes me as prosaic in comparison.

But such musical influence extends far beyond the Tudor orbit; there are Handel’s enduring coronation anthems to consider, the most performed of which, Zadok the Priest, is a famous instance of setting the words ‘God Save the King’. And this is not the only universally recognisable piece of choral music with Royal connections; there is also Parry’s I Was Glad which alongside the scent of fresh paint is surely one of the most frequent experiences of our Monarch. Ignoring the often inconvenient ‘Vivat’ section, consider the word ‘prosper’ in ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee’. Where else but the King James Version could one find a sentence of such architecture?

With the weight of this cultural trajectory in mind, I asked Gabriel Jackson, Associate Composer of the BBC Singers, for his experience of setting the King James Version to music. He began by telling me that it was because the very style of this translation was no longer the style of our everyday speech that he found it attractive.

‘I think that if you are going to set stories which carry a great depth of meaning for so many people, using The Authorized Version keeps it at a slight distance from everyday speech. Not so far away that it cannot be understood, but just far enough to demand that we think about the words and their meanings that much more carefully.’

And does he think that days are numbered for composers using the King James Version?

‘I don't think King James Version is anywhere near the end of its useful life for a composer. A couple of years ago I was asked to set the first 14 verses of St John's Gospel  – lines which, remarkably, don't seem to have been set before. Initially the commissioner wanted a different translation but I was able  – rightly I think – to persuade him that these lines (‘In the beginning was the word...’) are so iconic, so well-loved and well known in their King James form that it would be perverse not to set that version; I also felt very strongly that the special poetry and resonance of those lines, with their almost ritualistic repetitions, were particularly conducive to musical setting.’

I'd suggest that what makes this anniversary refreshingly different from so many others in our musical field is that rather than celebrating the rediscovery of something that has been woefully underrepresented or unjustly forgotten, as we so often do, what we are celebrating is a text that we have been living alongside and using in art and in everyday life for 400 years. Now that is truly remarkable. 

Edward Breen holds an Edison Research Fellowship at The British Library and teaches early music history and vocal studies at Morley College. He is currently writing his PhD at King's College London: 'The Performance Practice of David Munrow and The Early Music Consort of London'.

Details of the composition award given by the King James Bible Trust in association with the Royal School of Church Music and the Royal College of Music can be found by visiting their website.

On BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, May 28 at 12.15pm (and thereafter on the iPlayer for a week) the Revd Richard Coles assesses the influence of the King James Bible on composers down the centuries – 'Music of the King James Bible'.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014