Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Tassilo Erhardt (Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, Netherlands)

“Performance practice” problems in the song of the sea

After the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelite men sing a beautiful piece of poetry as a song of praise to the Lord, summing up his saving deeds (Exodus 18:1-18). Curiously, shortly after the narrative, the same story is told of Miriam and the women, but only offering a truncated version of the song (Exodus 18:19-21). Over the centuries exegetes have developed various theories regarding the performance practice that might be implied in this pericope.

Passages from Michael Praetorius Syntagma Musicum I, as well as Bach’s marginal notes in his copy of the Calov Bible commentary, give clear evidence that these composers were aware of this exegetical tradition and related it to their own works. The specific design of works such as the final section of Handel’s Israel in Egypt and Linley’s Song of Moses suggests further that a wider circle of composers was influenced by contemporary exegesis of this text.

18th-century scholars saw in Exodus 18:1-21 the earliest song found in Scripture. As such, it seemed to have provided the paradigm for all Israelite worship. Hence ideas about “performance practice” associated with the Song of the Sea also influenced the settings of similar or related Biblical texts in works by Bach and Handel, such as BWV 16, 190, 225, Judas Maccabaeus and Messiah.

Last updated on 10 May 2004