And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.
And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.
And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.
—Genesis 32:22–31 (KJV)
SONG: “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob” | Text by Emily Dickinson, ca. 1859 | Music by Dominic de Grande, 2017 | Performed by St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir, under the direction of Tom Wilkinson, on Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, 2018 [listen on SoundCloud]
This choral composition was commissioned in 2016 as part of the TheoArtistry project [previously] of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the aim of which is to reinvigorate dialogues between theologians and practicing artists. Emerging theologians from St. Andrews’ divinity school were paired with composers under the guidance of Sir James Macmillan to create six new choral settings of Hebrew Bible “annunciations,” communications of God to humankind. The collaborations are mutually beneficial: composers who may have no Christian background or no formal theological training but who want to contribute to the landscape of modern sacred music or seek out new lyrical content in the Bible are provided with textual exegesis and consultation by those who are learned in the fields of theology and biblical studies, and on the other hand theologians have Bible passages opened up to them in new ways through music, helping them to engage the texts on a more experiential level. Creative inspiration on both sides! Dr. George Corbett, director of TheoArtistry and an ITIA lecturer, says the St. Andrews divinity school wants composers and other artists to use them as a resource.
Dominic de Grande was one of six composers selected from an applicant pool of about a hundred to write a choral piece approximately three minutes in length that would be performable by a good amateur choir. He was assigned Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match and was partnered with theologian Marian Kelsey, who oriented him to the ambiguity of the Genesis 32 narrative, the Hebrew wordplay, and the narrative’s appropriations in liturgy, literature, and visual art. De Grande chose to set Emily Dickinson’s poem on the subject, “A little East of Jordan”:
A little East of Jordan,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—
Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return—
Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me”—Stranger!
The which acceded to—
Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!
Because the tone of the poem is light and playful, de Grande scored it in the context of a grandmother telling the story to her grandchild at bedtime; he titled the composition “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob,” the word Savta being Hebrew for “grandmother.” It starts off gently, lilting, with a harmonic underpinning consisting of three chords. But, as Kelsey pointed out, the biblical text evokes a sense of danger and intensity, so after Dickinson’s third stanza, de Grande inserted a fragment from Genesis—“LET ME GO, FOR DAY IS BREAKING”—spoken by Jacob’s mysterious opponent. It’s sung as a burst of voices and organ, the latter six syllables introducing six new chords, evoking a sense of otherness. This demand forms a juxtaposition with the sweet, innocuous language of Dickinson’s angel, who politely asks permission to break for mealtime. After the interjection the piece returns to its gentler tone, as dawn dispels the “silver fleeces” of cloud and Jacob sits in the aftermath of the encounter. The human whistling throughout suggests something of the numinous.
To learn more about the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, check out Annunciations: Sacred Music for the Twenty-First Century (2019), an open-source book available for free download as a PDF or for purchase in other formats. The book includes reflections on the collaboration process and other aspects of the project by all twelve participating theologians and composers (plus full scores! and links to audio) as well as chapters by various contributors on sacred music in worship settings versus secular settings, the theology of music, the vocation of the composer, moments of divine encounter in the ancient Near East, Mary as a model for creative people, the Gospel canticles in church liturgies, and more.
You can also watch this twenty-minute behind-the-scenes documentary:
The other “annunciations” in the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme are God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), the threefold calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Elijah and the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), and the Song of Songs 3:6–11.
For an Artful Devotion from last year on this same biblical text, see “Wrestling Jacob”; it features a contemporary woodcut illustration from a German Bible and one of my favorite Charles Wesley hymns, with music from the shape-note tradition.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 13, cycle A, click here.