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10.2. Composer’s Reflections

Seán Doherty

© 2019 Seán Doherty, CC BY 4.0

For the TheoArtistry project, I was paired with the theologian, Caleb Froehlich, and we collaborated in creating a choral setting of 1 Sam 3. In this passage, the boy Samuel hears his name being called three times during his nightly task of tending the lamp in the temple at Shiloh. Each time, Samuel thinks he is being summoned by his guardian, Eli, the high priest of the temple, and answers ‘Here I am!’.1 Eli tells Samuel that this is God’s voice and to respond with the words, ‘Speak, for your servant hears’. Whereupon, God speaks to Samuel and promises to destroy the house of Eli because his wicked sons had blasphemed and Eli had failed to restrain them. In the morning, Samuel, although hesitant to do so, recounts the prophecy to Eli. Froehlich had prepared a comprehensive, yet concise, information packet on the passage, which he presented to me at the symposium and which we talked through over several video calls. This packet included analyses of the historical and biblical context of the passage, the important theological themes and symbols, and other works of music and media which had used this passage as inspiration.

I. The Collaborative Process

At the symposium, I asked a group of theologians: what do you imagine Samuel’s age to have been when he received this prophecy? Their answers ranged from four to eight years. This made the passage more personal to me as I reflected on my godson and nephew, Aodhán (the dedicatee of this piece), who was six years old at the time. I thought of what my own reaction would be to a child who was visibly distressed after waking up: to comfort them immediately. I imagine that this is a natural human reaction that traverses history and cultures.

This reflection inspired me to compose a setting from the viewpoint of Samuel. For Samuel, this call was not the saccharine story of the Sunday school lesson, nor a glorious annunciation that would forever change the course of history by instigating Samuel’s role as Israel’s priest, prophet, and judge. Instead, it was a terrifying ordeal which prophesied the destruction of the only family he had ever known. Eli evidently regarded Samuel as his son (‘Samuel, my son’; 1 Sam 3.16) and Samuel was traumatized to the extent that he ‘was afraid to tell Eli the vision’ (1 Sam 3.15). Samuel’s calling is unlike other prophetic call narratives because it does not involve confession nor an immediate charge to prophesy. It is significant, in this respect, that Eli had already received the divine word of his household’s termination from an unnamed prophet in 1 Sam 2: ‘The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling’ (1 Sam 2.31-32). Accordingly, it seemed possible that Samuel had heard the rumours of the prophecy circulating about Eli’s household as he went about his daily chores. The promise of the destruction of the house of Eli weighed heavily on his mind. Usually, preoccupations during waking hours are given vivid realization in dreams. For Samuel, the rumours of the prophecy had manifested as a nightmare.

Froehlich was meticulous in drawing my attention to the significance of the names in this passage. He informed me that Hebrew names are typically drawn from other words that give the names their meaning. Thus, names in the Hebrew scriptures often play a significant role in signaling a character’s origin, personage, or purpose within the story. Names that contain ‘el’ usually mean that they are associated with God: the letters ‘el’ derive from Elohim, another name for God; Eli means ‘My God’; Samuel means ‘the one who hears God’. The three speaking characters in this passage, then, share the syllable ‘el’ in their names: El, Eli, and Samuel. When I analysed the passage to understand its basic dramatic structure, I therefore realized that the story could be told primarily through these names. The only other texts that I used were ‘Hinneni’ (Here I am) and ‘Daber ki shomea abdecha’ (Speak, for your servant hears), both in original Hebrew. The rest of the narrative could unfold in the music itself.

I determined that my setting would be a dramatic presentation of the biblical passage rather than a reflection on its theological meaning. Each group of performers is a distinguishable character, in the manner of an oratorio: the soprano soloist is the boy Samuel; the choir with organ is the voice of God; the choir without organ is the voice of Eli. In deciding on this characterization, I was influenced by the use of the organ as a metaphor for the word of God in seventeenth-century sources.2 In addition to the use of the oratorio style and the metaphorical use of the organ, other Baroque elements, such as word-painting, are used throughout the piece, and will be discussed below.

Froehlich and I talked at length about the theological significance of God’s three-fold call. I realized, additionally, that in the course of the passage there is not just one call, but three, and all names share the Hebrew root ‘el’: God calls Samuel, Samuel calls Eli, and Eli calls Samuel. This realization was important to my compositional process, as this was the natural basis on which to structure the piece. I took considerable artistic license with the dramatic presentation of the biblical passage, notably by excluding Eli’s remarks during the three-fold call (‘I did not call; go back and lie down’). This was done for three reasons: to focus the reading on the viewpoint of Samuel, to make the dramatic structure of the three-fold call as clear as possible, and to eliminate all but the most essential elements of the narrative in order for the piece to remain within the stipulated duration in performance (three minutes).

There is a notable parallelism in this passage. At night, God calls Samuel, and Samuel thinks it is the voice of Eli. Samuel never attributed the voice to a stranger (he would have said, ‘Who are you?’), but recognizes it as the voice of Eli every time, by running to him and saying ‘Here I am!’. In the morning, however, Eli really does call Samuel, and in much the same way that God had done. The voices of God and Eli, I determined, should sound similar in my musical setting, in order to draw out the theme of the discernment of God, and in order to emphasize this parallelism. In my setting, the musical material of three-fold call is echoed by Eli but without the organ accompaniment, signifying that the voice of God has now departed, and it is Eli, alone, who speaks.

Table 10.2.1: Structure of Seán Doherty, ‘God Calls Samuel’




Verse of 1 Samuel 3


God: Samuel, Samuel.

God Calls Samuel


bars 1-28

Samuel: Eli? Hinneni, Eli.

(Eli? Here I am, Eli.)

God: Samuel, Samuel.

Samuel: Eli? Hinneni, hinneni, Eli.

God: Samuel, Samuel

Samuel: Eli? Hinneni, hinneni, hinneni, Eli

(Speak, for your servant hears)

God: Samuel, Samuel

Samuel: Daber ki shomea abdecha.


God: El! Eli!

God gives the prophecy to Samuel


bars 29-42

Samuel: Eli! Eli!


Eli: Samuel?

Eli finds Samuel


bars 43-55

Samuel: Eli? Hinneni, Eli.

Eli: Samuel.

II. The Compositional Process

Most of the ideas that Froehlich and I discussed at the TheoArtistry symposium, — all of which were viable — were jettisoned in the compositional process, in favour of thematic clarity, dramatic impact, and musical coherence. Practicalities must remain foremost for the composer, or the piece may lose its effectiveness in performance, or may not be performed at all. These practicalities included the prescribed duration of three minutes, which demanded a compression of the dramatic structure, the time constraints in rehearsal (which necessitated that the choir be able to perform the piece with limited preparation), and the balance between the organ, the choir, and the soloist (which needed to be distinguishable at all times for the sake of narrative clarity). In order to focus the dramatic structure, I limited my setting to 1 Samuel 3.2-16, from when God first calls Samuel, to when Eli finds Samuel in the morning.

2.1 Section A, Bars 1-28

At the TheoArtistry symposium, Froehlich and I discussed the symbolism of the first verse of this passage, and the possibility of exploring this idea creatively: ‘In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions’ (1 Sam 3.1). Owing to the restricted duration of the piece and my desire to convey the passage from Samuel’s viewpoint, this idea was distilled into a wordless fricative consonant (Sssshh), evoking the sound of wind across a barren land (bar 1). After the symbolic entry of the organ (the voice of God in my characterization), this wind sound emerges at the first phoneme of the word ‘Samuel’. God’s three-fold call, though theologically significant, risks being monotonous in performance owing to the lack of variation. I wanted a clear dramatic arc in the music, to reflect Samuel’s increasingly distressed state of mind; to this end, I imposed an increase in musical tension with each of God’s calls to Samuel. In the first of God’s calls, the choir sing homophonically in stark open fifths (D and A); in the second call, the choir sing the words at different times and in a full triadic harmony (B minor); in the third call, the ‘S’ of Samuel is fragmented and repeated by the lower voices (Altos, Tenors, and Basses). Furthermore, there is an increase in dynamic level with each call (from mezzo-piano to fortissimo). The sibilance of the fragmented and repeated ‘S’ of Samuel has an effect which is increasingly ominous and disorientating. The increase of urgency in the choir is matched by the increasing urgency of Samuel’s answers; this is accentuated by an increase in speed, pitch, and length, dynamic level, and in the number of repetitions of ‘Hinneni’. (Table 10.2.1)

2.2 Section B, Bars 29-42

I wanted to convey the awesome sense of God’s statement, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle’. To achieve this involved employing a number of extended vocal techniques. I ensured that the voice-leading (how the singer moves from one note to the next) is mostly by step, but with techniques that emphasize the sense of terror: glissandi (sweeping from one note to the next) are used in ascending and descending motion, which gives a sensation of extreme harmonic instability (e.g. bar 29); indeterminate pitches are used, and notated with a triangle note-head, which, depending on the direction of the triangle, indicates that the singer is to sing the highest or lowest possible (bar 35); and non-pitched notes are used in the emphatic last ‘Eli!’ before the final climax, where the singers are asked to roar (bar 38). The shift from standard to extended vocal techniques is difficult to perform, and so these shifts in technique are always underpinned by a strong harmonic foundation from the organ, which has clear notes in the lowest range (performed on the organ pedals) for the singers to use as a point of reference.

In relating the prophecy, God makes direct reference to himself six times and to Eli three times, as well as referring to himself in the third person (‘his sons blasphemed God’), and to Israel (which also contains the Hebrew root word ‘el’). It seemed justifiable, therefore, to restrict the text in the B section to ‘El’ and ‘Eli’, and let the music bear the narrative load. The chorus repeat ‘El!’ independently until the repetitions are as fast as possible, to give the effect of a mob baying for vengeance. The ‘l’ of ‘Eli’ is fragmented in the sopranos, and, through repetition, a glissando to a pitch high in their range (e’’), and an accelerando (speeding up), becomes an ululation: a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound resembling a howl with a trilling quality. This vocal sound has manifold meanings depending on the geographical, historical, cultural, and ritual contextual factors of its performance, ranging from joy to grief.3 I have chosen, however, to use it to denote fury and vengeance, as in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, when the ululation of Clytemnestra anticipates the impending slaughter of Agamemnon. In Greek tragedy, the ritual act of ololugmas or ulualation is a choral activity, and the cue for performing this act is said to lead to kata-stasis, ‘arranging’ of khoroi ‘choruses’.4 Bars 39-42 serve as the kata-stasis, drawing together the independent rhythms of each voice, before the climax for the piece.

2.3 Climax, bars 43-50

The soprano solo in this section is written to imitate the cries of a child in the throes of a night terror. The cry is in a pitch register distinct from the rest of the choir: a diminished fifth or a perfect fourth above the sopranos ululation on e’’. Every cry is a suspension (bar 43); this is when a note that is dissonant with the underlying harmony (the suspension) resolves downwards by step to a note consonant with the underlying harmony (the resolution). In species counterpoint, theorized in the Baroque era from the vocal polyphony of the Renaissance, the suspension and the resolution are the same length. In these cries of ‘Eli!’, however, the suspension is elongated in comparison to the resolution. This frustrated and unsatisfying resolution heightens the distress of these cries.

This suspension is then contracted to form a pair of semiquavers (bar 45). Pairs of slurred descending notes with dissonant beginnings, such as these, were known as Seufzer — ‘sigh’ or ‘groans’ — and originated as a kind of word-painting or madrigalism in the Baroque era.5 This sigh is made more realistic with a glissando, which, again, has the effect of minimizing the resolution and maximizing the harmonic instability and effect of disturbance (bar 46). These cries are made increasingly realistic by the reiteration of the vowel ‘i’, as Samuel chokes on his cries (bar 47). Samuel’s final cry is cut off mid-word — where Eli is truncated to ‘El’, symbolizing that Samuel has been subsumed by the baying mob of his nightmare. The clamour of the chorus, too, is abruptly cut off, leaving a single note on the pedal, which decreases in volume until it is barely perceptible.

2.4 Section A’, bars 51-55

The organ (the voice of God) has retreated, indicating that this is now Eli, rather than God, who is speaking. The chorus reprise the opening call of ‘Samuel’, which is now marked to be sung semplice (in a simple style); at the beginning of the piece it had been lontano (as from a distance). Too, the sound of the wind has now transformed into the sound of Eli hushing and comforting Samuel after his nightmare (bar 53). Where the soprano solo had outlined the melodic interval of a tritone in Samuel’s first utterance (f’’–b’, bars 8-9) — once known as the diabolus in musica or ‘the devil in music’ — the soprano now sings a perfect fourth in its reprise at the end (f’’–c’’, bars 53-54): Samuel is glad to see that it was just a dream; his guardian is here, and he is comforted.

The creative partnership with Froehlich has been extremely valuable in the composition of ‘God Calls Samuel’, which would have been vastly different had I not enjoyed the benefit of his comprehensive contextualization. After our initial discussions, I completely changed my approach to setting this piece — owing solely to the collaboration — encouraging me to look at the passage in far greater detail, and more reflectively, than I had done beforehand. Froehlich was supportive of my personal reading of the biblical passage, which, in turn, gave me the confidence to pursue a more dramatic setting. I had never before collaborated with a theologian, and it proved a catalyst for inspiration.

Seán Doherty, ‘God Calls Samuel’ (2017), in Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, St Salvator’s Chapel Choir and Sean Heath, cond. by Tom Wilkinson (Sanctiandree, SAND0006, 2018), © 2017 University of St Andrews. Track 10. Duration: 4.11.

1 All biblical quotations are taken from the New International Version.

2 Kerala J. Snyder, The Organ as a Mirror of Its Time: North European Reflections, 16102000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 84.

3 Joel C. Kuipers, ‘Ululations from the Weyewa Highlands (Sumba): Simultaneity, Audience Response, and Models of Cooperation’, Ethnomusicology, 43 (1999), 490–507 (pp. 490–93).

4 Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 479–80.

5 Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), II, p. 254.