Sunday, May 17, 2009

"The Song of Ruth", a children's cantata, has a curious cultural and moral slant

On Sunday, May 17, 2009, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA presented a thirty-minute children’s cantata “The Song of Ruth” as its “message in music.”

The music is by John J. Horman and the script is by Mary Nelson Keithahn; it was published in 1996 by Abingdon Press, with this Open Library link available. Search engines show several other works by this name by other authors.

The music, on the piano with bells, sounds routine, although the fugato “Elimelech’s Field” near the end is interesting. The ending of the piece is drawn out and intended to sound triumphant, but is seems to need an orchestra or organ to work, or at least aggressive piano playing (like in the review before this one). Two Psalms are used, 146 and 113, but the script (especially in 146) varies a lot from the Psalm texts.

The work has an overture and six scenes, and the kids had to move very quickly and in well-rehearsed movements to make the scene changes quickly to keep the production moving. Each scene has some acted text and then a song or chorus (or several of them).

But it’s the content of the story itself that is interesting. The Book of Ruth is considered one of the Bible’s gentler stories, one about family loyalty and caregiving, and about the events that led to the lineage that would lead to David and eventually Jesus.

The eventual marriage of Ruth to Boaz in the story is an example of Levirate marriage in which a man is required to marry his deceased brother’s widow to ensure that she has a provider. It is common in tribal societies, which place an affirmative obligation to continue a lineage (with marital intercourse) on every male, and help explain some of the deeper religious meaning of the rules of sexual morality (and even the supposed proscriptions against homosexuality). A parallel situation in modern society might be the pressure placed on an unmarried, childless sibling to raise the children of a tragically or accidentally deceased parent (as in the WB/Spelling show "Summerland" a couple years back).

A couple of the songs reveal the religious concern over the obligation to marry: “What Would We Do Without a Man?” and “It’s Time You Had a Husband”. There is also a song about Ruth’s gleaning (Psalm 146), which was a conservation activity to make sure that the poor were fed.

The cantata certainly emphasizes some of the “collective” social values in Jewish law.

Picture: from Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, 2005.

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