Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Song of songs: Nigra sum, sed formosa!

Some time ago I saw a documentary on Dutch television about a new trend amongst dark skinned women, namely to use cream to whiten their skin. Some of those creams were far from harmless and sold illegally.  One of the women was a Surinam-Hindustan stunning young beauty, who had a darker complexion than her sister and was afraid of having no chance at the wedding market. This idea is not something new or typical of Western culture: when around 1900 BC after the decline and fall of the Indus culture, Indo-Aryan tribes gradually invaded India, being fair –skinned became the (tacit) norm for beauty. As for me, I think it is complete nonsense. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I came to think about all this when I recently heard a version of Nigra sum, sed formosa `I am black but beautiful’. This is a choral setting of various lines from the Song of Songs. The texts used by the various composers vary, but the intro is the same.  I wondered what first line meant and which context it had. The first chapter of this book makes it clear that she was burnt by the sun as she had to work in the vineyard of her brothers. Probably she is defending herself against scornful remarks of the court ladies, as her dark skin singled her out as a lower class girl.
The dating of the Song of Song is notoriously difficult as there are no extra textual references. It was by an allegorical interpretation – bride and bridegroom are Israel and God – that this essentially secular erotic text has found its place in the canon of the Hebrew Bible
Looking on Internet for a version, I found a setting by that wonderful Spanish-Catalan musician Pablo Casals (1876 -1973), whose rendition of Bach’s cello suites in the thirties is a milestone in the history of classical recording. Asked why he was still playing cello every day at the age of 90, he replied: `because I think I can still improve!’

This is the texts of Casals: 

1:4a Nigra sum sed formosa, filiae Jerusalem.
Ideo dilexit me Dominus et introduxit in cubiculum suum et dixit mihi:
2:10b Surge, amica mea et veni.
2:11 Jam hiems transiit, imber abiit et recessit,
2:12a Flores apparuerunt in terra nostra, tempus putationis advenit.

diligo dilexi dilectum: to esteem
cubiculum: bedchamber
surgo surrexi: to rise up
hiems hiemis (f.): winter
imber imbris (m.): heavy rain
putatio (f.):  pruning  (of the vines).  But there is a textual problem: it is not clear what the Hebrew word זָּמִיר (zamir) means here. There a two homonyms, one meaning `pruning’, the other `song, singing’ and so translations differ.

Setting by Pablo Casals:

The various texts

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