King David and the music

King David…. One of the Bible’s most inspiring and appealing personalities. But did he really exist? We live in a time when all sorts of things are being doubted, and that is alright.

Some historians assume that King David actually existed, but that (as with King Arthur, for example) many of the stories about his life are more likely to be apocryphal and they should not be considered hard historiography. So what? There is still such a thing as faith. And it is a reassuring and lovely story, which is so much needed in our troubled times.

King David, besides being a good man, a naughty husband and a harpist, was also a brilliant poet. His psalms are still among the finest that poetry has ever produced. His influence on art and certainly on music was and is immense. His psalms have therefore been set to music by many composers, think Bach, Allegri, Schütz, Strawinski, Kodaly, among others…. which is one of the reasons I started looking into David again. Whether or not he existed does not really matter. Inspiration does not need scientific evidence and art does not need to be tested against facts.

A small (with an emphasis on ‘small’!) selection of what’s out there. The order is random.

David’s harp playing soothed Saul’s mind and spirit.
Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), King David Playing the Harp (1611), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Holland

Michael Levy wonders: what would his harp have sounded like? He posted a ‘live’ performance of the traditional Hebrew song “Zemer Atik” (track 5 of his 2008 album, “King David’s Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel”):

Zoltan Kodaly, Psalmus Hungaricus:

Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze played by Andras Schiff:

Paul Schoenfield and his beautiful viola concerto ‘King David dancing before the ark’:

Sarah Connolly sings King David by Herbert Howells:

King David’s Suite by Lionel Hampton, recorded in Munich on the occasion of the Munich Summer Piano Festival in 1994. The St Petersburg State Orchestra is conducted by Alexander Tschernuschenko, Lionel Hampton plays vibraphone:

Franz Liszt, Psalms of David

Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms performed by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Great Broadcasting Choir:

Krzysztof Penderecki, Psalm of David recorded at Carnegie Hall:



David symphony for Harp (act I, scene V) Sara Águeda, arpa doppia:

Aria of David:

Carl Nielsen, the entire opera:

Paul Ben-Haim, Sweet Psalmist of Israel. David before Saul.:


Jonathan was the son of Saul, king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. David was from the tribe of Judah. Once rivals for the crown, they became friends and probably more, but the Bible does not explicitly portray the true nature of David and Jonathan’s relationship. The traditional interpretation of their friendship emphasises platonic love, an example of ‘homosociality’. Something later described as strong personal friendships between men. Today, there is often an emphasis on what some see as homoeroticism in the story

David et Jonathas by Charpentier, recording from Ais-en-Provence:

Trudy Labij: ‘What I’ve been reading’ from the musical Foxtrot (4), 1977:


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