I need to start with a disclaimer. Everything I say here about poetry and music, or anywhere on this blog for that matter, is a personal response. But that’s a large part of what poetry and music do. They evoke personal responses.
Indeed, any setting of words to music is a subjective response – a composer’s response to a writer. One which can quite legitimately enhance or emphasise or even change the meaning of the text, whilst leaving the original untouched.
Or does it? Elgar, in The Apostles, sets these verses from Psalm 139:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence? … If I say, Peradventure the darkness shall cover me, then shall the night become as clear as the day…
All very well, but he puts the words into the mouth of Judas after the betrayal. They are the mark of Cain; Judas cannot escape judgement and damnation. So when a well-meaning friend sent me Psalm 139 as a message of reassurance and encouragement, I couldn’t escape the haunted, hunted voice of Judas spiralling towards suicide. Not, I suspect, what David had in mind when he wrote the psalm.