Composing Legends

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Prolificacy is a common characteristic of the creative mind. The creator must create. By definition, a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a cake decorator decorates cakes. Yet there is a certain (if unspecified) quantity of creating that must be done before one can earn such a title. And in most creative fields—artistic, culinary or otherwise—a substantial body of work is a prerequisite for being considered exceptional. In the musical world, astounding output is seen as a sign of special insight, sensitivity and genius. The giftedness of a musician is thought to be proportional to his or her productivity. Thus, we find large sums of music attributed to two biblical figures remembered for their astuteness, sagacity and wisdom: David and Solomon.

Tradition ascribes the entire Book of Psalms to King David, and 73 psalm chapters bear his name. A version of the Psalter from the Dead Sea Scrolls goes further, claiming that David wrote 3,600 psalms, along with 450 additional songs. Solomon, David’s son and successor, is said to have authored 1,005 songs and 3,000 proverbs (1 Kgs. 5:12). That reference prompted a veritable library of Solomonic pseudepigraphy, including two biblical psalms (72 and 127), the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon, and the Psalms of Solomon (an extracanonical book from the first or second century B.C.E).

Doubts have been raised about whether these monarchs authored any of the songs to which their names are attached. For one thing, it was customary to put wisdom in the mouths of kings, regardless of their reputation. It could thus be that David and Solomon were made into fertile songwriters as a way to venerate their wisdom above that of “ordinary” monarchs. Another problem is that epigraphical evidence from their time is scanty. The world of David and Solomon was virtually illiterate, and it is likely that neither was capable of writing—let alone scribing beautifully intricate verses.

There is a more basic question apart from these historical considerations: Is it even possible for the kings to have been so musically prolific? The answer is a qualified yes.

Über-prolific musicians have been known in every epoch of human history. Purandara Dasa (1484–1564), the father of Carnatic music, wrote at least 1,000 songs. The oeuvre of German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is believed to comprise over 3,000 pieces. Simon Sechter (1788-1867), who taught music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, wrote over 8,000 pieces (a comparative few of which were published).

Super-productive musicians of modern vintage include Sun Ra, an avant-garde jazzer and self-styled extraterrestrial, who is credited with 159 albums. Musical polymath Frank Zappa put out 62 albums during his brief lifetime, and 29 additional albums have been released posthumously. Minimalist composer Philip Glass has nearly one hundred albums to his credit, and Ennio Morricone has provided scores for some 340 films.

It hardly needs mention that the work of these creative personalities is not always masterful in terms of quality, originality or care of construction. Anyone who has done a lot of anything knows this to be an inevitable truth. Nonetheless, a simple fact must be acknowledged: prolificacy requires time, diligence and dedication. This makes the idea of David and Solomon as fertile songwriters all the more doubtful.

As a rule, prolific musicians are fully absorbed in their calling. In contrast, David and Solomon are portrayed as warrior kings whose days were full with diplomacy, strategizing and nation building (not to mention their eventful personal lives). At best they would have written songs in their limited spare time. So, even if we set aside questions about ascriptions and literacy, the volume of material attributed to them would have been exceedingly difficult to achieve. It might be a remote possibility, but remote bordering on highly improbable.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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