Michael Zev Gordon première at Oxford Lieder Festival

Baruch: Ten Propositions of Baruch Spinoza

Performed by tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tillbrook.

Tuesday 13th October, 1pm
Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Live Stream

Michael is thrilled to have been commissioned by this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival to write a new song cycle setting words by the extraordinary philosopher Spinoza. Michael is also delighted to be writing his new work for the tenor James Gilchrist, who he has known since being a student in Cambridge.

About the work, Michael writes in his programme note:

On the face of it, the choice of Spinoza as a text for music is a doubtful one. His work is seen by many as the epitome of philosophical logic, his discourse in the Ethics – from which my songs are taken – patterned as mathematical propositions and proofs. His manner is spare, severe, sometimes almost impenetrable. Yet I have found there to be other, perhaps paradoxical, facets to his writings, which attract me greatly, and which have conjured up music vividly for me.

First, the propositions in the Ethics may indeed be spare, but their aphoristic nature makes them, to my mind, poetic, and open not only to thought but also to the imagination. Second, for a writer known for his logic, it’s fascinating to realise quite how much of Spinoza’s investigations are about human emotion.  Third, it is striking that Spinoza, often held up as a pioneering atheist, focuses so often on the divine. And for all his rationality, he describes the summit of understanding as a ‘third kind of knowledge’ that is reached only through the intuition, and which for some has a mystical quality. Lastly, as I make my own way as a liberal Jew, I wonder how much Spinoza, excommunicated for his ‘dangerous’ beliefs by his Jewish community, still remained Jewish inside.

My thoughts about Spinoza’s identity have led me to entitle my piece Baruch, his original name, which means ‘blessed’ in Hebrew, and not his adopted Benedict (the same in Latin). And I have built the fifth song ­- whose text is about memory – around a synagogue melody. But in essence my piece is occupied with the pathway of the Ethics, taking selections in the order in which they appear, first from the part on God, next moving to the emotions (or affects), and then on to the mind, and how, as Spinoza termed it, ‘adequate’ ideas can free one from emotional bondage. In the final section, songs 9 and 10, I highlight the third kind of knowledge, where, as I see it, the Enlightenment philosopher becomes a seeker of ‘enlightenment’. In the ninth song, this is still being striven for, but the last is fully settled, with a sustained balance between the measured piano harmonies and the floating lyricism in the tenor voice.

I’m really delighted that this voice could, in the first instance, be that of James Gilchrist. I have known James since we were undergraduates together at King’s College, Cambridge in the 1980s. It’s marvellous, after so much time has passed, to be able to write something specially for him and be inspired by his wonderful singing.

Baruch is dedicated to James and to the memory of the conductor Stephen Cleobury, who taught us both so much at King’s, and who died last year.