our words make worlds

The Songs of Songs – Solomon, Rumi and St. John of the Cross


Organized by Prof Stefan Sperl, a performance of Songs of Songs - Solomon, Rumi and St. John of the Cross took place at the SOAS Brunei Gallery on the evening of Friday 10 November 2017, with support from Language Acts and Worldmaking and the Iran Heritage Foundation. Stefan writes about the project below.


Songs of Songs is a poetic triptych with voices, songs and music based on: The Song of Songs attributed to King Solomon in the Bible (Old Testament), The Spiritual Canticles of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) and The Odes on Mystical Love by the Persian poet Rūmī (1207-1273). It presents three “dialogues” from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim (Sufi) traditions. Their common subject matterlove as a universal language, the pains of exile and separation, the quest for the Holy Beloved and the hoped for elation of a final unionreaches far beyond religious and cultural divides. Together with the original music score composed by Renaud Garcia-Fons, which combines sounds from the East and the West, the voices of the narrators, Leili Anvar (The female Beloved) and Frédéric Ferney (The male Beloved), intertwine with that of Solea Garcia-Fons (The Choir) who sings the poems in the original languages: Hebrew, Castilian and Persian.

The event was organised in association with the British Academy and SOAS Conference Faces of the Infinite – Neoplatonism and Poetics at the Confluence of Africa, Asia and Europe. The audience of some 180 persons included the speakers and delegates of the conference many of whom had come from abroad, as well as SOAS students and members of the general public who had reserved places through Eventbrite where the concert had been advertised.

The poetic texts sung and recited during the evening, particularly those by Rumi and St.Juan de la Cruz, were directly relevant to the topics discussed at the conference. The event therefore proved to be a meaningful counterpart to the academic papers, to the extent that some participants considered it to be the highlight of the entire conference. The general audience also reacted warmly and showered the performers with applause. At the end several people came to me and said this had been one of the best musical events they had ever attended.

It should be noted that a last minute problem arose when the Eurostar refused to carry the double bass on its London-Paris link. New regulations had come into force, which preclude the transportation of objects taller than 1.50m. The double bass therefore had to be shipped by plane. This resulted in increased costs which were met with the support of SOAS. The news came as something of a shock, but it was greatly mitigated by the success of the musical evening. In the circumstances we are all the more grateful for the grants provided without which this event could not have taken place.

Prof. Stefan Sperl

SOAS University of London