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When David heard that Absalom was slain
He went up into his chamber over the gate and wept,
and thus he said:
my son, my son, O Absalom my son,
would God I had died for thee!
The Gesualdo Six recorded this poignant rendition of “When David Heard” in 2017. Composed by Thomas Tomkins, the tune is a 17th-century masterpiece of the madrigal style. This a cappella hymn is drawn from 2 Sam 18:33, in which King David learns that his son, Absalom, has fallen in battle.
Hyperion explains that Tomkins most likely composed the piece in remembrance of Henry, Prince of Wales, who died young in 1612. The powerful hymn captures the grief King David felt with the repetition of the line “my son,” which dominates the latter half. The hymn became so popular that it was published and used in religious services.
One of the most striking parts of the hymn is the shift in its perspective. At the outset, the lyrics are written in the third person, explaining the grief of David. The second half shifts to the first-person perspective of King David, mourning the death of his son.
The Gesualdo Six’s treatment of Tomkins’ timeless tune is the epitome of vocal performance. Aided by their countertenor’s unbelievable high notes, the group brings the passage to life. The ensemble made excellent use of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. The high ceilings and stone floors made for excellent reverberation and overtones.