JUDY COLLINS/JOSHUA RIFKIN
On her 1970 album, Whales and Nightingales, Judy Collins only included one of her own songs, “Nightingale.” All of the other songs on the album were written by others—Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan, among them. Also included in the album was her version of Amazing Grace—which still makes chills run up and down my spine each time I hear it, and which has become very well-known.
“Nightingale” was a little problematic for Collins. While its melody was firmly rooted in her head, finding the appropriate lyrics did not come easily. She finally settled on lyrics that she felt best matched the mood of her music, and they were a kind of Aesop’s fable:
Jacob’s heart bent with fear,
Like a bow with death for its arrow,
In vain he searched for the final truth
To set his soul free of doubt.
Over the mountains he walked,
With his head bent searching for reasons,
Then he called out to God
For help and climbed to the top of a hill.
Wind swept the sunlight through the wheat fields,
In the orchard the nightingale sang,
While the plums that she broke with her brown beak,
Tomorrow would turn in to songs.
Then she flew up through the rain
With the sun silver bright on her feathers,
Jacob put back his frowns and sighed and walked
Back down the hill.
God doesn’t answer me and
He never will.
On the album, the song was given the title of Nightingale I. It was immediately followed by Nightingale II, which was an absolutely gorgeous orchestration—and elaboration—of her melody, written by Joshua Rifkin.
Joshua Rifkin (b. 1944) is one of the most gifted jack-of-all-trades musicians alive, a true Renaissance man. He has, at various times in his life, been:
• responsible for the revival of Scott Joplin’s music
• a performer, author, and conductor of Bach all over the world
• guest conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and Theater Basil in Switzerland
• a respected music scholar of worldwide fame, publishing in-depth works on composers as far afield from each other as Josquin and Webern
• an in-demand arranger
Rifkin’s collaboration with Judy Collins came about during this “arranging” time when he was a young man of 26, just out of Juilliard. Today, Rifkin is Professor of Music at Boston University, having previously taught at Brandeis, Yale, and Harvard.
I was deeply attracted to this short Judy Collins song the very first time I heard it. I still love it, but it is Rifkin’s orchestration that I return to very often. It is just so lovely, very Vaughan-Williams-ish.