Saturday, March 5, 2016

Settings of the Psalms

As someone who only has a passing acquaintance with religion, being raised in a family who practiced no known religion, I have largely encountered religion through the medium of music. This means that I have listened to very, very many settings of the mass and other liturgy and a whole lot of Bach cantatas. But lately I find myself running into quite a few settings of the Psalms. This section of the Bible (whatever version you know, Hebrew, Catholic or Protestant) is particularly interesting or important to musicians because these 150 or so poems were originally intended to be sung: they are songs. In the earliest manuscripts the notation for doing so has been preserved. According to Wikipedia:
Despite the frequently-heard view that their ancient music is lost, the means to reconstruct it still exist. Fragments of temple psalmody are preserved in ancient church and synagogue chant, particularly in the tonus peregrinus melody to Psalm 114. Cantillation signs, to record the melody sung, were in use since ancient times; evidence of them can be found in the manuscripts of the oldest extant copies of Psalms in the Dead Sea Scrolls and are even more extensive in the Masoretic text, which dates to the Early Middle Ages and whose Tiberian scribes claimed to be basing their work on temple-period signs. (See Moshe ben Asher's 'Song of the Vine' colophon to the Codex Cairensis). However, any knowledge of how to read these signs was lost in ancient times, and modern Bible translations do not include any musical notation.
This being the case, the Psalms have been often selected by composers as a suitable text. Here, for example, is one from a metrical psalter printed in England in 1628:


Incidentally, this particular Psalm, using the Latin text which begins "Beatus vir", was also set by Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Mozart. But today I want to pick another one, Psalm 150, which was set by three very different composers. First, here is one by Heinrich Schütz, the most important German composer before J. S. Bach and student of the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. His setting, in German, is titled: "Alleluja! Lobet den Herren" and dates from 1619. It is one movement from his Psalmen Davids, a large piece that sets twenty-six of the Psalms:


Here is that text in German and English translation:

Alleluja!
Lobet den Herren in seinem Heiligtum,
lobet ihn in der Feste seiner Macht.
Lobet ihn in seinen Taten,
lobet ihn in seiner großen Herrlichkeit.
Lobet ihn mit Posaunen,
lobet ihn mit Psaltern und Harfen.
Lobet ihn mit Pauken und Reigen,
lobet ihn mit Saiten und Pfeifen.
Lobet ihn mit hellen Cymbalen,
lobet ihn mit wohl klingenden Cymbalen.
Alles was Athem hat, lobe den Herrn. Alleluja!

English translation:

Alleluia!
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with crashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Alleluia!

The next composer that I want to look at who set this text is none other than Igor Stravinsky; his setting forms the third movement of his Symphony of Psalms, composed in 1930. Stravinsky uses the Latin version of the text:

Alleluia.
Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus.
Laudate Eum in firmamento virtutis Ejus. Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum in virtutibus Ejus. Laudate Dominum in virtutibus Ejus.
Laudate Eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis Ejus. Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus..
Laudate Eum in sono tubae.
Laudate Eum. Alleluia. Laudate Dominum. Laudate Eum.
Laudate Eum in timpano et choro,
Laudate Eum in cordis et organo; Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum in cymbalis benesonantibus,
Laudate Eum in cymbalis jubilationibus. Laudate Dominum.
Laudate Eum, omnis spiritus laudet Dominum, omnis spiritus laudet Eum.
Alleluia. Laudate, laudate, laudate Dominum.

The Wikipedia article, linked above, is quite good on this piece and even has musical examples. Let's have a listen. This is Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus:


The last setting, and the reason I wanted to take up this topic, is by Steve Reich. It is rather surprising, not to say stunning, that a composer who began his career with a radical focus on rhythm and pulse would, as his work progressed, come to take his place in this particular tradition of Western composers: settings of Psalm 150. Steve Reich, after having studied drumming, Balinese gamelan, and the music of Ghana finally turned his attention to his own Jewish heritage and examined Hebrew cantillation. The result was his piece Tehillim ("Psalms" in Hebrew), composed in 1981, the last movement of which sets Psalm 150: 4-6 in Hebrew. The English translation is:

Praise him with drum and dance,
Praise him with strings and winds,
Praise him with sounding cymbals,
Praise him with clanging cymbals,
Let all that breathes praise the Eternal,
Hallelujah.

Some of the best commentary is found online at the Canteloupe Music site. Here is what they say about the last movement, part IV:
Returning to the rhythmic drive of Tehillim's first half, Part IV draws on techniques from all three preceding movements: canons, augmentation, and finally free variation. The theme is reworked in so many different ways that it is no longer possible to explain the trajectory of an entire movement as the result of a single process. The result is a complexity of discourse that recalls symphonic music more than it does Reich's prior body of work. Out of the ideas from his austere, reductionist works of the late 1960s, Reich has in Tehillim developed a unique and completely personal musical language with the breadth and sophistication to produce truly symphonic thought.
The ending of Tehillim stands among Reich's most spectacular creations. The fourth movement tune recalls the harmonic ambiguity of Tehillim's opening melody: its final two lines involve those same four pitches (D, E, G, A), which suggest a variety of possible harmonic interpretations. From the outset of the movement, where they are cast in dark harmonies, Reich moves to increasingly bright tones. And in the conclusion, during which the singers again and again repeat the word "Hallelujah," these four notes are firmly grounded in D major. Following the shifting dark harmonies of the third movement, the resolute conclusion is a triumphant moment. Tim Page, in his evocative notes for the original recording, describes the effect as "incandescent," the voices "strong and proud, intertwining and harmonizing in continual ascent towards grace, striving towards the light. . ."
The really remarkable thing here is that, over the years, Steve Reich has managed to construct a musical language that is so sturdy that he can incorporate things like complex harmonies and intricate counterpoint to set one of the oldest and most well-known musically-suitable texts. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is how little it sounds like previous settings. This is the ensemble Ossia directed by Alan Pierson:

7 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Fascinating post! but alas I have very little time today. Psalm 1 almost always begins the Sunday cursus of psalmody in the Roman Rite, at the hour of Matins, & each day Psalm 150 almost always ends the hour of Lauds that follows Matins, Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius, laudate eum in firmamento virtutis eius.... In the traditional Divine Office we pray each of the 150 psalms during the course of a week; after the Second Vatican Council I believe most monastic orders spread the Psalter over two weeks, & for the secular clergy &c I believe the Psalter is said over the course of a four week cycle these days. But for all three forms, which psalms are actually said depends on which time of the liturgical year it is & which saints' feasts happen to be celebrated; in the post-1970s office certain psalms aren't prescribed to be said at all because they are deemed too violent or nasty, which is nonsense but nobody has yet made me pope.

Looking forward to reading about the Reich Tehillim & listening to the entire work; have been listening to Lassus's Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales during Lent quite a bit, & to a recording of Des Prez's Psalms (well, six Psalms and a motet that is apparently his own... pastiche of psalm verses).

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm going to embark on a reading of the Psalms--or several. The Lassus is very fine, isn't it?

Marc Puckett said...

Collegium Vocale Ghent (sic? Gent, perhaps) is in town next month and will perform Lassus's Lagrime di San Pietro.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm sure that will be a treat!

Eric Koenig said...

Stravinsky, in writing about the Symphony of Psalms, said he wanted to counter many composers who, as he put it, " ... had abused these magisterial verses as pegs for their lyrico-sentimental 'feelings'. The Psalms are songs of exaltation, to be sure, but also of anger and judgment, and even of curses."

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, some few are songs of exaltation, but others are, as you say, of anger and judgement and even of warning!

Marc Puckett said...

Thanks, Eric, for the Stravinsky quotation, & for reminding us of this post.

Am going out for a long walk in a bit and will listen to Tehillim again; afraid I don't recall last Lent's first listen occasioned by your post, apart from the fact that I know I did. Hmm.