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Words to Live By

While on sabbatical this past spring, I learned that Agnes Norfleet planned to preach a series on the Psalms during the following Lenten season. How marvelous! Of all the passages in the Bible set to music, nothing has inspired composers more than the Psalms.

Having focused much of our large-scale musical attention on 20th century composers these past few years, I decided to look for earlier settings of psalms that could serve as the framework for a Lenten concert with choir and orchestra.

It didn’t take long to settle on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Vesperae Solennes de Confessore” and George Frederick Handel’s “Dixit Dominus.” Both works are from the hands of young composers - Mozart was 24 and living in Salzburg; Handel was 22 and had just moved to Italy. In spite of their youth these settings show remarkable insights into the text of the Psalms. And, as young composers, they are exuberant in their demands on both instrumentalist and singer.

Mozart’s work sets five psalms and the Magnificat.Composed to be a part of a late afternoon vespersservice, the work had its premiere at the Salzburg Cathedral, a magnificent 17th century space in which our choir performed on its first concert tour in 1989. It was, in fact, the last work Mozart composed for his employer in Salzburg before heading off to grander things in Vienna.

Handel’s work sets Psalm 110 in eight virtuosic movements. Reflecting the incredibly talented singers he encountered in Italy, it is a staggeringly difficult work. Though Handel was at the beginning of his career, Dixit Dominusis filled with absolutely glorious melodic writing that sensitively captures the text of the psalm.

Finally, we are pleased to include the world premiere of a setting of Psalm 130, “Out of the Depths.” Composed by renowned Philadelphia composer, Kile Smith, this a cappella work focuses on the balancing of truths found in the text – of iniquity and forgiveness, of waiting and hoping, of supplication and redemption.

Peter Gomes, longtime minister of Harvard Memorial Church (and BMPC’s Theologian-in-Residence in November 1997), once advised a congregant, about to under go cancer surgery, to read the Psalms straight through. He wanted her to immerse herself, to hear its unfamiliar but powerful images. She did as he suggested and when he asked how it went, she replied that she’d had no idea the psalmist knew who she was, her exact circumstance, what she needed and when. “When he rejoiced so did I,” she said, “and when he howled and cried out, I did too.” Gomes concludes that no one can read the Psalms without the sense of the psalmist’s insight into the depth and breadth of human experience.

Such is the power of the Psalms – glorious poetry that has inspired generations of composers to compose their greatest work – but more importantly, words to live by.