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The Psalms

St John's College Choir Cambridge, Andrew Nethsingha (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
St John's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Chris Hazell
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: September 2022
Total duration: 51 minutes 41 seconds

Cover artwork: Illuminated initial from Gradual MS527 f.39v.
Museo di San Marco, Firenze

With sympathetic chants by composers spanning a full three hundred years, this programme finds the choir of St John's on top form and offers a masterclass in the genre.

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For as long as Jews and Christians have been worshipping God, they have sung psalms. Or, more precisely, have sung The Psalms: which is to say the collection of psalms in what we call the Old Testament. Like all the books in the Hebrew scriptures, their origins and authorship have long been the stuff of debate, described by one of the greatest contemporary experts as ‘a region of treacherous scholarly quicksand’. For one thing, the tradition that they are ‘by’ King David (as they are titled in the Book of Common Prayer, for example) has neither historical basis nor even justification within the writings themselves (quite the reverse). But this hardly matters. Perhaps we can simply enjoy the thought that they are the kind of songs that the minstrel king, Israel’s most important king, might have sung.

It is most likely that the Book of Psalms was rendered into its final form in the fifth or fourth century BCE. The Jewish people had been released from Babylonian captivity, the Second Temple had been built and the rites and writings of the cult were ordered (re-ordered, redacted). But the texts were old and, in some cases, very old indeed. Some may have been adapted from pre-existing ‘pagan’ poetry, especially from Canaanite literature. And the form, the literary form of a psalm, was familiar in the whole of Near Eastern culture right back to Bronze Age times.

The ordering of the book has five divisions: 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106 and 107-150. Traditionally Biblical scholars have defined a set of genres: supplication, thanksgiving, royal, praise and others. But the psalms themselves are too magnificent readily to submit to such basic categorization. Similarly, the idea that a psalm’s fundamental poetic device is parallelism—of meaning, most often, between the two halves of each line—captures some but by no means all of their poetic richness and variety.

The psalms are not just in the middle of the Christian Bible but at the heart of Christian worship too, for important reasons. One of these is that they sing to God or about God not only with a rich palette of poetic colour, but also in very recognizable human fashion. We can hear real voices. Even when the poetry reaches astonishing heights of imagination or skill, it is founded in the reality of our relationship with God, which can be a messy relationship. When that relationship is real, it is rarely simple. So as well as paeans of praise and thanksgiving to God there are cries for help. ‘Supplication’ is too polite a word for some of these cries: they can be impassioned but also frustrated, desperate, angry, grief-stricken, earthy, utterly mystified, even sarcastic. And occasionally the psalmists spill over into violent nastiness. Some of these are so unpleasant that they are usually omitted in Anglican worship. The end of Psalm 137 is the most notorious, especially as it begins so beautifully. We go from 'By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept' to 'Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones'.

The Book of Common Prayer settled in the form we know in 1662 as part of the great Restoration project, which included the restoration of worship to the status quo ante (ie ante the Commonwealth/Interregnum). It began life under Cranmer just over a century earlier, as he sought to create a simple uniformity in the fledgling Church of England. Fundamental to his project was to hear the Bible and worship in English, and for the psalms he turned to the translation already made in 1535 by Myles Coverdale (1488-1569). Coverdale shared Cranmer’s passion for the use of English, along with William Tyndale—although he survived the vicissitudes of English Church politics much longer than Tyndale. This was principally by being abroad when it made sense to be away. Sadly in his final sojourn in England, in old age, his austere views were less appealing to Elizabeth than they had been to her brother and Cranmer, and he died in poverty. But his texts live on, nearly 500 years later. They could be said to form part of the DNA of the English language, along with Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It was a rich half-century in England’s cultural history.

Cranmer took his winnowing fork to the liturgy of the Church. It had been so complicated, he writes in the prologue to the Prayer Book, 'many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out'. But the daily reading of the psalms survived. He divided them into a sequence which would see them all read during the course of a month. Often today, if you visit a monastic house, you will hear them work through the psalms in a single week: but they worship seven times a day. Still, even Cranmer’s scheme is onerous for most of us today. In most college chapels and cathedrals—'in quires and places where they sing'—they sing a selection, often working through them all across a longer period.

To a modern sensibility, Evensong (especially when sung by an accomplished choir) might seem more like spending forty minutes with a venerable ancient relative than with a sparky, spontaneous friend. But often an ancient relative can surprise—even wrong-foot—us with their wisdom and life-lessons. And when sung to Anglican chant, the psalms might seem especially venerable. But they are kaleidoscopic, sometimes even dizzying, in the range of their passions and prayers and imprecations. They remain the songbook of the Church for very good reason.

For further reading: Robert Alter ‘The Book of Psalms’, Norton, New York 2007.

Andrew Hammond © 2022
Chaplain, St John’s College

Psalms are at the heart of our choir’s musical identity. They inform everything else we perform—technically, musically and emotionally. They are the best medium for a choir to communicate directly with members of a congregation. The Chapel at St John’s is a perfect space in which to sing psalms. The narrowness of the building helps to engender a sense of intimacy and personal dialogue between singers and listeners. The great height and length of the Chapel encourage us to sing with spaciousness, seeking to transport worshippers out of normal earthly time into another realm. For those of us involved in daily services of Evensong the psalms become a way of life, a shared activity, providing a quasi-monastic regularity to our days.

Members of the congregation enter the Chapel in various mental and emotional states. They may be stressed about an essay, they may be full of joy, they may have just suffered a bereavement. The Psalms affect listeners in different ways. They can be profound and transformational not only for Christians; some psalms can be entrancing and healing.

I have heard members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe talk about performing Sibelius symphonies with Paavo Berglund. There was a sense of communion between players and conductor, but the conductor seemed almost oblivious to the audience. I relate to those feelings; in a sense our listeners, our congregation, are eavesdropping on a ritual. Yet there is a paradox because at the same time we want to communicate intimately and clearly with the worshippers in Chapel. Similar considerations apply to a string quartet in a large hall, performing music that was originally intended for private use.

When designing the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Frank Gehry experimented with the best way to create an intimacy between audience and orchestra. He concluded it was not about proximity between players and listeners but about the relationship between the performers themselves. As Martin Cullingford summarised it, Get their seating, their relationship, right, and the chemistry bursts from stage to stalls. It is because of the visual communication and rapport between singers, who stand in straight rows facing one another, that my current preference is for psalm verses to be sung by the full choir, rather than using the equally beautiful tradition of singing in alternation from side to side.

Psalms as chamber music
In Beethoven for a later age, Edward Dusinberre writes of one of his first rehearsals with the Takács Quartet, working on the opening statement of Beethoven’s first opus 18 quartet. I was struck by the parallels with psalm-singing:

We played the phrase one at a time, striving for the same timbre of sound, articulation and volume. This was a challenge: ask four people to recite a line of poetry and each will emphasise certain words more than others, varying the tone and volume of their voices. By repeating this process while listening and reacting to one another […] we hoped to unify our musical and technical approach.

In psalms such as 88 and 139 we strive, like Beethoven and Schubert, for Innigkeit—'inwardness of expression'. The mesmeric effect of singing these psalms has some parallels in my mind with Morton Feldman’s music (e.g. the 1987 work Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello). I remember hearing Ivan Hewett speaking about him on Radio 3’s Record Review:

To enjoy Feldman’s music you have to let go of the idea that music ought to be dynamic and push forward through time in a bold, dynamic way. Feldman hated that. He said what he wanted was to ‘tint the air’ with his music […] He likes to let things float. Feldman is very inspired by, for example, a Turkish rug—a pattern is repeated with small variations as it’s repeated, because it’s a handmade item not a machine-made one.

I want our psalms to seem hand-made, not machine-made. We strive for the slower ones to float in the air, with a sense of time being suspended.

Matching words to music
Myles Coverdale didn’t translate directly from the Hebrew originals. Nevertheless he sought to preserve the structural feature of Hebrew poetry known as ‘parallelism.’ This device is the balancing of the two halves of a verse by reiteration, extension or opposition:

Mercy and truth are met together:
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

In a verse like this one savours the sensation of forming the words in the mouth, like tasting something delicious. If a psalm chant is well-matched with the words then the text becomes even more expressive in its sung form; in the words attributed to St Augustine: 'He who sings prays twice.' In the verse above from Psalm 85, notice the relationship of the first two phrases of the Hemmings chant, the second complementing the first whilst adding intensity. The repetitive nature of psalm chants can soothe and console, like waves lapping at the shoreline.

Some psalms stay in one mood for a long time, but others change sentiment quickly from verse to verse. Meanwhile the notes of the chant continue as before; this can set up a brief tension between music and words, but it must not be too extreme. Matching chants to psalms is an art form in itself.

George Guest directed the choir here from 1951 to 1991. He compiled a chant book for St John’s in 1955, with a 1988 revision. His successor, Christopher Robinson, devised the current excellent selection of chants in 1997. Many of Christopher’s choices continue with magical combinations which George had made, such as Hemmings for Psalm 85 and Skeats for Psalm 139. I enjoy the key relationships which Christopher deploys in sets of consecutive psalms. The short sequence 121-123 on this album gives a good example, with its enharmonic modulation into the third chant—like opening the wardrobe door into Narnia, opening a window into heaven.

Pointing the Psalter
Most of the chants we use are double chants, meaning that the music covers two verses before it repeats itself. Double chants are made up of four quarters, each corresponding to half a verse. The album also includes examples of single chant (from verse 16 of Psalm 18) and triple chant (Psalms 2 and 76). The first half of a verse is made up of four chords, the second half uses six chords. Pointing is the term given to the allocation of syllables to particular notes of the chant. There are different tastes concerning where the chord changes should be positioned, and how syllabic or melismatic the word underlay should be. I can cite the example of two distinguished former St John’s organ scholars. Sir Stephen Cleobury pointed the psalter for King’s in such a way that the first change of chord came very early in each half-verse. The psalter which John Scott created for St Paul’s adopts a system of missing out chords in certain verses. Neither of these systems appeal to me, but psalm-singing is a very personal thing. My own feeling, shared with Christopher Robinson, is that it is very important for the musical integrity of the chant to remain intact in every verse.

George Guest used to tell the story of Sir Sydney Nicholson, at the end of an Evensong at King’s, complimenting Boris Ord on selecting the Parish Psalter for use there. ‘Yes’, said Boris in his characteristically amiable way, ‘we bought it because it is the easiest to alter!’ George himself also used the Parish Psalter as the basis for his pointing here (marked up with copious instructions in his inimitable red biro!). Christopher Robinson’s St John’s pointing, devised in 1997, takes the Oxford Psalter as its starting point. The tradition here is to sing Morning Prayer psalms in the first half of term and Evening Prayer psalms in the second half.

The daily singing of Evensong can be a reassuring heartbeat, bringing some stability to our lives in these troubled times. I hope that hearing the poetry of contemplative psalm-singing can help people rebuild themselves, though I realise that these remarks are more applicable to some psalms than to others. I recall Fergal Keane speaking on Radio 4 in 2020:

Poetry was an essential companion, when I was covering war zones, as a relief […] and then when I came back from the wars and I began to suffer from PTSD and some serious depressions, poetry was essential. I remember sitting in a hospital room feeling incredible isolation and loneliness, as though I was the only person on the world, and reading poetry. It helped me to come back and to realise in isolation, in loneliness, that morning always comes—that the loneliness ends and the light comes back.

The psalms remind us that, whatever our frame of mind, many others have felt the way we do now. The psalmist can somehow still reassure and empathise with us, even after millennia have passed.

The music of psalm chants
The composition of psalm chants is another sophisticated art form. They need to serve like a blank canvas onto which the words can be written, yet the finest chants lift the words to a higher level of emotion and drama. They should never draw attention to themselves to the detriment of the words. Some chants need to be chameleon-like, able to change colour.

Psalm chants are usually written strictly in four parts, but the two chants by Robinson contain some divisi. The psalm texts themselves do not contain rhymes, but the chant often creates a musical equivalent of rhyming couplets; as mentioned above, the first and third musical phrases each contain four chords, while the second and fourth phrases consist of six chords. Moreover, the pitch contours of the different quarters contain their own recurring rhetorical devices. When one adds the parallelism and poetic richness of which Andrew Hammond has written so eloquently, the overall effect can be intoxicating if one is in a receptive frame of mind. In her Poetry Handbook Mary Oliver writes:

Every poem has a basic measure, and a continual counterpoint of differences playing against that measure […] A reader beginning a poem is like someone stepping into a rowboat with a stranger at the oars; the first few draws on the long oars through the deep water tell a lot—is one safe, or is one apt to be soon drowned? A poem is that real a journey. Its felt, reliable rhythms can invite, or can dissuade. A meaningful rhythm will invite. A meaningless rhythm will dissuade.

Anglican chant adds a layer of meaningful rhythm.

A good psalm chant should not draw attention to itself. Rather it weaves its magic in the background. Harmonic progressions must be both beautiful and logical in order to stand up to numerous iterations. Some recently composed chants try to be too clever harmonically, and that detracts from one’s focus on the words. The Robinson chants, however, were written for specific psalms and they heighten the vividness of the imagery.

Longer psalms need a sequence of several chants; key relationships are important. The present album doesn’t include any of the longest psalms in their entirety. However, the excerpt from Psalm 18 gives an example of how effective a change of chant can be. The humility of the single chant from verse 16, containing only four melodic pitches, is deeply consoling after the terror of God’s anger.

The Skeats chant to Psalm 139 is beautifully poised; a largely upward trajectory in the first half balanced by descent in the second half. The third quarter of a chant sometimes has the same melodic contour as the first, perhaps more emphatic through being higher (e.g. 99) or through deploying larger intervals in each direction (e.g. 122) and/or by employing more intense harmony (e.g. 85).

Chants generally convey a sense of harmonic journey. The modulation to B major in the middle of the chant for Psalm 123 gives a brief sense of longing and optimism, especially well-suited to verses 1 and 2. The second half of the chant, particularly appropriate to the latter verses, cowers in descent. Of the fourteen chants on this recording, only Psalm 121 ends both halves in the home key; this psalm, often used at funerals, is notable for the stability and reassuring confidence of every one of its verses.

Use of the organ
The approach to organ playing in psalms is affected by many things—the acoustic of the building, the specification of the organ, the style and speed of the singing, and the physical relationship between the choir, the organ and the listener.

At its best, psalm playing is a virtuosic art form—highly imaginative and spontaneous, like the best continuo playing. I am fortunate to have made music with the wonderfully sensitive organists playing on this disc. In psalms I dislike hearing long organ chords that are too loud; that can prevent listeners from hearing the words, and it can encourage a choir to over-sing. However, on a recording, the engineering can enable more dramatic organ effects to be used in louder psalms.

George Guest used to ask his organ scholars to play continuously for the whole cycle of a chant (generally two verses), without gaps in between. My own preference in the St John’s acoustic is to have the whole psalm glued together by the organ, so that it seems like one entity. When there is an occasional break from this, the effect is particularly powerful. I love to have a few verses unaccompanied and then the organ shimmering in imperceptibly just before the Gloria—perhaps high up in thirds on the strings (as in Psalm 88). My own organ teacher, Gwilym Isaac, was assistant to Sidney Campbell at Canterbury Cathedral in the 1960s. Campbell often used to play just two notes at a time when accompanying the psalms, at the extremes of the keyboard, one melody above the choir and the other below.

In the late 1980s I used to love the occasions when George Guest came up to the organ loft to play the psalms. The very relaxed speeds allowed George’s alluring counter-melodies to sing out. If such a melody is on a solo stop, there can be great beauty in the choice of note held over as the choir breathes between phrases. This is especially effective if the note is in the middle of the texture and thus has not been easily audible until the choir stops singing. If psalms are sung faster then counter-melodies are less effective, but an organist might want to focus on word painting. I tend to point our organ scholars to John Scott’s subtle accompaniments on the exquisite 1970s St John’s Argo recording Psalms of Consolation and Hope, especially that for Psalm 139. We sang that psalm here at our memorial Evensong for John in 2016. The opening words, in William Morgan’s Welsh translation, are inscribed on George Guest’s memorial plaque in Chapel.

Our disc is released in time for the twentieth anniversary of George Guest’s death in November 2002. George had a unique ability to communicate the emotion and inner meaning of the text to his singers and, through them, to his listeners.

‘From the heart—may it return to the heart’
Beethoven’s inscription to Archduke Rudolph, on the score of his Missa solemnis, is in my mind as I contemplate the psalms. For a decade and a half I have been nervous about releasing an album of this kind, because psalm-singing means so much to me and to all of us at St John’s. In a way it feels too private and personal to be placed in the public domain and opened up for scrutiny. Removing the singing from its liturgical context, and from the enveloping silence and architecture of the Chapel, means that the listener at home has to use their imagination.

Psalms were not designed to be heard in fifty-minute chunks in one’s sitting room, and I certainly don’t expect that! I have nevertheless ordered the disc carefully in terms of contrasts and key relationships. We recorded considerably more material than this, but in the end I decided less is more. Listeners wanting more psalms can hear them for free on our regular webcasts.

The sound of the choir and our way of singing psalms are both extensions of our own personalities. So releasing this album feels uncomfortably like baring one’s soul. But that is exactly what the psalmists did.

Andrew Nethsingha © 2022

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