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Praise the Lord, O my soul

author of text
Psalm 104: 1-8

The six-part Praise the Lord, O my soul (here reconstructed by Ian Payne) sets Psalm 104 (less its final verse) and is a song reimagining the story of Creation in Genesis. Ward’s madrigalian instincts seem to await such obvious musical tone-painting as ‘They go up, as high as the hills, and down to the valleys beneath’, with musical contours that aptly ascend and descend. But even here the composer does far more than just craft melodic shapes. The miraculous act of God that commands the inchoate waters of the earth to rise does so in image-laden stages in the music: first the waters ‘go up’ on their own, as if it is enough to admire that marvel; only thereafter do the musical waters climb ‘as high as the hills’, and then, as in a choreographed bodily gesture, move ‘down to the valleys beneath’. The imitative reiterations of clearly stated snippets of text act therefore almost as gestured incantations, which illustrate by constant rehearing the most salient poetic images. The literary voice is not merely that of the singular psalmist but of an angelic consort of musical praise. In fact, Ward’s frequent repetition of musical ‘points’ or motives with their accompanying snippets of text has a way of inducing (mantra-like?) a mildly hypnotic state that both extends and enriches the listener’s experience.

Ward also underscores passages of text by memorable instances of rhythmic declamation; that is, by forging melodic and rhythmic identities for the given words. So, for example, the opening lines of Psalm 104 are clearly anticipated by the wordless viols, who have already accented ‘Praise’, ‘Lord’ and ‘soul’ in naturalistic English without the words’ having yet been heard. When the duo of treble voices enters, the ear accepts—and the mind trusts—the wordsetting because the anticipatory imitation in the instruments has already seeped into semi-consciousness. Yet not every line is set naturalistically: note the exciting octave leap upwards on the words ‘thou art’: here the artifice of an ‘incorrect’ declamatory leap effects a musical experience of surprise and awe that projects attention on to the words that follow—‘exceeding glorious’—since it is semantically incongruous to accent the verb here: ‘thou art become exceeding glorious’.

The grand poetic journey of creation that begins in high heaven and ends on the earth below is also mirrored by the fall in the vocal range of the paired duets: first trebles, then tenors, then basses, the last best suited to frighten us with their deep ‘rebuke’ and subterranean vision of dark ‘thunder’. Ward even has the singers exhibit the fear of the anthropomorphized waters, who are ‘afraid’ of the Lord in the midst of his magisterial acts of creation. In a similar fashion, the composer affirms the affective safety of the earth’s immutable ‘foundation’ by his agogic emphasis on the first syllable of ‘never [should move at any time]’: no doubt, here, that both psalmist and listening believer stand on the most secure ground of terra firma!

Verses with solo voices invariably give way to a ‘chorus’, labelled as such in the surviving sources. Here the frequent use of homorhythmic declamation advances a different musical argument, that of iterative unanimity: were there some difficulty in deciphering words in the verses—though which good Anglican would not know the psalms by heart?—then the opening of these choral entries reveals a host of angels who speak with one synchronized voice.

The viols not only adumbrate the text but also give space and time for the establishment of what Jacobeans referred to as the ‘air’: the setting of a mood as well as a meditation on the words just sung.

from notes by Laurence Dreyfus © 2014


Ward: Fantasies & Verse Anthems
Studio Master: CKD427Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 2 on CKD427 [8'17] Download only

Track-specific metadata for CKD427 track 2

Recording date
9 May 2013
Recording venue
Chapel of Magdalen College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Adrian Peacock
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs
Hyperion usage
  1. Ward: Fantasies & Verse Anthems (CKD427)
    Disc 1 Track 2
    Release date: October 2014
    Download only
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