Playlist: Modern psalm settings

Gramophone Tue 28th November 2017

Psalms set in the composer's own language - from Zemlinsky to Frances-Hoad

Perhaps the most far-reaching contribution to Christianity made by Luther was his translation, in the 1520s and ’30s, into German of the Bible. It led to translations in numerous other languages (William Tyndale’s English version was started in 1525). Here are some 20th-century settings of (mainly) psalms in their composer’s own languages. Alexander Zemlinsky’s setting of Psalm 83, from 1900, is a dramatic affair for soloists, choir and orchestra, and sets the text – which seems to call for the destruction of one’s enemies – with terrific spirit. Vaughan Williams’s 1921 take on Psalm 90, Lord, thou hast been our refuge, is a virtuoso lamination of two different melodies; into RVW’s own setting is woven O God our help in ages past, Isaac Watts’s hymn to the tune of St Anne which paraphrases the same psalm. It’s a work of colossal power, done with terrific skill, and the Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge gives a magnificent performance. Charles Ives set quite a few psalms and he, too, alighted on Psalm 90 – albeit in a slightly different translation – for another atmospheric setting. Lord, thou has been our dwelling place employs organ, bells and mixed choir to powerful effect; tonal and stately, it builds magnificently to its serene conclusion. Carl Nielsen wrote his 14 Hymns and Sacred Songs in 1918 for solo voice and piano (or organ). Set in Danish, the purpose – of which Luther would have heartily approved – was to create music that could be sung in people’s homes by normal folk in their own tongue. The hymns’ power rests in their simplicity and directness, and when performed in that same spirit they are enormously effective (they’re still sung in Danish houses today). Judith Bingham made her 1993 setting of Psalm 139, The darkness is no darkness to precede Isaiah 26, via SS Wesley, for choir and organ. The harmonic potential of the Wesley provided the inspiration for Bingham’s first section which acts a kind of doorway into an older but no less moving world. And Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s setting of the Nunc dimittis uses an English translation which, coupled with the ‘innocence’ of solo soprano voices, makes for a powerful listen – especially given the unbridled emotionalism of the musical language.

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