• John Harbison
  • Four Psalms (1998)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • 2(pic).2(ca).2(bcl).2(cbn)4220timp.2perchppf(cel)str
  • SATB chorus
  • Soprano, Mezzo soprano, Tenor, Baritone
  • 40 min

Programme Note

Composer Note:

Four Psalms celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. Composing such a piece at such a moment in Israel's history has been an honor and a heavy responsibility.

Four Psalms opens with a prelude for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, a prayer composed by Amemar in 454 A.D., which states the major themes of the piece, both musical and philosophical. A rabbi and mystic in Babylon, Amemar studied the theological meaning of dreams. His prayer asks God for dreams of Israel that are true and enduring visions: "If they are good, strengthen them. . . . But if they require healing, heal them."

There follow four psalms, in Hebrew, alternating with the voices, in English, of people now living. The psalm settings employ fully developed forms--march, antiphon, passacaglia, and aria--suggested by the majesty and mystery of the Hebrew language. In contrast, the contemporary voices are set within brief inventions, their form echoing the momentary illuminations granted to those reflecting upon their own time.

The contemporary voices are those of people who were kind enough to speak to me freely and openly about Israel during the course of my preparation for this piece. From some thirty conversations I have drawn three scenes, using fifteen voices in all. Visionary, contentious, humorous, virulent, fragile, these men and women represent our present moment.

By contrast, the psalms are the ancient and enduring voice of our collective past, continually renewed by their liturgical role. Each marks a point in Israel's journey through adversity and triumph, achievement and loss, toward the Israel of Amemar's dream.

I am grateful to many people for their contributions to this piece. I thank especially Arthur Avnon, Consul General of Chicago at the time the commission was offered; his successor, Tzipora Rinlon; and the members of the Consulate's Steering Committee for Music. Help with Hebrew came from Michael Rose, Joel Gordon, and Eli Friedlander. Support of other kind came from Stanley and Cathleen Cavell, Shulamit Ran, Talia David, Rose Mary Harbison, Susan Feder, and the Bogliasco Foundation.

— John Harbison

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