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Notes on Harp of David

By Beckwith, John | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

Notes on Harp of David


Beckwith, John, Canadian University Music Review


These notes do not constitute a critical analysis; that would be a task for someone other than myself. Rather, they amount to a sort of log of the work's evolution, a post-compositional exercise which in fact I have not attempted with any of my other pieces. The reaction of some students, colleagues, and performers, to whom I have shown them, persuaded me they may be worth sharing.

This cycle of six psalm-settings for a-cappella chorus1 had a number of causes. First, in my head for a long time was a vague notion of setting some psalm-texts, from the old Book of Common Prayer version, as a tribute to my mother, who often used to quote favourite phrases ("my cup runneth over," "who going into the vale of misery useth it for a well," "the mountains skipped like lambs"), and with whom I sang them in a church choir many years ago. Second, in 1 982 1 heard the Elmer Iseler Singers perform on two occasions Monteverdi's Lagrime d'amante, and was struck by the intense effect of close to half an hour of acappella choral music, and by the unexpectedly wide range of colors and textures. Third, I had, over a period of twenty years or more, delved into early psalmody and hymnody, especially in their Canadian aspects, had taught this material to my students, and in 1984-5 was actively engaged in editing an anthology of tunes from early Canadian collections.2 Further, I had composed two choral works based on traditional hymn tunes - Sharon Fragments (1966) and Three Motets on Swan's 'China' (198 1)3 - and found continuing interest in the beauty of this literature and in its potential for variational and other kinds of treatment.

The fourth cause was the one which really ignited the enterprise. Late in 1984, a good friend from college days, Rev. R.F. Shepherd, was elected Anglican Bishop of British Columbia, and asked me to compose a piece to be sung at his installation. I responded with a setting of Psalm 65, which now forms the first movement of Harp of David; it was performed by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria (where I used to sing as a boy) under the direction of Michael Gormley. Ronald Shepherd had approved the text, one of several possibiUties we considered in consultation: blessing is called on "the man whom thou choosest," the spirit of a happy, laughing earth seemed appropriate, and the rain images accorded especially well with the West Coast locale.

The following spring I set Psalm 80, now the fourth movement. Shortly afterwards I drafted a plan for the cycle, chose further texts, and composed successively Psalms 122 and 87 (together; now the sixth movement), Psalm 148 (now No.5), Psalm 1 (No.3), and Psalm 130 (No.2). The first two movements (1 and 4) drew respectively on a Scottish psalm tune ("London New," 1635) and a tune from the earliest hymnal of Wesley an Methodism ("Foundery," 1742). For the other four movements, I borrowed tunes from other periods and from traditions with comparable pertinence in Canadian terms - for No.2, "Aus tiefer Not," Lutheran, 1524;forNo.3,"Psaume 1," Calvinist, 1542; for No.5, "Beautiful River," U.S., 1864; and for No.6, "Remembrance," New Brunswick, 1816.

The texts for all six movements are those of the Book ofCommon Prayer of 1562. But in each movement except No.5 I added portions of corresponding verseparaphrases, juxtaposing these with the prose in various ways; and again these verses are all taken from different historical sources (some older bibles printed them as a supplement): that in No. 1 from the first North American collection, the Bay Psalm Book, 1640; those in Nos. 2 and 3 from the same sources as their melodies, the first Lutheran songbooks and the Geneva P salter respectively; that in No.4 from Isaac Watts' The Psalms of David imitated in the language of the New Testament, 1722; and that in No. 6 from the Methodist poet John Newton.

The BCP texts are each set in full - with only two modifications. In No. 5, the last few lines are slightly re-arranged.

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