PSALM 91. For SATB choir and and harp. Commissioned by the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Vancouver Chamber Choir. Texts in English. 14 minutes. 2008. Score and harp part available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.
PSALM 91 was commissioned by the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Vancouver Chamber Choir for a concert in Toronto featuring the combined choirs on March 7 2008. A request for funding to the Canada Council for the Arts was denied and there was no time to look for further assistance with this commission but, given the fruitful artistic relationship that I have had with the Elmer Iseler Singers in the past and the superb singing of these two professional Canadian chamber choirs and (last but not least) the fact that I felt honoured by having been asked, I decided to compose the work anyway and dedicate it to them.
The inspiration for this work came from a clairvoyant trance reading by the American Prophet Edgar Cayce on Christ’s Last Supper. After describing the scene in a manner consistent with the descriptions in the canonical gospels, but with much more detail, Cayce said “They sing the ninety-first Psalm—‘he that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress; my God; in Him I trust.’ He is the musician as well, for He uses the harp. They leave for the garden.” (Reading 5749-1). When I first read this passage many years prior to composing the work, I was stricken by this imagery of Christ accompanying his disciples on the harp in the singing of this Psalm and recalled that as a youth I had seen in a book a photograph of a small statuette dating back to early Christianity depicting Christ as a seated musician playing the harp. When the request for a choral work came from the two choirs I saw it as an opportunity to set this Psalm to music and asked the choirs for permission to add a harp to the instrumentation. They agreed and I embarked on the task of setting Psalm 91 to music, which proved to be more problematic than I originally anticipated.
I started working on the piece in late August 2007 and by December of that year I had made no progress at all, having discarded two earlier attempts to find the right ‘sound’ for this work. For someone like me who composes straight “from the heart” with no other deliberate composing methodology whatsoever, when nothing springs out from inside, one is confronted with impenetrable darkness both exteriorly and interiorly. I realized soon enough that this particular subject required the kind of meditation and focus that I was not according it at that time. It also required the kind of insight into this particular text that I did not possess.
The text of Psalm 91 read like any other Psalm. So why our Master, at this special moment, pregnant with significance, when He was giving His final admonitions to His friends and dear ones before embarking on His history-altering self-sacrifice would use the text of this Psalm as His parting words? If the text refers to Jesus Himself, then how does the promise “there shall no evil befall thee” square with the fact that, very soon after singing this Psalm, every conceivable evil befell Him as He had already told everyone in His company? Through meditation but also through composing with spiritual trepidation, for I was scrutinizing truths beyond my worth, I began to unravel the story told by the psalmist. The story of saving one’s Life by offering it as burned offering to the altar of the Creative Forces or God; that the real evil is our separation from our source of spiritual nourishment, not the physical suffering or even death which can actually act as catalysts for spiritual understanding. To see this, one needs to get close to the “secret place” of which the psalmist speaks at the very opening of Psalm 91.
This “secret place” became the central and recurring theme in my setting. After failing to set this opening line to music twice, I finally went to this place by having the harp play a simple tune while the choristers whisper quietly the texts of the opening line. Whispering, inhaling and exhaling and humming are the sounds that draw the listener inwards to this secret place that resides deep within us and makes our contact with the unseen world possible. Psalm 91 begins and ends this way. In between, the music is like a series of windows opening and revealing some hidden meaning of the text. Extreme textures and registers, precarious vocal balances, sound effects like tone clusters, thunder effects on the harp, stomping of feet and aleatoric (chaotic) vocal lines, all are used to reveal the majesty of this text and the majesty of its ultimate fulfillment on that seminal evening in Rome-occupied Jerusalem or on every other evening in our past, present and future, when someone wills to overcome one’s self and take on one’s cross of self-sacrifice, for there is no other road towards oneness with the Divine. It is only then that we can know God’s name and call upon Him. It is only then that “no evil shall befall us”.
He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High
[he] shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD,
He is my refuge and my fortress:
my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,
and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers,
and under his wings shalt thou trust:
his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;
nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side,
and ten thousand at thy right hand;
but it shall not come nigh thee.
Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold
and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the LORD, which is my refuge,
even the Most High, thy habitation;
there shall no evil befall thee,
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over thee,
to keep thee in all thy ways.
They shall bear thee up in their hands,
lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder:
the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him:
I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him:
I will be with him in trouble;
I will deliver him, and honor him.
With long life will I satisfy him,
and show him my salvation.
Premiere performance: March 7, 2008, 8 AM. The Elmer Iseler Singers, Lydia Adams, director and the Vancouver Chamber Choir, Jon Washburn, director. Metropolitan United Church, Toronto, Canada.
The Royal Ontario Museum, excited about showing us Dead Sea fragments that testify to the rich literary heritage we Jews own and have shared with the world, decided to sponsor a concert together with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. The main event was the music of Christos Hatzis, the talented and inspiring Canadian composer who teaches at University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music. Hatzis has written an exceptionally beautiful rendition of Psalm 91, a psalm we recite every Shabbat and Yom Tov to prepare us for morning prayers. He has also written music for the Song of Songs (Shir haShirim), a great chain in the link of compositions that have been created for the verses of this book that Akiva termed the holy of holies. That music was performed beautifully by Tafelmusik with the addition of the original Hebrew chanted by Cantor Gershon Silins. It was an excellent concert, designed to demonstrate the influence of ancient biblical texts on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it also revealed the profound potential of the biblical text to be re-interpreted by each generation of readers....Hatzis also interpreted the first verse of Psalm 91 as he wrote the haunting first section of his musical composition. We read “He who dwells in the secreted shelter on high will find protection in the Almighty” every Shabbat and proceed directly to the next verse. Whereas Hatzis was mystified by the “secret” in the verse and composed a whispered secret that returned to haunt us throughout the psalm. Seymour Epstein, Op-Ed THE CANADIAN JEWISH NEWS. November 5, 2009.
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