Composers Note

I started singing psalms when I was a boy chorister aged 8, around the time I was discovering the Beatles. From the Beatles I learnt the power and directness of melody, a lesson I have never relinquished in all my subsequent years of composing. As for the psalms, they seemed in many ways to be the heart of the Anglican evensong, one passage for every day of the year as the seasons changed, with their slightly Shakespearian language and imagery, their slowly unfolding chants and their see-sawing emotions between despair and elation.

What is strange about the Anglican adoption of the psalms is that these are the ancient plaints of a displaced tribe, 3000 years before, in a far-off desert plain, where boy choristers in cassocks, winter evenings in a darkened, candlelit medieval chapel and the four-part harmony of collegiate voices would be – literally – unimaginable. In between those 1960s evensongs and the original Israelites lay other cultures and societies with an equally strong link to these colourful songs: the pilgrim founders of America who arrived off the Mayflower with psalters in their meagre bags (one of the psalms in this collection, Psalm 102, is sung to the translation from the Massachusetts colony’s Bay Psalm Book compiled in 1640 – the oldest book in America) and who began the process of filling American English with phrases and idioms from the psalms, and the millions of Africans brought to the USA as slaves who identified – not surprisingly – with the enslavement of the Hebrew community as described movingly in Psalm 137 – By the waters of Babylon.

What has made them so universally compelling, I suspect, is what drew me to them for this third Enchanted Voices creation: they were, first and foremost, songs. The word ‘psalm’ comes from the Greek meaning to sing with harp accompaniment and here I am, in the 21st century, adding my voice to all those, over three millennia, who have imagined those melodies. It is like throwing oneself into a great river, being carried downstream as it flows through history. Several of the texts I have chosen come from Elizabethan versions in the form of poems by brother and sister Philip and Mary Sidney. They tell us more about 16th century England than they do about King David in 1000 BC, but they are beautiful and touching because of it. Some of them seem amazingly pertinent to us even now – who, in 2010, does not ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ (Psalm 122)?

And the title? It comes from that Bay Psalm Book of 1640, with words that presumably crossed the Atlantic in someone’s satchel, full of hope, faith and not a little nervous loneliness: Like Pelican in wilderness, like owl in desert so am I; I watch, and like a sparrow am, on house top solitarily….