Psalm 46

2004; bar-2*.2.2.2-2.2.3.1-timp.1perc-S.A.T.B-str; 14′
Commissioned by Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, for its 175th Anniversary. Premiered 18 May 2004, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, Todd Thomas, baritone, Tenth Presbyterian Church Choir, Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Paul Jones.

Complete premiere: 

Choral score

Excerpt 1, The nations rage
Excerpt 2, The God of Jacob

The central work in the Tenth Presbyterian 175th Anniversary concert celebration was to be the  Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” of Felix Mendelssohn. Since that ends with the grand statement of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” I proposed a setting of Psalm 46 for the work they were commissioning from me, as Luther adapted that psalm for his hymn.

Composers have often invented systems whereby letters can be turned into notes, and Psalm 46 is an example of this. Although the particular scheme developed here is new, the concept is not. I have converted the letters of the psalm’s Hebrew text into pitches in a way that uses the entire alphabet, and that gives an equal chance for all notes to be heard. (I first tried this in my symphonic work, The Voice of One Who Spoke, which is based on the vision of the prophet in the first chapter of Ezekiel.)

Even though the Hebrew words generate the music, I have set the text in English. For instance, the repeated verses 7 and 11, “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge,” yield a specific tonal center (C, with a secondary emphasis on B-flat), and provide certain pitches to use. The repeating bass line starting with the rising fourths C-F-Bb-Eb, comes directly from this. As another example, the three notes that the word “Selah” yields (F#, A, and E), do not occur where the word falls in the text, but seemed to be a good introduction to the work, so I used those notes in the very first measure. Any of these decisions could have been made differently, of course, depending on how the scheme was manipulated.

I claim no extra-musical significance to this system, although there is a long Jewish tradition of meditation involving the letters of the Word, and their numerological symbolism. For me, this is simply a way to generate musical material, but one of the joys of working in this fashion is in having one’s attention repeatedly driven to the text, rather than to one’s interpretation of the text. The compositional process itself then becomes a form of meditation on this Scripture, as I hope any effort toward a performance of Psalm 46 may also be.

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, though the mountains fall into the sea; Though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah. There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her when morning dawns. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved: he lifted his voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he has made in the earth. He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two, he burns the chariot with fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Converting Hebrew text to pitches
My goal was a system that equitably used all the notes and all the letters, and that had some relation to the acoustics of tonality. Any music that disregards this relation does so at its peril, I believe, as it devolves into mere mathematical process, the further it removes itself from the acoustical world. Music, after all, must always move, and motion, whether it be harmonic or melodic, exists only if a center can be perceived by the listener. There is no movement without a center.

How to fit the 12 notes of the chromatic scale into the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet then became the task. But in addition to these letters are five finals, or special forms of certain letters. The finals carry great significance in Jewish mystic tradition, and I thought that they should not be overlooked. That made 27 letters. However, three letters—aleph, mem, shin—are considered so important that they are revered as “mother” letters in the tradition of the mystics. If I could account for these in some other way, I would have 24 letters to which I could assign the numbers 1–12 two times over. This numerological matching of numbers to letters—gematria—is a normal part of Jewish meditation tradition, although that tradition is based on 10.

I decided to assign the mother letters a numerical value of zero. Aleph has such pride of place that it actually rules the entire system, as I explain below. And since aleph, mem (and its final), and shin occur so frequently in Hebrew texts, this would give greater voice to some of the other, lesser-used, letters. The base-12 alphanumeric conversion then becomes:

aleph 0, bet 1, gimmel 2, dalet 3, heh 4, vav 5, zayin 6, het 7, tet 8, yod 9, khaf 10, lamed 11, mem 0, nun 12, samekh 1, ayin 2, peh 3, tzadi 4, kuf 5, resh 6, shin 0, tav 7, final khaf 8, final mem 9, final nun 10, final peh 11, final tzadi 12

I assign numbers rather than pitches to the letters, since here is where the overtone series, the “acoustics of tonality” I mentioned above, is introduced. Thus, in C, for instance, 1 (the lowest fundamental)=C; 2 (the next highest fundamental)=G; 3=E; 4=Bb; and so on up to 12=Db. Each letter’s pitch, then, is determined by its context, or by what overtone series it exists in. Zayin (6) in a B context would translate to E, but in the context of G it becomes C. We can make the context as broad or as narrow as we wish; in setting large blocks of text each verse can be its own tonal center, or we could also use a word by itself and relate each letter to it.

It seemed natural to use the first letter, aleph, as the ultimate context. Aleph is throughout tradition the beginning, the A. So, we can add up the letters of any sentence, calculate our numbers by adding and reducing, and using A as the prime context come up with pitches. For instance, the Hebrew letters of Psalm 46:1, “Elohim lanu makhase vaoz ezra v’tsarot nimtsa m’od” (God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble), totals 146, which by base-12 reduction equals 11 (1+4+6). In A, 11=C, so the tonal center of that verse is C. The first word’s letters of aleph-lamed-heh-yod-final mem, yielding the numbers 0-11-4-9-9, become, in C, the pitches (none)-Ab-Eb-D-D, ours to use as we wish. If we wanted to take it further, the first word’s reduction itself becomes 6, which in the context of C is F. We could use that as a sub-tonality and relate its letters to F if we chose. Since this word ends in a final, I would give its tonal center more weight than other words in the sentence.

In viewing the choices that went into inventing this, it must be obvious that I claim no mystical or extra-musical significance of any kind to this system. There is no apparatus that can create spirituality, let alone music. This is simply a way to generate notes. But one of the joys of working in this fashion is in having one’s attention driven to the text, rather than to one’s interpretation of that text, and indeed, this was the purpose behind my investigation—to see how far I could allow the text to speak for itself. It is true that we never eliminate interpretation, but by using this system, the compositional process itself becomes a form of meditation. This, I believe, benefits not only the composer or anyone wishing to study the music, but also performers and listeners, who will know at least that every note is chosen with a great deal of reverence to the text.

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