Out of the Depths. Text: Psalm 130. SATB, 6-1/2′. Commissioned by Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pa., Jeffrey Brillhart, music director. Premiered 13 March 2016.
There are qualities in Anton Bruckner’s music that inspired both this setting of Psalm 130 and a work I composed a couple of months before, the O Antiphon O Rex Gentium.
As a choral bass I’ve sung Bruckner’s Ave Maria and Virga Jesse recently, and the qualities that come to mind in the middle of singing him are “audacity” and “belief.” Moments of sheer beauty and of passing strangeness, almost ugliness, appear. Certainly, odd harmonic juxtapositions and wide extremes of volume and register not only inhabit, but propel the music (the nine bars of loud, low E that conclude Virga Jesse will rivet any bass’s attention).
But this is not an audacity of effect. It is integrity itself. Bruckner writes this way not to impress the audience or to show off the voices. He writes this way because he is compelled to. The text drives him to this music. Simply, he believes every single word he sets. His music spades down into the depths of his belief.
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
So I thought I owed two things to this setting of Psalm 130: to believe the depths, and to believe the mercy. Balancing truths—of iniquity and forgiveness, of waiting and hoping, of supplication and redemption—is the life of the believer. Ignoring one side cheapens the other.
Musically, I balance the related four-flat keys of A-flat major and F minor, going from one to the other fairly quickly. At “Lord, hear my voice,” there’s a hesitancy in the women’s voices, depicting the awareness of unworthiness. The sweeter key of B-flat major colors “But there is forgiveness with thee,” which leads to the un-Brucknerish but important inspiration (to me) of early American fuguing-tune writing, at “I wait for the Lord.”
For the Broad Street Review I wrote about a de profundis experience while composing Out of the Depths.
There is a wonderful quote attributed to Wm. Byrd that sacred text dictates the music to the composer (perhaps analogous to the figure in the stone revealing itself to the sculptor.) Janacek said that the Czech language guided him in realizing it in music.
By the way, your music is not only convincing but your writing excellent.
Dear Byron, thank you for your note, and also for mentioning Byrd and Janacek anywhere in the vicinity of my music. I believe greatly that the text speaks; I am humbled by how fitfully I listen. Thank you for reminding me of the importance of paying attention. Every good wish to you! Kile