“The Twenty-Third Psalm”

Meditation on “Brother James’s Air” – Harold Darke (1888-1976)

Pastorale, Op.26 – Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911)

Seven Sketches on Verses from the Psalms – Percy Whitlock (1903-1946)   1. Pastorale (Psalm 23:1) 2.  Préambule (Psalm 23:2)

 Pastorale, Op.156, No.8 – Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901)

Psalm Prelude, Set I, No.3 – Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Psalm 23 is probably one of the best known passages in the Bible. In many churches it is sung in a metrical (i.e. rhyming) version to the Scottish tune “Crimond”. Another well-known paraphrase of the Psalm is the hymn “The King of love my shepherd is”, and a further well-known version is sung, in arrangements for either congregation or choir, to another Scottish tune – “Brother James’s Air”. It is the latter which is the basis of Harold Darke’s “Meditation” with which today’s programme opens. For fifty years Harold Darke was the Organist at St. Michael’s, Cornhill in the heart of the City of London. Interestingly, one of the outstanding features of his time there was the series of weekly organ recitals with which he delighted large and regular audiences, and which have been successfully continued by his successors. During World War 2 he looked after the music at King’s College, Cambridge while Boris Ord (Director of Music at King’s from 1930 to 1957) was serving in the armed forces. Harold Darke wrote a number of settings of the Canticles for Anglican services which are still staples of the repertoire as well as a much-loved setting of Christina Rosetti’s poem “In the bleak mid-winter” which has been frequently heard at the Christmas Festival of Lessons and Carols in this church.

Psalm 23 evokes the kindlier nature of God and the pastoral themes of shepherd and sheep inevitably find musical description in terms of gentle triple time, most often in the form of compound 6/8, 12/8, or 6/4 patterns. In many instances, the use of quasi-drone bass calls to mind shepherd’s pipes, and dance-like motifs reinforce the idea of the countryside. Descriptive elements of this kind are always associated with what is called “Programme Music”. In the Oxford Companion to Music, Percy Scholes offered Liszt’s definition of “ ‘programme’, in this application, as ‘any preface in intelligible language added to a piece of instrumental music, by means of which the composer intends to guard the listener against a wrong poetical interpretation, and to direct his attention to the poetical idea of the whole or to a particular part of it’.” In this recital, the “programme” for much of the music is the Psalm itself. While descriptive elements were present in music from quite early times, to wit the work of the madrigalists of the 16th century and some keyboard pieces of that period, more specifically programmatic approaches awaited Vivaldi in the “Four Seasons” (where the lines of a sonnet describing the particular season appear in the score of each concerto) and the opening of Haydn’s “Creation”. This descriptive approach became fully developed in the 19th century in the tone poems of Liszt and others, and in works such as the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz.

The pieces by Guilmant and Rheinberger are not associated with Psalm 23 but are included because their style fits the overall programme. Both men were noted organists and teachers in their respective cities of Paris and Munich. In the 20th century, reaction against Romantic music caused the work of these composers to be woefully neglected. Thankfully, distance lending enchantment, we are now in a position to appreciate its beauty and structural integrity. While both men composed for the church, their organ music reaches beyond the confines of that world to embrace musical forms and structures which, used for instruments other than the organ, would be quite at home in the salon or concert hall.

Some years later, the Englishman Percy Whitlock was also to bridge the gap between sacred and secular. His early training was as a chorister at Rochester Cathedral where he later became Assistant Organist. He was also Borough Organist for the seaside town of Bournemouth where he regularly played the organ in the Pavilion Theatre. His harmonic idiom bears the influence of people as diverse as Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams, Delius, and Gershwin. At the same time it is entirely original and the melodies which he conjures are frequently redolent of English folksong.

If there is one theme from Psalm 23 linking much of this programme it is that of pastoral serenity and beauty but something quite different is present in the Psalm Prelude by Herbert Howells. The quotation at the beginning of the score is from verse 4 of the Psalm – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”.From the outset the repeated notes, sounding like a drumbeat, convey the idea of walking as well as a sense of foreboding which is reinforced by the melodic fragment in the minor mode. By the middle section of the piece, however, the pace has quickened, the texture has broadened, the volume has increased, and C minor has become A flat major, and then C major itself, so that the “walk” becomes a triumphant, death-defying march. The closing section recalls the opening but with a greater sense of serenity and reassurance. Like the three Rhapsodies, the first set of Psalm Preludes from which this work comes dates from World War 1. Writing in the Musical Times in 1971, Wadham Sutton said of the C sharp minor Rhapsody that it was “written in York at a single sitting one night in March 1918 when the composer was unable to sleep on account of a prolonged Zeppelin raid. The degree of passion which this work displays sets it apart…” The Psalm Prelude being performed today was written some three years earlier towards the beginning of the war but it seems to this writer that the same quality might also set it apart, and that it is not too long a stretch of the imagination to see Howells’ reaction to the dread and death of war being given eloquent and heroic musical expression. Howells own life was not immune to tragedy. His undoubtedly brilliant career in cathedral music was cut short in its prime by a rare illness, and years later his son Michael was to succumb to polio at the age of nine.