Psalm 46 a declamatory motet
Commander Dan Shanower was born and raised in Naperville. He was killed in the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. A picture of the entire Shanower family and links to information on Commander Shanower can be found here.
The setting of Psalm 46 that is receiving its first performance this evening was written to honor Commander Dan Shanower. In the fall of 2001, not long after that awful September day, I asked Dan’s mother, Patricia Shanower, if I could write a piece of music as a memorial to her son. She said yes. I asked her to consider what scriptural text she would like me to use. She chose Psalm 46.
I have set forth the text as a series of episodes with a changing point of view depending on what the Psalmist is saying and who is speaking. I’ve called it a declamatory motet because historically in music, a text is declaimed to draw attention to what is being said. This is an important text for our troubled times.
The piano begins with a short introduction meant to grab the audience’s attention, as if to say “Listen!” Then the men enter with a march-like phrase, singing: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.” The women repeat these words to essentially the same music, with small changes to heighten the intensity.
Then follows a fairly long section in which are enumerated the threatening things that can happen to us poor mortals, with the assertion we will not fear repeated after each phrase: “We will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, though the waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”
Then comes the refrain (built into the poem by the Psalmist himself): “The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge” (each phrase sung twice). I’ve set the words as a little song with a simple flowing accompaniment, allotting it first to a woman, then, the second time, to a man. The choral section that follows begins unaccompanied with a description of the Heavenly City: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Lord most high. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” Then there is a little shift at the words “The nations are in an uproar” (sung by the men) which leads to the consoling phrase “he utters his voice, the earth melts” (sung by the women, with the men agreeing “the earth melts“).
The little refrain reappears, sung just once this time, the man and woman together. Then comes a section revealing God’s awful yet consoling powers when He steps in to help his people. First, a man’s voice beckons us to “Come, behold the works of the Lord“; the women repeat his words softly. The mood intensifies; the man commands us to “See what desolations he has brought on the earth“; the men somberly repeat his words in a chant-like phrase. The man continues: “he makes wars cease to the ends of the earth, he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;” the chorus concludes emphatically “he burns the shields with fire, he burns the shields with fire.” Now God Himself announces his presence in a solemn phrase sung by everyone: “Be still, be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am God.”
This leads to the musical release where God says: “I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” My direction to the singers is: “With great joy!” The voices sing in parallel motion, three-parts deep, singing again and again these marvelous words while beneath them the piano creates the effect of huge tolling bells. When the clamor finally comes to a halt, the little refrain appears for the last time; now the entire chorus is singing, representing the community, drawing everyone together in the consolation of that twice-stated text: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” This time, we first hear the words moving at the same speed as before, but the repeat is taken a little slower and the accompaniment deepens. At the very end of the repeat, the syllables “our re-fuge” are stretched out, then sung again, slower, then sung still one more time very slowly, while the piano surges underneath their sound, this broad effect allowing time for the musicians and their listeners to feel the strength carried to us by those comforting words.
Ann McKinley, 2002