Psalms of David
Psalms of David by Robert Hanson (1986, rev. 1998)
Psalms of David was commissioned by the Elgin Choral Union and the First Congregational Church of Elgin in 1985 to commemorate the 150th anniversaries of the church and the City of Elgin. The work was first performed in April of 1986 by the Elgin Choral Union and the Elgin Symphony Orchestra with the composer conducting. Mr. Hanson revised the work prior to its second performance by the Choral Union in November 1998.
The Psalms were chosen by Hanson because “I have always been moved by the Psalms, and when it came to choose a text for the commission, I never really considered any other texts. There is a wealth of poetry and emotion in the Psalms to supply libretti for an infinite number of musical works.”
All of the text is from the book of Psalms except for some of the text in the movement titled Absalom. Additional text for this movement is taken from the eighteenth chapter of Sammuel II. David’s lament for his dead son is one of the most moving passages in the Old Testament and, coupled with a passage from Psalm 12, makes a sensitive statement. The Psalms have, of course, been set to music by innumerable composers ranging from David himself to Igor Stravinsky. As Mr. Hanson’s music eloquently attests, this rich poetry has lost none of its power to tap a composer’s deepest resources.
David is a central figure in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Psalms of David do not attempt to portray scenes or events, but rather to capture the mood of various highs and lows in David’s life. The movements are arranged so that the ones depicting points in David’s life are near the beginning of the work. The remaining movements are songs of joy. Psalm 150 was included because of the 150th anniversaries being celebrated.
The musical language of the work is clearly tonal i.e., based on the traditional practice of grouping notes around a single note that serves as a tonal center. Of particular interest is the systematic use of repetition, a technique which, in recent years, has been associated with the so-called Minimalist composers. This technique begins with a simple figure, which is repeated a number of times with slight variations. Often the variation consists of an added layer of texture. The result is that the original musical idea undergoes a gradual metamorphosis. As is immediately apparent, Mr. Hanson uses this technique in his own highly personal way to achieve very striking dramatic effects.
Each movement is developed in its own way, but the most common technique used throughout the work is that of adding new layers of texture to what is already present. This is most apparent in “David’s Song.” In this movement, the harp begins with a simple eight-bar passage. In each repetition of this passage, a new element is added. There is not one repetition in the entire movement which is exactly like another.
Although there is a great deal of traditional harmony present in the work, listeners may also detect a great deal of non-traditional harmony. Familiar chords and cadences may suddently lead to unfamiliar territory. In the last movement, “Psalm 150,” the well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is heard back and forth between the double choruses.