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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Four Psalms (1998)
Text Writer
English; Bible
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
40 Minutes
SATB chorus
Soprano, Mezzo soprano, Tenor, Baritone
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Programme Note
John Harbison Four Psalms (1998)
Composer Note:

Four Psalms celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. Composing such a piece at such a moment in Israel's history has been an honor and a heavy responsibility.

Four Psalms opens with a prelude for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, a prayer composed by Amemar in 454 A.D., which states the major themes of the piece, both musical and philosophical. A rabbi and mystic in Babylon, Amemar studied the theological meaning of dreams. His prayer asks God for dreams of Israel that are true and enduring visions: "If they are good, strengthen them. . . . But if they require healing, heal them."

There follow four psalms, in Hebrew, alternating with the voices, in English, of people now living. The psalm settings employ fully developed forms--march, antiphon, passacaglia, and aria--suggested by the majesty and mystery of the Hebrew language. In contrast, the contemporary voices are set within brief inventions, their form echoing the momentary illuminations granted to those reflecting upon their own time.

The contemporary voices are those of people who were kind enough to speak to me freely and openly about Israel during the course of my preparation for this piece. From some thirty conversations I have drawn three scenes, using fifteen voices in all. Visionary, contentious, humorous, virulent, fragile, these men and women represent our present moment.

By contrast, the psalms are the ancient and enduring voice of our collective past, continually renewed by their liturgical role. Each marks a point in Israel's journey through adversity and triumph, achievement and loss, toward the Israel of Amemar's dream.

I am grateful to many people for their contributions to this piece. I thank especially Arthur Avnon, Consul General of Chicago at the time the commission was offered; his successor, Tzipora Rinlon; and the members of the Consulate's Steering Committee for Music. Help with Hebrew came from Michael Rose, Joel Gordon, and Eli Friedlander. Support of other kind came from Stanley and Cathleen Cavell, Shulamit Ran, Talia David, Rose Mary Harbison, Susan Feder, and the Bogliasco Foundation.

-- John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    Cantata Singers, Cantata Ensemble
    Lynn Torgove (Mezzo Soprano), Frank Kelley (Tenor), David Kravitz (Baritone), Majie Zeller (Soprano)
    David Hoose
    New World Records:
  • Ensemble
    Cantata Singers, Cantata Ensemble
    David Hoose
    New World Records:
Can an artistic work be accessible and yet distant? Can its concept and execution be colored both with contemporary commentary and timeless truisms? John Harbison's FOUR PSALMS weaves an emotional tapestry of somber threads shot through with brilliant colors and black humor. The 40-minute work offers darkly wrought lessons in physical and religious survival in modern-day Israel. Both emotionally troubling and intellectually riveting, FOUR PSALMS is not always an easy piece to embrace. But those very aspects contribute to the work's brilliance, which shines like a dark glass that eerily reflects our current troubled times. The construct of FOUR PSALMS wraps around Old Testament Psalms 114, 126, 133 and 137. Interspersed are journalistic comments collected by Harbison himself on the streets of Jerusalem that provide contemporary commentary that is always insightful and often wry. Their observations summarize the continued struggle "in this beautiful country where car bombs wait for our children in the marketplace." The text [is] almost operatic in nature...The thundering orchestral passages [which] highlight an expanded 18-piece brass section [are] brilliant with many rich, vibrant tones. This [was] a remarkable musical event.
Michael Muckian, The Capital Times (Madison, WI),01/01/0001
Harbison's [FOUR PSALMS] is a piece in three interactive parts. The prologue is an ancient prayer from Babylon in 454 AD, fervent, hopeful, but wise about human failings. There are four large choral settings of Hebrew psalms, each in a different musical form - march, antiphon, passacaglia, and aria. Interwoven with them are 15 "inventions," flexible settings of contemporary remarks about Israel that Harbison culled from conversations and formal interviews with politicians, a scholar, a Palestinian, a Bedouin, tourists, citizens, a guide and a taxi driver. The piece, then, is a dialogue between ancient certainties and modern questioning, ancient and modern fears and hopes. Conflicting views do not cancel each other out: instead they widen perspectives, for truth is a large and comprehending quality. The music carries memories of ancient Hebrew liturgies, Stravinsky and Britten, but it is Harbison's own, and it gathers everything unto it; it is music of conflict, hope, humor, prayer - of reconciliation. Harbison's vast experience with text-setting, choral writing, orchestration, working with singers, and every practical dimension of musical performance comes into play. [The] performance was splendid, committed, and urgent, and the public responded with a standing ovation.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,01/01/0001
The paradigm for a contemporary work combining ancient and modern elements is Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," and that masterpiece lies behind "Four Psalms" as much as anything by Stravinsky. Both Chicago reviewers wondered if "Four Psalms" could survive the occasion for which it was created, but nearly every work of music was originally an occasional piece; Britten's masterpiece, for example, was composed for the dedication of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. The question is not whether "Four Psalms" is occasional music but about whether it is of lasting interest and value. Harbison's supple craftmanship, his ear for the sound of language and its meaning, his imaginative understanding of orchestral timbre and texture, his mastery of formal disciplines and almost-improvisational flexibility, his experienced handling of the chorus, his knowledge of those solo voices and their personalities┬Čall of these things are highly particular, and through their particularity become universal. More than that there is the overall effect, a sum overwhelmingly greater than its accumulated parts. The mingling of past and present, of questioning and certainty, and of conflicting certainties, the refusal to accept a merely ceremonial and celebratory role in order to choose a questioning and exploratory one that ends on a quiet and confident note of hope and prayer, is purely Harbisonian, and absolutely essential.
Richard Dyer, Boston Globe,01/01/0001
John Harbison's FOUR PSALMS was written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. The piece blends ancient and modern textural sources. It opens with a striking prelude on a 5th-century Hebrew prayer. This is followed by a lively choral setting of Psalm 114. Harbison then introduces selections in English of recent conversations he had with contemporary Israeli citizens...Finally, Psalm 133, certainly one of the most magnificent of the psalms, sings of reconciliation and the dream of peace. All of this is set in Harbison's cool, objective contemporary neo-classical style. The dramatic passages recall Walton, while Copland and Stravinsky are often present in spirit, but Harbison has developed his own identifiable language that will take its place as one of his generation's most convincing. It's certainly an effective piece, and it deserves to be heard.
Allen Gimbel, American Record Guide,01/01/0001
John Harbison took himself to Israel in 1997, [after] accepting a tough commission: to commemorate in music the 50th anniversary of the founding of the country. Few more direct choral and orchestral works came out of America in the last century; and none has such a clear 40-minute structure [as FOUR PSALMS]. No listener could fail to follow the emotional curve; certainly not in this performance and recording, clear as day. Harbison interviewed selected current inhabitants of the region, Jewish, Palestinian and Bedouin, and put some of their contrasting words in his work, set for solo voices in English [and] the fully choral Psalms set in Hebrew. The idiom is tonal. [But] keeping the personal sadness, human bravery and compositional control in focus is Harbison's achievement here. The elegant workings and undisguised influences are not what matters here. If we ignore the words and analyses, and discount its occasional origins completely, FOUR PSALMS [is a] step in American music's return to feeling. I just keep returning to it. If you have any interest in all in the USA, musically, or if you need a new choral work for next season, look no further.
Paul Ingram, Fanfare,01/01/0001
What was originally meant to be strictly a choral setting of ancient Hebrew texts expanded into a larger, more complex conception after Harbison visited Israel for the first time in 1997. While there, he spoke with Israelis, Palestinians and Bedouins. Fragments of their remarks, sung in English by four soloists, alternate with the choral psalm settings. The composer's plan was to create a dialogue between a collective past and a troubled present, between the Israel of ancient dream and Israel as it is today. For a non-Jew to take on such a commission is bold enough; to deliver a piece that defies expectations is bolder still. But Harbison, one suspects, would not have been true to his inner compass had he delivered a straightforward celebratory work; unambiguous patriotism is not his thing. What he has given us instead is a choral symphony of strength, sincerity and conviction. One need not agree with all the sentiments expressed in the work to be moved by its philosophical reach, its sense of the great continuum of Israeli history. Musically the style is rather more approachable than some of Harbison's recent scores, resting on a sturdy foundation of free tonality and colorfully scored for orchestra. Stravinsky's shadow sometimes looms large. Still, the choral writing is expert and varied, seamlessly flowing in and out of the solo vocal parts. The setting of Psalm 137 is especially imaginative, as when Harbison has the chorus basses singing "By the rivers of Babylon" in staccato dialogue with the more lyrical lines of the rest of the chorus.
John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune,01/01/0001
[Harbison's] formal plan has a nice symmetry, contrasting the old and new that clash against each other every day in Israel. Four psalms sung in Hebrew by the Chicago Symphony Chorus alternated with three sets of comments about Israel and its present-day state taken from Harbison's conversations with ordinary people. Opening the piece with a Prelude, a setting of a Hebrew prayer sung by mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, was a masterstroke....Harbison's music is accessible in the finest sense of that too-often maligned word. He seems to want audiences to understand and enjoy his music.
Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times,01/01/0001
The a musical program of astonishing originality and conception. [Four Psalms] cannot be easily categorized. It is part cantata, part theater, part symphony and part choral work. The composer has ingeniously woven all these strains into a unitary whole with the massed choir invoking the solemnity and majesty of the Psalmist' words and phrases....a glorious tribute to Israel's 51st Independence Day celebrations.
Arnold Ages, Chicago Jewish Star,01/01/0001
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