Piece of the Week 59: Psalmi Penitentiales

Last weekend I witnessed two very different Passion Sunday musical events – a performance of my Psalmi Penitentiales on Saturday, and of my Wondrous Cross on Sunday. I was singing as a tenor in my local church for the Sunday performance, which formed part of a morning service – but it is the Saturday performance of my setting of the Penitential Psalms that I would like to talk about today. It formed part of a concert given by the Writtle Singers, a chamber choir based near Chelmsford, conducted by Christine Gwynn, and I’ve been fortunate in that they have performed several pieces of mine over the years.

Saturday’s concert was called ‘Out of the Darkness’ and communicated, in music and words, the dramatic series of events during Holy Week leading to Jesus’s death on the cross. It proceeded without an interval, and with no applause until the end, and thus achieved an atmosphere of meditation and thoughtfulness which was wholly appropriate. And the choice of music was fascinating – beginning and ending with Bruckner (Os justi and Christus factus est) we moved through music by a range of mainly twentieth-century composers, interspersed with organ solos by Bach, Brahms, and Nadia Boulanger (organist: Laurence Lyndon-Jones) and short readings from the Gospel of Matthew. We heard Jesus and the Traders (Kodály) The Woman with the Alabaster Box (Pärt), the Penitential Psalms, and The Lamentation (Bairstow). Each piece made its own special contribution: the forthright story-telling of the Kodály contrasted with the calm and ethereal narrative of the Pärt, and Bairstow’s chant-like setting of the opening of the Book of Lamentations, with its glorious ‘Alleluias’ formed another aspect of Holy Week.

In the middle of this multi-layered sandwich came my Psalmi Penitentiales, in a moving performance which brought out, by turns, its moments of calm and its moments of anger. The choir and the organ blended beautifully when required, and made a fiery response to it where needed. In this piece, which lasts nearly twenty minutes, there are three main movements which comprise extracts, in Latin, from psalms particularly associated with the season of Lent. Each of these movements includes musical material derived from the plainchant antiphon for Maundy Thursday, Ubi caritas, and arrangements of this antiphon are also interspersed between the psalms as four short movements forming a prelude, two interludes, and a postlude.

Much of the psalm texts are in the form of a conversation with God, sometimes angry, more often beseeching. The climax of the work comes towards the end of the third main section, to the words that translate as ‘But thou, O Lord, shall endure for ever, and thy remembrance unto all generations’, the music gradually subsiding from fortissimo chords into the final statement of Ubi caritas, sung as a single line, as at the beginning, but with the organ commenting with a jagged two-note figure (which has previously been associated with the more forceful verses of the psalms), dying away to let the choir have the last word in the final Amen.

I don’t get to hear this piece very often, and it was wonderful to be reconnected with it all, and, in particular, to be lifted by the committed performance of this closing section. And the presentation, in the midst of contrasting Lenten pieces in a time of calm, in a beautiful church, was something not to forget.

So there’s my piece of the week – and next week, Easter Week, I’ll find something cheerfully appropriate!

Saturday’s performance by the Writtle Singers is here on SoundCloud

The first performance, by the Waltham Singers, with scrolling score, is here on YouTube

The music is published by OUP and is on sale here; digital download from here