The piece I wanted to share with you today is a setting of my favourite psalms, and that is Psalm 121. The opening line in English, as rendered in the King James Bible, is "I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help". To those who have ever attended a Trinity United Church choir practice, this text will likely be familiar to the point of irritation. But, as a dutiful music director, I would not be doing my job if I didn't chase my choristers with this piece even when we cannot meet as a group.
Psalm 121 is the second of the group of 15 psalms (120-134) that are categorized as "songs of ascents" (Shir Hama'alot). Four of them, including 121 (also 124, 131 and 133) are linked in their ascriptions to David. All of them are hopeful in nature. Rashi refers to a Talmudic legend where king David sang the fifteen psalms to calm the rising waters at the foundation of the Temple. Some scholars believe that songs of ascent would have been sung by the Levite singers as they ascended the fifteen steps at the Temple of Jerusalem. One view states that they were composed for the dedication of Solomon's Temple in 959 BC. Another view suggests the more correct date to be Nehemiah's rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls in 445 BC. Another view still maintains that these were individual poems later collected and sung by pilgrims during the time of Babylonian captivity.
In Western Christianity, this pilgrim theme became the one most closely associated with Psalm 121. At the beginning of the pilgrimage, in the mountainous region of Judea, the pilgrim lifts his eyes, which enables him to see something resembling God. This metaphor, where the pilgrim has to look up in search of hope and guidance, subsisted in Western culture from the legends of Wolfram down to every Disney cartoon where a character wishes upon a star. An explanation of its meaning would be superfluous. It may suffice to say that I find a great truth in the idea that one has to look outside of one's immediate surroundings in search of transcendence and salvation. Transcendence can hardly ever be found where one is, but almost always where one could be. That, to me, is the meaning of that first line.
The setting I would like to share with you today is composed by John Rutter. It is very accessible and singable. I find it in a dream-like atmosphere that, doubtless, depicts our pilgrim on a hilltop at the end of the day. The sweeping orchestral interludes that alternate with vocal parts likely depict the presence of the Divine the pilgrim sees in the changing of surrounding landscape in the setting sun. All of this leads to a change of harmonic language on the "amens", implying that our pilgrim either having a religious experience or falling asleep.
I hope you enjoy it, my friends. As always, hope you are well these days.