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Glass’s setting of Psalm 126 was commissioned by the American Symphony Orchestra for a special concert at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1998 marking the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel—a concert held for the benefit of the Jerusalem Foundation and conducted by Leon Botstein. The piece is scored for narrator, who recites the Psalm verses; chorus, which is confined to wordless syllables; and orchestra. The music employs repeating sequences of diatonic harmonies and steady rhythmic pulsation.
Psalm 126 belongs to the category generally identified as shir hama’alot Psalms, or “songs of ascent,” from the superscription common to this group of fifteen Psalms, 120–134. Various historical explanations have been proposed for the superscription, none of which is universally accepted in the world of biblical scholarship. These have included a suggested link to the fifteen steps ascending from one court to another in the ancient Temple, upon which the Levites are said to have stood while singing with instruments during a ceremony of the Festival of Sukkot; an internal poetic device concerning ascending degrees of emphasis; common origin in the return from the Babylonian captivity, as the freed Israelites “ascended” toward Jerusalem while singing these Psalms; and the mass processions proceeding “up to” Jerusalem on each of the three pilgrimage Festivals (Sukkot, Pesaḥ, and Shavuot), during which these Psalms might have been sung by the pilgrims as they ascended Mount Zion. This last supposition has become the most frequently adopted explanation, despite some unresolved problematic issues. This does not, however, necessarily rule out the 126th Psalm’s possible connection to the return from Babylonia.
The national parameters of Psalm 126 are transparent, apart from any possible ritualistic or Festival-related history. It has also been viewed on its own merits as a hymn of national thanksgiving and rejoicing over the restoration of Israel’s fortunes as a people. By custom, Psalm 126 is sung as a prelude to the birkat hamazon (benedictions, or “grace” after meals) on Sabbaths and other holy days in many traditions.