Psalm 1 has been viewed constructively as essentially man-centered rather than God-centered, in the sense that it provides the quintessentially Judaic path to human righteousness and thus to a good, fulfilling, and ultimately rewarding life. It contains neither the praise for God found in many other Psalms nor petitions for intervention. And there is neither the psalmist’s rejoicing nor any lament over events (Psalm 137, for example). Rather, this Psalm is at its core a divine admonition to man concerning his behavior and actions and the moral and ethical values that must guide his life. The central theme is the Judaic desiderata of the centrality of the Torah—God’s law and teachings—in the daily life of individual people.
It is understood in this Psalm that God is the supreme, omnipotent, and exclusive sovereign of the universe, but the emphasis is on the corollary of that truth—that His teachings are therefore true and perfect as the guide for human life, and that the worthy and truly content ones are those who adhere to them.
One might also view this Psalm as a precursor to a fundamental tenet of later rabbinic Judaism: that the very act of learning the Torah—contemplating it, discussing it, and dwelling on it continually throughout one’s life—not only provides the means to knowledge and wisdom and reveals the practical formula for a righteous and fulfilled life, but also constitutes for its own sake a sacred religious obligation and experience. Such Torah study itself becomes a principal means of communication with God.
Psalm 1 articulates three levels of moral and ethical human failing:
Thus the opening verse proclaims that he who would attain happiness in life is one who avoids (“has not walked in the path of”) and disassociates from the potentially contaminating influences of the wicked, meaning those who have no fear of God and who believe that evil can be pursued with impunity in an earthly daily life from which they assume God to be distanced. And man is cautioned, too, not to expose himself to the ways of less villainous ordinary sinners (viz., the wayward—those who err by straying from God’s mandated path), whose seemingly more benign course may nonetheless have attraction for the average person.
This Psalm encapsulates the theological principle that man, through his choice of behavior, retains control over his destiny to the extent that he accepts God’s teachings. Some commentators have gone further to suggest a type of popular theology in the link here between faith and human progress on a collective level, based on the acknowledgment of this universal moral order. “The Psalm implicitly proclaims unquestioned faith in the power of the individual to transform society,” wrote Nahum Sarna in his scholarly consideration and explication of the text, “no matter how seemingly invulnerable be the forces of evil. This, too, derives from the Torah’s teachings.”
Thus the assurance that the wicked—or the “ungodly”—shall perish is not a celebration of vengeful retribution nor a punitive judgment in a hereafter, but another indication of this Psalm’s concern with earthly life, and a reemphasis on free will. It is by their own doing that the wicked will perish and their ways ultimately fail. Righteous conduct in accordance with divine teaching will prevail, the psalmist reminds us, while evil will be its own undoing.
Psalm 1 belongs to the category generally called “orphan psalms”—those without superscriptions that might serve as some clue to origin or authorship. Together with Psalm 2 it is considered an introduction to the Psalter. Much scholarship leans toward the view that the two originally formed a single text, as has been shown in some earlier versions of the Psalter, further underscoring the prefatory nature of Psalms 1 and 2 as a summary statement of the Torah’s supremacy as the godly way of life.
Cantata based on the First Psalm is probably Mamlok’s only work conceived and intended as a Judaic expression. “I wrote it to express that spiritual side of me,” she has observed, “which may not be apparent in my other music.” Written in 1958 while she was still working with Vittorio Giannini, it nonetheless represents the beginnings of her transition from more traditionally tonal music to extended tonality. “It is quite dissonant in its choral structures,” she explains, “but it is essentially in major—even with a key signature, which few serious composers were employing anymore then. I got interested in twelve-tone music only afterwards.” She set the Psalm to the English translation in the Authorized Version (King James), with some minor word substitutions to suit the flow of her vocal lines, only because she felt that her lack of knowledge of Hebrew would hinder her musical interpretation if she attempted to grapple with the original language. Despite its tonal underpinnings, the work displays her chromatic propensities as well as her contrapuntal skill. Although the organ part is an important parameter, much of the piece has an a cappella choral flavor, and the texture varies. The accompaniment is absent in certain parts, while at other times it takes over. And the choral passages give way to smaller groupings of soloists. Although composed more than forty years before the Milken Archive recording, this piece never received a public performance. The present recording constitutes its world premiere.
Performers: Michael Brewer, Conductor; Laudibus
Publisher: Ursula Mamlok
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