Even though George Rochberg later disavowed serial procedures per se and the overall pantonal, dodecaphonic ethos of the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern–driven orbit, he did produce many arresting works—perhaps even expressive “in spite of themselves” or despite their atonally oriented dissonance—during the period prior to his “conversion.” This lends a note of credence to the view that the qualitative merits of a piece of music depend not so much upon which techniques (tonal, nontonal, serial, electronic, or any other) are employed as organizational means to artistic ends, but on how they are used—in what spirit, and with what degree of originality, imagination, and unquantifiable creative instinct.
Rochberg’s Three Psalms for mixed chorus a cappella (two of which, Psalms 23 and 150, are included on this recording) was written in 1954, when his attraction and commitment to so-called atonal music was fresh. At that time he had a particular fascination with the creative possibilities offered by hexachords and their manipulations, and he is said to have developed a special affinity with Schoenberg’s contributions as a composer and as a Jew. Indeed, in Rochberg’s Psalm settings here, one senses the impact of Schoenberg’s aesthetics with respect to rhythmic derivations from the stresses and cadences of the biblical Hebrew and to the declamatory choral style, which also characterizes Schoenberg’s choral writing in his own setting of Psalm 130 (De Profundis, or mimma’amakim, in Hebrew). But if Schoenberg’s setting served in some ways as the impetus for Rochberg’s piece, as he later suggested, his inspiration was also rooted in the Book of Psalms itself. Some forty-five years later, he reflected that he had been “just full of the whole idea of the Psalms, and I wanted to try different ways of expressing them.” The work was not commissioned or written for any particular occasion, but was “just something I needed to do.” And he chose these three Psalms, including Psalm 43—specifically dedicated to his friend, the composer Hugo Weisgall—for what he intuited as their “emotional, spiritual content.”
Amid the dissonant, though still partially tonally anchored, choral textures and linear chordal structures, there are carefully conceived contrapuntal lines that can be identified and traced by the attentive listener.
The setting of the 23rd Psalm, dedicated to Rochberg’s parents, reflects its pastoral serenity and its message of comfort and reliance—and, especially at the conclusion of the piece, its stalwart confidence in divine protection, almost as a victory of the spirit over fear and defeat.
"The world could spare many a large book better than this sunny little Psalm [Psalm 23]. It has dried many tears and supplied the mould into which many hearts have poured their peaceful faith." Thus did a respected English Christian Hebraist, Alexander Maclaren, once describe the 23rd Psalm. The Targum (The 1st–2nd century Aramaic translation of the Bible) projects a national parameter onto this Psalm with its reading of the phrase adonai ro’i lo eḥ ’sar as referring to “God who fed His people in the wilderness”—a reading that is accepted in some medieval exegeses. But, as other scholars have opined, it may be more appropriate to understand this Psalm (including that phrase, which is usually now translated along the lines of “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing”) as the testimony of a personal experience of faith, rather than as an affirmation of collective reliance.
This may be the most familiar of all the Psalms to Christians and Jews alike, and to Western culture as a whole. And it is probably one of the most often quoted texts from the Psalter. Although it is popularly associated with consolation in connection with bereavement and, even in some lay assumptions, with related eschatological assurance—because of its common recitation at funerals and memorial services—it was probably not so conceived. Most commentators interpret it as an avowal of faith in earthly life: steadfastness in the face of emotional, spiritual, or physical trial, and a metaphoric vehicle for courage and confidence in divine protection as a bulwark against succumbing to fear of danger or the gloom of depression.
The shepherd image here is the personification of divine watchfulness, providence, and protection—an image that appears in many other Psalms as well and which is rooted in the Torah (Jacob’s reference to “God who has been my shepherd all my life long”; Genesis 48:15) and in Prophets (Isaiah 40:11 and Micah 7:14). It is also found in postbiblical liturgy, such as in the central piyyut (liturgical poem) concerning divine judgment on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, un’tane tokef, wherein God, in this annual judgment of all humans, is likened to a shepherd who has his sheep pass one by one under his staff, a metaphor for considering the record of each person’s deeds during the previous year and decreeing his destiny.
“Green pastures” (lit., pastures of tender grass) and “still waters” (lit., waters of restfulness—i.e., that are conducive to restfulness and inner peace, consistent with the overall theme, rather than the mere physical calm of the waters) connote reassurance and faith in the face of anguish, or inner peace in the face of turbulence.
The “valley of the shadow of death” should be understood not necessarily as physical death, but as the presence of real physical danger or the pain of internal struggle (in which case the operative word might be “shadow”). The divinely prepared “table” (i.e., festive enjoyment or celebration) in the midst or full view of such adversaries—internal or external—demonstrates almost defiantly that the speaker or psalmist remains divinely protected even under otherwise precarious circumstances. The oil of anointment has its historical basis in the trappings of privileged feasts in Near Eastern antiquity. And the shepherd’s defensive rod, with which attackers may be driven away, and his staff, upon which he may lean for rest or ease while shepherding, are further metaphoric symbols of God’s care.
The expected triumphal tone of Psalm 150, dedicated to his brother—with its resounding praise of God and its catalogue of biblical-era musical instruments once employed in ancient Jerusalem to accompany and amplify that praise—is also mirrored in Rochberg’s uplifting exposition. Its rhythmic vigor, however, is interspersed and interrupted with a beautifully lyrical element, uncharacteristic of most settings of this Psalm in any era, which generally focus only on the more obvious bombastic sentiment of the text. There are even passages of great delicacy and moments of intimacy, in which the composer seems to be exploring different possible manifestations and moods of praise, while always returning to the Psalm’s pervasive jubilance. The resolute open final chord hints at antiquity and appears to emphasize the historical-literary role of this Psalm in concluding the entire Book of Psalms.
Psalm 23—from Three Psalms—was given its premiere at the 20th anniversary of Lazare Saminsky’s annual Three-Choir Festival at Temple Emanu-El in New York City on April 20, 1956 (the year of the work’s publication). There is a precedent for a performance of Psalms 23 and 150 as a pair, without Psalm 43, which occurred at the Exposition of Contemporary Music at the University of Cincinnati in 1966. The earliest performance of the entire work also dates to 1966, when it was heard at the Philadelphia Musical Academy—now the University of the Arts.
Sung in Hebrew
The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths as befits His name.
Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant.
Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for many long years.
Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in the sky, His stronghold.
Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him for His exceeding greatness.
Praise Him with blasts of the horn; praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with lute and pipe.
Praise Him with resounding cymbals; praise Him with loud-clashing cymbals.
Let all that breathes praise the Lord.
Performers: Michael Brewer, Conductor; Laudibus, Choir
Publisher: Theodore Presser Co.