Psalm No. 1

For SATB Choir (with divisions) and Organ 
(2009) 7 minutes

Premiered by Gonville and Caius College Choir at St. John's College Chapel, November 2009, as part of Cambridge University's 800th Anniversary celebrations.

Programme note


Psalm No. 1 for SATB choir and organ was commissioned by Gonville & Caius College to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University. It was first performed by the Choir of Gonville and Caius, directed by Geoffrey Webber with Anne Lydford (organ) on 17 May 2009. The uncompromising text presents a stark opposition between the righteous man, whose observance of the Law allows him to flourish like a tree and prosper in all he does, and the ungodly who are like chaff driven away by the wind, and who will inevitably perish. This furnishes the basis for a dramatic two-part structure. First we have the pellucid diatonicism of the first section, where the organ’s single long-held chord symbolises both stability and sufficiency, the voices flowing and flowering lyrically into the comparison with the tree, with useful growth. But from the first mention of them, the ungodly (sung parlando rather than cantabile) are forces of dissonance with their leaping minor ninths, tending to separate into a host of conflicting parts, the familiar chromatic choral metaphors for the wind that disperses them an obverse to the righteous’s flowering tree. The final verdict that they shall perish is delivered with extraordinary force (‘rising to a virtual scream’ is the composer’s direction) and this time it is the organ that sinks away into silence and darkness, as if bearing them off into a yawning pit.

Text

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;

his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

(King James Version)

Review(s)

Winner of a British Composer Award in 2010 (Liturgical category)

"Psalm No. 1 for Gonville and Caius choir with organ is particularly striking. Beginning with luminous poise, high melismas reaching skyward over a stable organ chord, its harmonies intensify and darken as she sets conflict among the ‘ungodly’ voices, who swoop, crash and eventually scream over an eery organ as its power is running down." 

Helen Wallace, BBC Music Magazine

"Six Cambridge composers were commissioned to write new Psalm settings for this concert. The problem with writing for an English church choir is that such a task requires real skill and imagination not to lapse into either staid hymnody or grave cerebrality. For the most part, these settings fell into the latter, dryly and uningratiatingly chromatic, lacking colour or contrast, and in the end sounding curiously old fashioned and inhibited...The notable exception was Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s eclectic and beautiful setting of Psalm No. 1, imaginatively written in its disavowal of any one particular harmonic scheme, its use of light and shade and extraordinary final organ chord glissandoed into the heights and depths of the instrument’s range, as if the entire building was exhaling a final breath. Perhaps it was." 

Guido Martin-Brandis, Varsity Magazine

"Psalm No. 1 for choir and organ (Nicholas Lee) was commissioned to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University and was first performed in May 2009; the work won Frances-Hoad a BASCA British Composer Award in 2010. The opening seems to be reassuringly posited in the line of the English choral tradition: the harmony leans towards diatonicism, a single sustained note played by the organ anchors the rich flowing voices, and the ‘open’ sound once again recalls, for me, early Britten. But, the theatrical interruption of a disjunctive parlando for male voices, punctuated by dissonant quasi-screams by female voices, is disturbing, as the text moves from an account of the virtuous to the ungodly, and the work closes ambivalently and disconcertingly, unresolved intervals fading into a dark void: the wicked shall surely perish."

Claire Seymour, Opera Today


"Frances-Hoad reverts to the organ for her setting of Psalm No. 1, beginning in lyric commendation for the man of Good Life, reversing halfway to condemn the Bad in a long unaccompanied passage seething with mounting turbulence till, at the prophecy that they shall all perish, the organ re-enters on a corruscating dissonance; after which the mighty brute is instructed to de-clutch (even as the voices rise ‘to a virtual scream’), and expires as ignominiously as the Jabberwocky."

Robin Holloway, The Spectator

Performance history (post-premiere)

13th February 2016 - The Elysian Singers at St. Peter's Eaton Square, London, UK

17th Apr 2015 - The BBC Singers conducted by David Hill, with Stephen Farr, Organ at St. Paul's Church, Knightsbridge

5th February 2012 - Gonville and Caius College Choir at Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Cambridge, UK 

Listen

Buy You Promised Me Everything, Cheryl's CD featuring Psalm No. 1 on CD

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© Cheryl Frances-Hoad 2019