13 Dec 2012

Gustav Holst: Psalm 86

One-hundred years ago the English composer Gustav Holst, best known for his series of orchestral tone poems, The Planets, composed a moving choral piece based on Genevan Psalm 86:

The metrical text was apparently written around 1620 and is attributed to either Jo­seph Bry­an or Fran­cis Da­vis­on.

To my humble supplication
Lord, give ear and acceptation;
Save Thy servant that hath none
Help nor hope but Thee alone.
Send, O send relieving gladness
To my soul opprest with sadness,
Which from clog of earth set free
Winged with zeal, flies up to Thee.

To Thee, rich in mercies treasure,
And in goodness without measure,
Never failing help to those
Who on Thy sure help repose.
Heav'nly Tutor, of thy kindness,
Teach my dullness, guide my blindness,
That my steps Thy paths may tread
Which to endless bliss do lead.

This is from the notes for the Hyperion recording of Holst's Two Psalms, of which 86 is one:

Holst’s Two Psalms, for chorus, string orchestra and organ, H117, were written in 1912 at a time when the composer’s compositional style was undergoing a process of textural and structural refinement. He had recently completed the last of his Sanskrit works, The Cloud Messenger, which had been a complete failure, although his next major composition was to prove extremely successful—the symphonic picture ‘Mars’ for The Planets.

Holst composed very little religious music as such, probably as a result of his somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the Church. He found the spiritual aspect enormously appealing, but felt stifled by regimented orthodoxy. Of the current two Psalm settings, that of Psalm 86 is the more striking with its greater textural variety and emotional range, though the beautiful setting of Psalm 148 has a compensating warmth of expression that is rarely found in Holst’s music.

The melody for Psalm 86 was composed, or at least adapted, by L Bourgeois in the Genevan Psalter (1543). The first text (‘To my humble supplication …’), sung by the chorus, is a metrical version of the words by Joseph Bryan (1620); the second (‘Bow down thine ear …’), sung by the tenor soloist, is taken from the Authorized Version of the Bible (Psalm 86: 1–6, 12).

Incidentally, despite Holst's general lack of enthusiasm for liturgical music, the hymn text, O God Beyond All Praising, is often sung to his tune THAXTED, taken from the Jupiter movement of The Planets.

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