Idiosyncrasies of Psalm 90
Characteristic of Ives'
style, this piece is rich with tonal clusters
, rhythmic complexities, and layers of dense harmonies and polyphonic
material. Another outstanding characteristic of this piece is the vivid text declamation
, or text painting
that the music endeavors. The musical line clearly evokes the tone and message of the text.
This is the text as printed in the score, taken from the King James
version of the Bible
, numbers indicate verses1
- 1. Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place from one generation to another.1
- 2. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.1
- 3. Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, “Return, ye children of men.”1
- 4. For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.1
- 5. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.1
- 6. In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.1
- 7. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.1
- 8. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.1
- 9. For all our days are passed away in they wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.1
- 10. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.1
- 11. Who knoweth the pow’r of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.1
- 12. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.1
- 13. Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.1
- 14. O satisfy us early with they mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.1
- 15. Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.1
- 16. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.1
- 17. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Amen.1
Verse by Verse Analysis via Text Declamation and Musical Intricacies
The piece begins in C, in four four time, with a five bar introduction for the organ. Beneath the several chords in the organ part is a C pedal that is consistent throughout, not only the intro, but the entire piece. This constant C pedal mimics the eternal and ubiquitous nature of God(), ever-present and unchanging, against the backdrop of the piece, immediately establishing one of the psalm’s themes. Above the measures of organ intro are printed seemingly random captions, reading in order: “The Eternities;” “Creation;” “God’s wrath against sin;” “Prayer and Humility;” and “Rejoicing in Beauty and Work.” No written directions in the score explain these phrases’ purpose and whether or not they are to spoken and/or included in the performance in some way. However, one discovers as the Psalm begins that these are the five major themes upon which the text focuses and expounds. Perhaps Ives meant to provide a tool for the singers’ and instrumentalists’ benefit, implying that an understanding (if only rudimentary) of the messages within the text would enhance the overall performance. In the second to last intro bar, three bells and a low gong trickle into the accompaniment their ethereal strains to leave a reverent impression on the audience before the chorus begins.
The chorus enters in four parts (SATB) in measure six with the first verse and sings in unison until the last syllable of “generation,” and then split apart into complex and dissonant chords that decrescendo and become more convoluted as the phrase “to another” repeats thrice, with a final dynamic of pppp (pianissississimo, if you will). Meanwhile, a consistent pedal-like accompaniment continues in the organ, a sustained I chord (CEG) that dissolves into the ubiquitous C pedal by the end of the verse. The effect of the spreading vocal parts with the decrescendo paints the image of human beings throughout the echo of their countless generations, establishing themselves with their diversified vocal lines, but then fading into the fabric of time, represented by the fading voices.
This verse is set more like a traditional psalm, as it appears as a component of a mass or service- with an entire phrase intoned or chant-sung freely on a single pitch, with the following phrase chanted on a second pitch, and a third phrase that follows on another single, logically proceeding note- until meter is restored in m. 19 for the final powerful statement, “Thou art God.” The freedom with which the first three phrases are sung serves as a strong contrast to the final phrase, to which Ives clearly wanted to bring emphasis.
The full chorus sings the first half of this verse (“Thou turnest man to destruction”). Beginning in unison, as a collective address from mankind to God, the chorus sings the first three words, but then splits apart into a series of cacophonous chords, as in the first verse (a device used frequently in this piece), to align with the text, “to destruction,” which is repeated thrice (another thematic gesture), and accompanies the seeming destruction of harmonic convention. A tenor soloist takes the rest of the verse, “and sayest, ‘Return, ye children of men.’” The solo voice is most appropriate here because it delineates the voice of God as singular2
and separate from the mass and chaos of mankind.
All four parts of the chorus sing entirely in unison for this whole verse, with the organ providing some supporting chords beneath along with the C pedal. The voices unison symbolizes the voices of humanity speaking together, in accord, acknowledging the eternity of God, as compared to the mortality of the individual.2
The lack of separate parts illustrates that, when measured against the existence of God and earth, the relatively short span of human existence seems diminutive and insignificant; therefore no individual voices seek distinction because of such implied insignificance.
This verse sees the return of tonal clusters and complex rhythmic patterns. The phrase, “as a flood,” repeats twice, and by the second repeat, the excess of accidentals precludes any chord tones from the cadence, which indicates a key modulation (though the confusion of accidentals makes it near impossible to establish the new key). The repetition of flood with the richly textured dissonance mimics the surge and chaos of an actual flood. This piece defies the normal rules of key structure and harmonic convention continuously tempting one to say that it does not have a concrete diatonic key in which it stays, but rather a home key around which it freely revolves. After the accelerando into a mini-climactic cadence point (on “flood”), the regular tempo resumes with a pianissimo conclusion to the phrase, “they are as a sleep.” The next phrase emerges as the first polyphonic gesture in the piece. Ives has offset the SA voices and the TB voices on the phrase, “in the morning they are like grass which groweth up,” the SA voices begin half a measure before the latter. This layering effect implies the similar manner in which human generations grow and overlap as the text describes, comparing man to blades of grass, which constantly renew and reseed.2
The polyphonic layering from Verse 5 carries over into this verse, with the SA and TB parts set a beat off from each other to begin the verse. To match the text in the most literal way possible, all four parts leap up considerably (+7ths in all parts) on the word, “up.” The contour of the line continues to match the implications in the text as the tenors descend to the word “withereth,” and the basses echo the word on ritard in ppp. The vocal line withers, diminishes almost to nothing, just as the blades of grass, mankind in his mortality, at the hand of God.
This verse’s violent diction (ex. “consumed,” anger,” “wrath”) is met by the equally abrasive dissonance, driving rhythm, and fortissimo in the music. The chords spread and peak on a high G# for the sopranos, the highest pitch of the piece thus far, on the third repeat of the word “wrath” to obviously convey the power and intensity of the therein. The last words of the verse, “are we troubled,” a continuation of the previous phrase, are separated from the aural assault of the word “wrath” by an 8th rest and a dynamic change to piano, a dramatic change to convey the humility instilled by God’s power (for the words are still addressing God from the voice of mankind).
The basses have the first half of this verse to themselves, “Thou has set…our secret sins,” in a descending line that spans an octave (G3 to G2). The descent of this line coincides well with the negative self-degradation in the text and serves as a bold contrast to the ascent of the rest of the line. The ascent occurs while describing “the light of [God’s] countenance,” showing how submissive and reverential man proves in God’s presence, humbling himself and elevating any mention of God.
Perhaps the most singular verse of the piece, Ives totally abandoned convention in verse 9. Little numbers are printed above each individual word, beginning with 9, all the way down to 1. These numbers indicate the durations of each note. Thus the phrase accelerates while it ascends in pitch and splits apart into a divisi of 22 separate notes on the word “wrath,” which is held with a fermata. As the larges, most complex chord, coupled with the ascent to tutta forza, this moment stands out as one of the climaxes of the piece. There is pleasing symmetry in the following descent, a reverse of the action that just occurred, the durations of each note lengthening from 1 to 9 as the line goes back to C (E for the tenors) where it began. The ascending line accompanies the statement that human life is forever at the mercy of God’s judgment.2
This terrifying thought is expressed by the music in the building of tension with dissonance until the climactic moment when all pitches are blurred into an eruption of cacophonous angst. The parts melt back together on the way back down to the starting point, as if erasing the previous phrase. This serves to illustrate the idea that all of the suffering and fear of God’s judgment is meaningless in its brevity and in its inability to affect our verdict.
Like verse 2, verse 10 complies with the traditional setting and form of psalm from its origins in church service. The first half is chant-sung with whole phrases on single notes, from “The days….fourscore years.” The free chant-like quality and long phrases of these lines suits the text because it speaks of man desiring long life. But a change occurs when the chorus sings, “yet…” because here the speaker(s) realizes that a longer life means more trials and sorrows, and here the line descends and breaks after the words, “cut off” (literal text painting). The sopranos conclude the verse with the line, “we fly away,” an ascending phrase in pianissimo that seems literally tossed away, thus mimicking the flight of the soul after death.
If there is another climax in the piece, this verse fits the description in that it ends on an A in the soprano part, the highest note in the piece, and the concept it conveys is truly fearsome. The text describes how the depth of God’s fury is inconceivable to man, and even our greatest fears cannot do justice to the actual wrath He can inflict. The words “anger,” “fear,” and “wrath” are rightfully emphasized and assigned to the highest notes in the phrase, each one successively higher than the last. Triple forte characterizes the final word and helps express the loss of composure one feels in the face of such fear and powerlessness to the will of God.
This short verse expresses man’s submission, the consequent desire for peace with one’s mortality, and a petition for God’s help and guidance through the struggles of life.2
A soprano solo takes this verse, calling one’s mind back to the 3rd verse with its tenor solo. This solo strikes a similar chord with the tenor, as it begins with the word, “Return,” however, this time it is the people requesting God’s return, rather than God mandating to them.2
This voice pleads to be heard by God, therefore rises out of the mass of other voices to make the direct appeal for His mercy.
These verses mark a transition into the last theme of the piece, introduced at the beginning, that of “Rejoicing in Beauty and Work.” The tone and mood of the music shifts to a more serene, peaceful chorale, almost in unison. The church bells and gong return in the accompaniment, further transforming the previous tension and explosiveness of the previous verses into a blending, consonant prayer/resolution. The new tone assists in declaiming the text, as the psalm itself asks for satisfaction, peace, and due happiness as God sees fit to bestow. The psalm here accedes to God’s power, stating the outright submission of the human soul to his will by referring to humans as “servants,” and in this submission man hopes to achieve the beauty and salvation God offers to the faithful.2
The softness of the vocal lines imitates the revered tone reserved for church, while the bells also allude to a church service. Thus as mankind resolves to submit to God, the music clearly evokes an image of church as the venue for his servitude, the setting of his penance.
According to Ives' wife, Harmony, his Psalm 90 was "the only one of his works that satisfied him."3
Why this is, one could only speculate. Ives came from a devoutly Protestant
background. He worked as a church organist
for many years, throughout his youth and maturity. Perhaps he felt that this piece not only communicated to the soul, a principle by which he resolutely lived and worked, but that it also communicated from
his own soul the private fears and beliefs amassed from a strong religious tradition and an afflicted artistic spirit.
1Ives, Charles. “Psalm 90.” Ed. by John Kirkpatrick and Gregg Smith. Bryn Mawr, Pa: Merion Music Inc., 1970.
2Spurgeon, Charles H. “Treasury of David: Psalm 90.” Pilgrim Publications. 1885. 12 Feb. 2008.
3Swafford, Jan. “Charles Edward Ives.” Peer Music, Ltd. 1998. 12 Feb. 2008.