There are 150 psalms in the Bible, each one originally meant to be sung; and so they were for most of the last 3,000 years, beginning at the Jerusalem Temple. They were adopted as the primary song text of the early church as evidenced by Col. 3:16 and maintained in the Western church throughout medieval times. Psalms were the featured texts of most of the Reformers and were the sole mode of sacred singing among the first American settlers. Of late, hymns and choruses and popular songs with human texts have almost entirely replaced the singing of God’s word in many churches. This scarcity of Psalms in the Church’s song is a great loss which frequently compels me to do what I can to promote their increase.
The brief twelfth Psalm is a lament painting a bleak scenario of engulfing depravity and vanishing righteousness in ancient Israel. It could just as well have been commentary on the decline of morality in contemporary Western society. Further, rather than offering resolution or relief for the psalmist’s desperate plea for help, the Psalm asserts that “the words of the LORD are pure words,” to say in effect that hope stands only in the Word of God.
TWELVE attempts to capture this chaos and despair of the twelfth Psalm through pointillistic phrasing, dissonant harmonies, cross rhythms, and extended choral and instrumental techniques. The psalm’s slender ray of hope is portrayed in a contrasting section of subdued peacefulness painted with flowing themes in conventional harmonies.
The origins of this traditional African-American spiritual likely predate the Civil War. Since its first publishing in 1899 it has become prevalent in the hymnals of nearly every American Christian denomination. Its simple lyrics and haunting melody hardly fail to strike a personal and intimate chord within Christians as they sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
This arrangement was set to fill a particular need. When the search for an arrangement of sacred tuba material suitable for the considerable talents of our church’s player produced little fruit, creating a brand new arrangement became the obvious solution. Thus, necessity and inspiration came together to produce this piece in just a few days. It makes three statements of the melody in contrasting harmonic settings, opening with polytonal language reflecting the grotesqueness and irony of man crucifying his God. The burial stanza is portrayed in a minor key with a dirge-like pulse. For the resurrection, the music moves to a major key while swelling to a climax. It closes with a nebulous tonal center and omits the final melodic phrase to leave the listener contemplating how these events often cause our hearts to tremble, tremble, tremble.
What Child We Sing? blends the melodies of GREENSLEEVES and NOEL NOUVELET into a new work for orchestra that explores the clash of transcendence meeting imminence at Christ’s incarnation. Soft and ethereal whispers of strings and winds meet violent thunders of brass and percussion in contemplation of the awesome majesty of the Eternal Son wrapped in the harmless, delicate flesh of a newborn babe.
What Child We Sing? fits perfectly in the Advent or Christmas seasons with its strong exposition of traditional Christmas carols and would be suitable as a prelude, offertory, or reflective music in either liturgical or unstructured service. It has sufficient artistic metric to be suitable for the concert stage as well, although it is not at all difficult, being suitable for intermediate or higher level musicians. “