Updated 27 May 2018
“Pesukei d'Zimrah” is a 100-minute, 24-movement oratorio for mixed chorus, soloists, and (at a minimum) a small orchestra (4 winds, 5 brass, 2 percussion, and 12 strings). The text is taken from the introductory section of the Jewish morning liturgy, known as Pesukei d'Zimrah (Verses of Song). Consisting mostly of entire chapters from Psalms, it explores the various aspects of God and our relationships with the Divine: as individuals, as Israel, as humanity, as the matter of the Universe.
While traditional synagogue music is a cappella, there is a long tradition within Judaism of setting Psalm texts (as well as liturgical excerpts) as art music for performance outside of liturgical contexts. Inspired in equal parts by Ernest Bloch's “Sacred Service” and by Felix Mendelssohn's “Elijah,” I decided in 1994 to begin exploring the text of Pesukei d'Zimrah by setting each chapter as a movement of an oratorio.
I spent over 1,000 hours during the following decade composing the music, preparing the orchestration, and typesetting the conductor's score. In February 2004, I held a sing-through with twelve singers and a professional pianist to workshop the entire piece and identify rough spots. One participant later wrote, "There is a lot of music here that I find intellectually and spiritually inspiring," while another wrote, "This is a gorgeous piece of music and lots of fun to sing. Many thanks for the opportunity to share the work in progress. I eagerly look forward to the next installment."
That was my original introductory text when I first posted this website. And then... things stopped. I had kids, and it was hard to drum up interest in an ambitious work by an unknown composer. The setting of Psalm 150 was honored in 2013 by the Shalshelet Festival of New Liturgical Music but since I didn't have a recording of it, I don't think anyone picked it up from there.
Now that my fiftieth birthday is approaching (next year), I am hoping to inject new life into this project, starting by updating this website. Please keep reading to learn more.
Pesukei d'Zimrah is the introduction to our daily prayers. Consisting mostly of entire chapters from Psalms, it explores the various aspects of God and our relationships with the Divine: as individuals, as Israel, as humanity, as the matter of the Universe. Recited early in the morning (frankly, often while still half-asleep), these texts help set our perspective for the day and act as a "spiritual stretch" to limber our minds and mouths for the prayers of praise and supplication of the shacharit (morning) service proper.
Although P'sukei d'Zimrah is filled with incomparable poetry and powerful imagery, it is one of the most difficult liturgies to approach with kavannah. We tend to rush through it, with barely enough time to get the words out -- forget about contemplating their meaning! And we (especially the Orthodox) tend to recite it privately rather than sing it -- it's all p'sukim, and no zimrah!
In an attempt to better understand these texts, and then to serve as an emotional aide-memoire, I asked myself how I would interpret each of these psalms as song. Over ten years, I accumulated my answers. The result is this "choraltorio".
The full text of P'sukei d'Zimrah is recited only on the holiday of Hoshannah Rabbah; on weekdays the central portion is omitted, and on Shabbat and holidays Psalm 100 is omitted. I have chosen to set the entire text, partly in honor of an old tradition to spend the night of Hoshannah Rabbah in a vigil of song.
Most of these settings are adaptable to liturgical use, even for those who do not use instruments on Shabbat, and those who do not repeat words in their tefillot. (On the matter of repeating words, I have found that the Psalmist uses word repetition sparsely and effectively; for me to repeat phrases where he did not would diminish the text which I am trying to honor and to understand. In a few places, I fudged this point by having different voices sing the same word or phrase one after another; in a few spots the repetition serves a specific liturgical purpose.)
A remark on the current translation: It is geared toward enabling performers to understand the meaning of the Hebrew text; it is my intent to evolve it into a singable translation which can be used when a Hebrew performance would be too difficult for the singers or audience, or liturgically inappropriate. At the moment it's more of a "follow-along-able" translation.
I will present this information twice: Once as a summary table, and once with a short paragraph describing each movement.
|PART I: "God in this World"||0:25:37|
|1.||Baruch Sheamar||0:04:16||TB||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|2.||Overture||0:05:01||none||PDF YouTube MP3|
|3.||Hodu Lashem, Kir'u lishmo||0:02:14||TTBB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|4.||Hod v'hadar||0:05:08||SSA||PDF YouTube MP3|
|5.||V'hu rachum||0:05:24||S||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|6.||Nafsheinu||0:03:34||SSATB||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|7.||Mizmor l'todah||0:01:01||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|PART II: "God in Heaven"||0:33:08|
|8.||Hashamayim M'sap'rim||0:07:37||SA||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|9.||L'david b'shanato ta'amo||0:05:03||T||none||PDF YouTube MP3|
|10.||Psalm 90||0:07:25||T||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|11.||Yoshev b'seter elyon||0:03:33||SATB (+)||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|12.||H. Hallelu et shem hashem||0:05:50||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|13.||Hallel Gadol||0:03:40||SAT||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|PART III: "Justice and Glory"||0:19:44|
|14.||Ran'nu Tzidikim||0:04:56||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|15.||Mizmor Shir l'yom haShabbat||0:07:00||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|16.||Hashem Malach||0:01:38||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|17.||Y'hi Ch'vod Hashem||0:06:10||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|18.||Ashrei||0:03:42||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|PART IV: "Halleluyah Suite"||0:16:02|
|19.||H. Halleli Nafshi||0:02:03||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|20.||H. Ki Tov Zam'ru Elokeinu||0:04:41||SB||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|21.||H. Hallelu et H' min hashamayim||0:02:00||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|22.||H. Shiru Lashem Shir Chadash||0:03:41||B||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|23.||H. Hal'lu keyl b'kawdsho||0:02:29||T||SSAATBB||PDF YouTube MP3|
|24.||Baruch Hashem L'olam||0:01:08||TBB||SATB||PDF YouTube MP3|
There is a YouTube playlist that strings all the YouTube videos togther, and Finale files are also available.
The overall structure is meta-symphonic; there are four parts, based on the structure that I saw in the underlying text. An intermission may be taken between parts 2 and 3. Between parts 1 and 2 and again between parts 3 and 4 there is an "interstice", a Psalm that (in my reading) serves as a liturgical transition between the moods of the adjacent sections.
In most cases, individual movements are intended to also be performable as standalone pieces; of course, one could also perform an entire "Part". One purpose of this section of the web page is to help guide prospective performers to find individual movements that fit their programming needs.
The theme of the first section of texts appears to me to be God's creation of this world and continuing care of the world and its inhabitants.
1. Baruch Sheamar
(0:04:16; Soloists: TB; Chorus: SATB; )
The bracha which opens Pesukei d'Zimrah liturgically is set as a simple a cappella introduction. The idea of a prayer leader with two supporting voices is drawn from the German liturgical tradition. This movement lays the groundwork for what follows and is probably not an opportune choice for a standalone performance outside of liturgical contexts.
(0:05:01; Soloists: none; Chorus: none; )
Inspired by Elijah's use of a vocal introduction followed by an overture, and also by the kind of "pastiche" show overtures that modern audiences expect. If performed standalone, the final chord should be taken from Psalm 92 rather than leading directly into the next movement.
3. Hodu Lashem, Kir'u lishmo
(0:02:14; Soloists: none; Chorus: TTBB; )
4. Hod v'hadar
(0:05:08; Soloists: none; Chorus: SSA; )
5. V'hu rachum
(0:05:24; Soloists: S; Chorus: SATB; )
(0:03:34; Soloists: SSATB; Chorus: SATB; )
Five textual themes are each given their own motif, each in a different time signature. The chiastic nature of the text is revealed through the interplay of the solo lines, while the chorus anchors the movement around the point of reflection. While the five solo lines may be a little challenging in places, the choral part is straightforward and should be accessable to all levels.
7. Mizmor l'todah
(0:01:01; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
A short SATB a cappella expression of thanksgiving and joy. Suitable for less experienced and smaller groups or quartets.
8. Hashamayim M'sap'rim
(0:07:37; Soloists: SA; Chorus: SATB; )
A tone poem. "The heavens declare the glory of God".
9. L'david b'shanato ta'amo
(0:05:03; Soloists: T; Chorus: none; )
A setting for a single voice of David's meditations while hiding, alone and on the run. While it's written for a tenor (I had a particular voice in mind when I wrote it) it could be transposed to serve any singer.
10. Psalm 90
(0:07:25; Soloists: T; Chorus: SATB; )
If performed with piano instead of orchestra, this would benefit from keeping the bassoon cantus firmus part separate (perhaps adapted to clarinet, if a bassoon is unavailable).
11. Yoshev b'seter elyon
(0:03:33; Soloists: SATB (+); Chorus: SATB; )
An a cappella chorale. To provide varying texture (since the same chorale setting repeats three times over the entire text) we gradually increase the forces: a quartet for the first statement, a chamber chorus for the second, and the entire chorus for the third. But it can be performed even by a quartet, if desired.
12. H. Hallelu et shem hashem
(0:05:50; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
Leads in to the following movement
13. Hallel Gadol
(0:03:40; Soloists: SAT; Chorus: SATB; )
A triumphant conclusion to the first half with a call-and-response structure over the phrase "Ki Leolam Chasdo". (We use this tune at our seders and it works well in simplified form as a congregational melody.)
14. Ran'nu Tzidikim
(0:04:56; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
A raucous 5/4 dance, bursting with joy. Possibly challenging for a less-experienced chorus.
15. Mizmor Shir l'yom haShabbat
(0:07:00; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
In contrast to the preceding movement, a placid setting of the Shabbat Psalm. In particular, the chorus parts are completely homophonic (the accompaniment provides the counterpoint).
16. Hashem Malach
(0:01:38; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
A short Psalm with tone painting depicting the Flood.
17. Y'hi Ch'vod Hashem
(0:06:10; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
OK, I admit it, this was inspired by John Williams film scores. Even if you don't have the entire orchestra, you want at least one trumpet on this, I think.
(0:03:42 Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
A setting of the very familiar Ashrei for a college-style a cappella group. This can work very well as a standalone piece, it can also be an introduction to the "Halleluyah Suite" which follows.
Of all four parts, this is the one that most likely would succeed on its own. The final section of the book of Pslams uses the word "Halleluyah" to connect adjacent chapters as it summarizes the themes of all the Psalms, thus this is a natural unit.
19. H. Halleli Nafshi
(0:02:03; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
A lighthearted piece, a cappella plus a pizzicato double-bass (optional).
20. H. Ki Tov Zam'ru Elokeinu
(0:04:41; Soloists: SB; Chorus: SATB; )
The choral parts are pretty straightforward; the soloists are expected to have full ranges.
21. H. Hallelu et H' min hashamayim
(0:02:00; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; )
Joyous and straightforward for all abilities.
22. H. Shiru Lashem Shir Chadash
(0:03:41; Soloists: B; Chorus: SATB; )
After a straightforward choral setting of joy, this movement takes a turn into the question of how a society responds when it is under attack. Each section of the chorus represents a different attitude: soldiers resigned to their duty, mourners, those "oblivious to threat" (to quote Chichester Psalms), and rabid warmongers. The tenor part in particular may be challenging for a less experienced chorus.
23. H. Hal'lu keyl b'kawdsho
(0:02:29; Soloists: T; Chorus: SSAATBB; )
The first part is in 7/8 time, but the same rhythmic figure repeats so this should not pose a challenge even to less advanced choruses. The final buildup is pretty exciting and requires dividing the chorus into seven parts (we don't divide the tenors because most community choruses don't have enough tenors to begin with).
24. Baruch Hashem L'olam
(0:01:08; Soloists: TBB; Chorus: SATB; )
This is a coda that wraps up the entire piece. It really only makes sense in that context and is not recommended for standalone performance or even as part of the "Halleluyah Suite".
My hope is that by the end of my fiftieth year, there will be a recording of some group performing some version of each of these movements. (Of course, the dream is to attend a live performance with orchestra of the whole thing, but that's probably too ambitious.)
If you're a music director or a cantor who would be interested, please send an email. I'm not charging royalties, of course, and I'm happy to work with you on adapting the work to your performance forces.
If you know of a music director or cantor who might be interested, please point them to this page! (If it helps "close the sale", I am an MIT alumnus and a current grad student at Harvard, so community groups in those universities that want to promote works by their students might be interested.)
If you want to try adapting these to a non-vocal group, I'm happy to help where i can. (For example, some of these might be suitable for a brass quintet.)
And I recognize that I probably need to hire an editor to help get some of this into shape. In particular, I'd love to consult with an expert on piano reductions. If you have suggestions about how to find someone, please let me know. (I don't have a large budget, alas, but I also do recognize that this is a skill that deserves proper remuneration.)