P'sukei d'Zimrah

Updated 27 May 2018

Contents of this page

Some background

“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."

And then...

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.

Prefatory remarks to Pesukei d'Zimrah

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.

Summary of each movement

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 Sheamar0:04:16TBSATBPDF YouTube MP3
2.Overture0:05:01nonePDF YouTube MP3
3.Hodu Lashem, Kir'u lishmo0:02:14TTBBPDF YouTube MP3
4.Hod v'hadar0:05:08SSAPDF YouTube MP3
5.V'hu rachum0:05:24SSATBPDF YouTube MP3
6.Nafsheinu0:03:34SSATBSATBPDF YouTube MP3
INTERSTICE: "Thanksgiving"0:01:01
7.Mizmor l'todah0:01:01SATBPDF YouTube MP3
PART II: "God in Heaven"0:33:08
8.Hashamayim M'sap'rim0:07:37SASATBPDF YouTube MP3
9.L'david b'shanato ta'amo0:05:03TnonePDF YouTube MP3
10.Psalm 900:07:25TSATBPDF YouTube MP3
11.Yoshev b'seter elyon0:03:33SATB (+)SATBPDF YouTube MP3
12.H. Hallelu et shem hashem0:05:50SATBPDF YouTube MP3
13.Hallel Gadol0:03:40SATSATBPDF YouTube MP3
PART III: "Justice and Glory"0:19:44
14.Ran'nu Tzidikim0:04:56SATBPDF YouTube MP3
15.Mizmor Shir l'yom haShabbat0:07:00SATBPDF YouTube MP3
16.Hashem Malach0:01:38SATBPDF YouTube MP3
17.Y'hi Ch'vod Hashem0:06:10SATBPDF YouTube MP3
INTERSTICE: "Fortunate"0:03:42
18.Ashrei0:03:42SATBPDF YouTube MP3
PART IV: "Halleluyah Suite"0:16:02
19.H. Halleli Nafshi0:02:03SATBPDF YouTube MP3
20.H. Ki Tov Zam'ru Elokeinu0:04:41SBSATBPDF YouTube MP3
21.H. Hallelu et H' min hashamayim0:02:00SATBPDF YouTube MP3
22.H. Shiru Lashem Shir Chadash0:03:41BSATBPDF YouTube MP3
23.H. Hal'lu keyl b'kawdsho0:02:29TSSAATBBPDF YouTube MP3
24.Baruch Hashem L'olam0:01:08TBBSATBPDF YouTube MP3

There is a YouTube playlist that strings all the YouTube videos togther, and Finale files are also available.

Description of each movement

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.

PART I: "God in this World"

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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.

2. Overture
(0:05:01; Soloists: none; Chorus: none; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

4. Hod v'hadar
(0:05:08; Soloists: none; Chorus: SSA; PDF YouTube MP3)

5. V'hu rachum
(0:05:24; Soloists: S; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

6. Nafsheinu
(0:03:34; Soloists: SSATB; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

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.

INTERSTICE: "Thanksgiving"

7. Mizmor l'todah
(0:01:01; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

A short SATB a cappella expression of thanksgiving and joy. Suitable for less experienced and smaller groups or quartets.

PART II: "God in Heaven"0:33:08

8. Hashamayim M'sap'rim
(0:07:37; Soloists: SA; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

A tone poem. "The heavens declare the glory of God".

9. L'david b'shanato ta'amo
(0:05:03; Soloists: T; Chorus: none; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

Leads in to the following movement

13. Hallel Gadol
(0:03:40; Soloists: SAT; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

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.)

PART III: "Justice and Glory"

14. Ran'nu Tzidikim
(0:04:56; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

A short Psalm with tone painting depicting the Flood.

17. Y'hi Ch'vod Hashem
(0:06:10; Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

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.

INTERSTICE: "Fortunate"

18. Ashrei
(0:03:42 Soloists: none; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

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.

PART IV: "Halleluyah Suite"

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

Joyous and straightforward for all abilities.

22. H. Shiru Lashem Shir Chadash
(0:03:41; Soloists: B; Chorus: SATB; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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; PDF YouTube MP3)

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".

What next?

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.)