Psalm 48, Great is the Lord, at Abbey Road
Paul Ayres conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Studio 1, Abbey Road Studios, May 15th, 2018.
Psalm 48, Great is the Lord, is the second track on the Make a Joyful Noise (MAJN) album recorded at Abbey Road on May 15th, 2018. The opening phrase, Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised… is sung repeatedly throughout the song with other verses and counter melodies in a round-like fashion. It was the last of three psalm-settings of mine that Paul Ayres arranged for choir and orchestra prior to recording on May 15th. The melody is one my earliest compositions, dating back nearly 30 years.
As with the other songs on MAJN album, Paul made modifications to the original phrasings, key, and melody which work better in a choral context. The changes made in Verses 5 and 6 shown below are good examples.
Another problem in the original melody included the use of “pick-up” notes assigned to the first words of sentences and/or the first syllables of words, which placed them at the end of measures rather than at the beginning. This resulted in a de-emphasis of the first words of sentences and/or the first syllables of words. Verse 6 was modified to overcome this problem as demonstrated below.
Hearing the music sung live during the recording process helped me to better understand more fully the benefits of the changes that were made. In the above example, the shifting of the words and notes downstream to the right in verse 6 allowed for an eighth note rest to be inserted after the word “there”. This allowed for more space to be heard around the word “there”, making the verse much more intelligible to the listener. This is just one of many similar changes that Paul made which can be heard throughout the recording.
Comparing my first home recording of Psalm 48 made in the late 1980’s to the Abbey Road recording of the London Voices and the London Symphony Orchestra demonstrates these changes fairly well. The first half of the clip below is verses 5 and 6 from my home recording. The second half is from the London recording (in a lower key and faster tempo).
The orchestra-only version of Psalm 48, Great is the Lord, is my favorite orchestra piece on the MAJN album (the 5th track). The relatively quiet instrumental opening of woodwinds establishes the main melody and foreshadows the song’s crescendo finale. The quiet woodwinds passage returns late in the song as a reprise following a brief pause after a false ending. The reprise, however, has an interesting twist (as explained below).
The introductory woodwinds passage and its reprise are heard in the clip below. Can you, the listener, detect the interesting twist in the reprise?
The twist is that a G minor chord was substituted for G major just prior to the violin run-up leading into the loud ending. This is the only minor chord in the whole song. Placement of the G minor was the result of an error/accident in transcription. After receiving by email Paul’s final score for review, I had transcribed all of the notes into my digital audio workstation at home in order to listen. I unknowingly inserted a B-flat by mistake into the bassoon line at measure 82, which changed the chord in that measure from G major to minor.
Upon hearing playback, and expecting to hear the major chord, I was pleasantly surprised (actually thrilled) to hear the minor chord there because it seemed to work so well. Erroneously thinking that Paul had changed the major to minor at 82, I emailed him to congratulate him on making a brilliant change. He was at first confused because he did not write a G minor chord there. After we discovered the error, I proposed that we keep the G minor. We discussed the pros and cons of the change, and decided to keep it in the score, chalking it up to a happy accidental discovery.
During recording, Paul conducted a separate take on my behalf to make sure that the woodwinds played this section well. He told the orchestra, “… One more [take]… especially for David… this is his favorite part in the whole piece, of all the pieces we’re doing…” as shown in the video below.
If I had to pick my favorite part of the orchestra-only version of this song, it would be near the song’s beginning where the stringed instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra are playing quarter and dotted-half notes in support of the main melody. The chords here are simple, and the string sounds are rich and vibrant. This part then transitions into a section of brass and woodwinds playing reflective counter-melody to tenors and basses singing, “Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind. As we have heard, so have we seen…” The string basses playing quarter notes in this section have an edgy, guttural sound of their bows “biting” the strings. To my ears, this section is masterfully arranged by Ayres, evoking images in my mind of wooden ships at sea. The orchestra-only version of both of these sections are heard below.
One of the concerns I had prior to commissioning Psalm 48 for arrangement was whether verses 9 through 13 would sound too repetitive. The verses are as follows:
9 We have thought of thy lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of thy temple.
10 According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness.
11 Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof.
13 Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following.
The melody that I composed for each verse in this section is essentially the same with a few exceptions. The melody of verse 11 carries over to the first phrase of verse 12, According to thy name. The melody for verse 12 carries over to the first portion of verse 13, Mark ye well her bulwarks.
When I recorded a subsequent demo of this song nearly 25 years ago, I added some harmony in verse 11 to help minimize the repetitiveness. Fortunately, the latter portion of verse 13, “consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generations following,” became a unique melodic line in and of itself, separate from the earlier melodies for the other verses. This was also true for the last verse of the psalm, verse 14, which says,
14 For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.
Both of the unique and separate melodic lines in verses 13 and 14 followed the same chord sequence that was established at the beginning of the song. Taken together, all of these separate melodic lines were found to be useful for singing them simultaneously in the same chord sequence throughout the song.
The clip below is from the home demo recorded nearly 25 years ago. The main melody from verses 1-2 is re-stated, then verses 9-14 follow, then rounds of multiple verses are sung simultaneously with a slow fade. The repetitiveness in this clip was the source of my hesitation to have this song arranged for choir and orchestra.
Fortunately, my concerns and hesitation regarding repetitiveness did not prevent my submitting this song to Paul Ayres for consideration for choral arrangement. He understood my concerns, and wrote an arrangement that is absolutely brilliant. The ending is appropriately dramatic and loud rather than a slow fade as in the home demo. The performances by the London Voices and the London Symphony Orchestra for the recording are spectacular. The clip below covers verse 9 through the end of the psalm.
I am so thankful that this song has emerged as a favorite of listeners to the MAJN album. This song has certainly come a long way. To see and hear this song develop from its earliest beginnings as a simple melody which arrived in Dallas nearly 30 years ago, into a work that was arranged for choir & orchestra by Paul Ayres, and then recorded at Abbey Road, is an unmatched experience I will always treasure.
The Lord has blessed me abundantly with this music. I hope and pray that there will be future listeners and performers of this music who will also be blessed.