The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles, Part 1
Discovering the artwork of Charles Knowles was like finding a rare gem.
Approximately 18 years ago, I searched the Internet extensively to find artwork for an album cover. I was looking for something one of a kind that would symbolize the emotions and the message of the music I was planning for a new album. My search was yielding very few prospects.
Then, one evening I came across a single thumbnail image in a search engine that would change my life. The image featured four musicians standing next to each other playing ancient musical instruments. I was struck by the beauty and the elegance of the figures portrayed. The musical instruments, long flowing robes, and facial expressions of the four musicians evoked a sense of serenity, earnestness, and solemnity. The instruments included a harp or psaltery, a horn, a large stringed instrument with bow, and a drum.
The image had surfaced in the search because it was used in a blog article discussing the subject of the Psalms and the arts. The caption stated said that it was a woodblock print by Charles Knowles, entitled Psalm 150. No other information was provided. When viewing Psalm 150 for the first time, many questions came to mind. Who is Charles Knowles? Why were only four musicians and four instruments portrayed since the text of Psalm 150 in the Bible lists seven or more instruments? How did Knowles print the image with the different colors?
I did more searching, and came across the National Gallery of Art listing for Charles Knowles, and was pleased to see that his illustration of Psalm 150 was also accompanied by another woodblock print featuring the text of Psalm 150. Both the biblical text and the image illustration were designed to be placed side by side together as pages in a book. Photographs of the woodblock prints of Psalm 150, both the text and the accompanying illustration, are shown below.
Knowles, Charles. Psalm 150, c. 1957. Woodcut in black
on red-orange paper. National Gallery of Art.
Knowles, Charles. Four Figures Playing Musical Instruments,
c. 1957. Color woodcut. National Gallery of Art.
I was amazed to learn that Knowles had created pairs of illustrations and text for seven other psalms, for a total of eight to be incorporated into one work which he entitled The Psalm Book. The other illustrations were equally impressive. The psalms that Knowles selected and illustrated were Psalm 1, Psalm 8, Psalm 47, Psalm 110, Psalm 121, Psalm 137, Psalm 142, and Psalm 150.
One of my favorites is the illustration Knowles did for Psalm 8, as shown below.
Knowles, Charles. Psalm 8, c. 1957. Woodcut in black
on brown paper. National Gallery of Art.
Knowles, Charles. Man and Animals, c. 1957.
Color linoleum cut on brown paper. National Gallery of Art
I later learned that Knowles had died in 1958 at the age of 18, less than a year after the creation of his book. He was the artist, the publisher and the printer of the book in 1957. He printed 10 copies to be sold to his aquaintenances, teachers, and friends. The individual prints of the pages were quite large, measuring 26 X 19 5/8 inches each.
The center of this amazing creativity was the Putney School in Vermont where Charles was a student. He was a skilled printer who had learned the craft during his childhood in Denver, Colorado. He utilized those skills at the Brattleboro Printing Company in Vermont located not far from the school to create one of the most extraordinary books and works of art of his generation. The Putney School was a central figure in the story of Charles Knowles, and continues to this day. The Psalm Book would not have happened without Putney.
In 1962, Charles’ mother, Virginia, memorialized the artistic achievements of her son. She assisted Katherine Kuh and Philip Hofer, both highly prominent art historians and critics of the time, to develop a facsimile edition of the book entitled The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles, published in 1962 by Pinnacle Press (no longer exists) and Viking Press (now Penguin Publishing). Kuh and Hofer wrote the Foreword and the Critical Appraisal of the posthumous publication.
The facsimile edition was a five color reproduction of the original, reduced in page size but otherwise faithful to the original, printed in Europe, and then sold throughout the United States, Canada, and possibly parts of Europe. I located a copy and looked through the pages of the book for the first time around the year 2007. My first perusal was an emotional experience. Katharine Kuh and Philip Hofer did a wonderful job of bringing the story of Charles Knowles to life. I felt an immediate connection to Knowles and his life circumstances.
Knowles suffered all of his life from a life-threatening chronic illness. Most of his childhood was spent in the hospital in Denver. His doctors did not expect him to live past early childhood, yet he outlived all expectations. His education and artistic talents blossomed at Putney. He made the most of the opportunities afforded him because he knew that his time was limited. For a young man of his age, he demonstrated a remarkable maturity well beyond his years. His limited writings in the form of essays and letters sent to his parents during his days at Putney touched me as much as did his art.
In 2007, when looking through Charles’ book, I realized that I had already composed music for nearly half of the eight psalms featured in the book. At that moment, I felt a very strong urging that if God in His benevolence should grant me the music for the remaining psalms, then I would dedicate an album project to The Psalm Book and to the life of Charles Knowles.
I prayed about this earnestly, seeking help, direction, and guidance. Those prayers have now been answered. The music arrived intermittently over the course of the next 11 years. On Christmas day of 2018, the last melodies composed were for the latter half of Psalm 47 and all of Psalm 150. In early November of 2019, I joined Jason Hoard and a group of his friends in Griffin, Georgia, to record the music that had been given to me. I am very excited to announce these recordings will be released soon.
To God be the glory.
David Albracht Jr.