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Psalm 90

Charles Ives’s choral music is a microcosm of his creative life from the revolutionary to the practical.

Composition and premiere: The gestation of Ives’s Psalm 90 was about thirty years; he began it around 1894, may have revised it in about 1902, and created its definitive version in 1924 (see below). Psalm 90 was performed by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a Theatre-Concert Hall recital of July 1976, John Oliver conducting, and by Chorus Pro Musica in Boston Symphony Youth Concerts of March 1975 led by Harry Ellis Dickson in Symphony Hall. Today’s performance by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is the first in the Shed, and the first on a regular BSO concert.

Charles Ives’s choral music is a microcosm of his creative life from the revolutionary to the practical. Beginning in his teens, including the startling Psalm 67 with its stacked-up chords, he used a series of psalm settings to experiment with technical matters ranging from tone clusters to atonality. At the same time, an organ prodigy who worked in churches from age 14, he wrote a number of conventional pieces for services.

That Ives in his teens was already dealing with prophetic musical materials came from the influence of his remarkable father, George Ives, a town band director in Danbury, CT, who was fascinated by acoustics. Among other experiments George would march two bands past one another playing different pieces to see what it sounded like as they approached and passed. While rearing his son toward a mainstream musical career, George told Charlie that any harmony at all was acceptable if you knew what you were doing with it.

That unprecedented gift of freedom, operating on the sensibility of a born creator, kindled Ives’s imagination and gave rise to a singular body of work. At the same time, his own experiments with the materials of music, rising from his father’s but going far beyond, took him away from a mainstream career. Ives made his living in the insurance business while writing his music nights and weekends. His mature work encompasses little Victorian parlor songs and some of the wildest pandemonium ever put on the page, and everything in between.

In particular, Psalm 90 for choir and organ is the distilled essence of Ives’s musical and spiritual life. He recalled that it took shape over some thirty years, beginning with a draft his father tried out around 1894 with his church choir; there was another version he may have done with his choir in New York’s Central Presbyterian—his last musical job—around 1900-2. Finally, around 1924, with illness starting to erode his creative energy, he reworked and expanded the piece to its final form. The material includes a haunting chord sequence he used in the First Symphony, started during his Yale years in the 1890s. In its course, expressing the words attentively, the work enfolds everything from simple harmony to tone clusters, a summary of the enormous harmonic vocabulary Ives commanded. For the remaining years of his life, he created little new music but edited, revised, and compiled older work with an eye toward his legacy.

It begins with a variegated series of organ chords that foreshadow the music and how it will paint the text. The chords are labelled The Eternities, Creation, God’s Wrath against Sin, Prayer and Humility, and Rejoicing in Beauty and Work. From there the piece proceeds in a series of contrasting sections around the text’s theme of the evanescence of human life placed against God’s eternity. Over and over, echoing the chords of the beginning, tension resolves into peace and consolation, all of it over a steady C pedal in the organ, until the work resolves into a beautiful and heartfelt coda on “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Amen.”

The ending suggests that Ives suspected this was going to be his valedictory work. His creative life was about to be smothered by illness. He told his wife it was the only thing of his that satisfied him.

Jan Swafford

Jan Swafford is an award-winning composer and author whose books include biographies of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and Charles Ives. He is alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.

Psalm 90 (King James Bible version, as set by Ives)

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place from one generation to another.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, “Return, ye children of men.”

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep; in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

In the morning it flourisheth and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.

Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Who knoweth the pow’r of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.

Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Amen.