Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

Advice on setting Biblical text to a choral composition

I am being asked to compose a choral work for my high school choir director's 25th year of teaching which will be premiered at a concert sometime next year. I asked his colleague and long time friend if she had any ideas for the text of the piece, and she told me that Psalm 62 means a lot to him. This is my first time setting Biblical text to music and I am not sure what to do. Should I try to use the entirety of the text while composing the piece or should I take the portions that stand out the most from the text and try to create a consolidated version of the Psalm? I know that above all else, the most important thing is to have the meaning of the text in tact, but I'm not sure what the best way of doing that is quite yet.
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on May 12, 2014 10:03pm
Setting a whole psalm is common but so is doing only a couple of verses; it depends on what you want to get across.  When a doubt, go small:  “A word fitly spoken is like golden apples in frames of silver.”  Above all, don’t panic; if you’ve ever set a text before, you already know how to do most of this.  The Psalms have some unique considerations but not too many:
First consideration is checking to make sure you are talking about the right text.  Most Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox use a different numbering system (“Septuagint”) as opposed to everyone else (“Hebrew”).  I bring this up because I’ve not heard of too many settings of Ps. 62 but Ps. 63 (Septuagint numbering 62!) is much more common and often quoted.
Secondly, you may elect to follow ancient tradition and set this piece in a classical language such as Latin or Hebrew.  This will provide you with a different set of options for word stress & vowel sounds and take some pressure off of trying to make sure the text is understood by your audience.  On the flip-side, you really will need to give them a translation in performance.
Thirdly, you may elect to set a metered version of the text such as Isaac Watts’ “My spirit looks to God Alone.”  This makes the word stresses regular and means you won’t have to set every line with a different melody.  On the flip-side, setting the text as found in the Bible will suggest a chant-like quality or some other through-composed design which usually makes a very unique and beautiful piece of music.
This project is a beautiful thing you are doing and (with your talent and hard work) can’t help but come out just as beautiful.  Have fun!
-Michael A. Gray
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 13, 2014 3:20am
Unless you intend to set it in the original Hebrew you will need to choose your translation very carefully if you want to get the 'real meaning' of the text. Be aware that the translations by Miles Coverdale (as in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) and the Authorized Version (AmE: KJV) can be inaccurate to the point of being complete nonsense though Psalm 62 (assuming the Jewish/Anglican/Protestant numbering rather than the Vulgate/Roman Catholic) does not seem to have obscure phrases. Choose your translation, then for euphony and (possibly) inclusive language. As regards choice of verses (and I speak as an Anglican priest who sings a bit, rather than a professional musician) I would suggest picking just a few: my choice would be 5, 6, 7 and 8 (between the 'selahs') from a scholarly, euphonous, inclusive translation such as NRSV or the new translation of the psalms for worship recently adopted by the Church of England for Common Worship (and available on-line). Possibly use vv. 1 and 2 also?? But you are the musician and must decide what inspires you :)
hope this helps
Applauded by an audience of 3
on May 13, 2014 5:14am
Sam, there are any number of valid approaches.  The "right answer" depends on the objective and purpose of the work, the forces available, and your own artistic intent.
I am happy to discuss further with you if you wish.  You can contact me at JFCavallaro [at] gmail [dot] com.  In any case, I wish you the best!
on May 13, 2014 5:39am
As a composer who has used Psalm texts for many of my published works I can tell you that there is no one "right" way to approach this commission--you should feel free to set the entire Psalm or portions of it as best suits your need. Psalm texts are particularly forgiving of the set-selected-verses approach when considerations of length argue against using the entire thing. On the other hand, if you have the latitude to write something longer than the typical 3-5 minute anthem, setting the entire text can result in a more satisfying piece. Either approach can be made to work very effectively. If you do decide to excerpt, find verses which flow well together and which stand alone reasonably well outside of the Psalm. Don't feel that you need to include every thought that the Psalm contains; it's perfectly acceptable to concentrate on just one or two thoughts from the larger whole.
Other composers will disagree with me, but I have always found that the King James translation is the most singable. More modern translations, often valuable in scripture study for help with understanding, never have, to my ears, either the poetic grace or artistic impact of the KJV. Yes, as with much of the best poetry, some archaic expressions will be found. None of them are insurmountable to any director willing to spend 60 seconds on an explanation. I find that trivial investment to be well repaid.
Good luck with your piece!
Dan Gawthrop
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 13, 2014 2:07pm
Other composers will disagree with me, but I have always found that the King James translation is the most singable.
Though, funnily enough, the traditional liturgy of the Church of England (the 'Book of Common Prayer') uses a different (possibly older?) translation for the Psalms, as opposed to other biblical readings.
on May 14, 2014 2:55am
Yes, that of Miles Coverdale, c. 1488 – 20 January 1569, Bishop of Exeter. He did not know either Hebrew or Greek and at times it shows!
on May 13, 2014 8:04am
Consider checking out the Revised Common or Roman Lectionaries.  They will often have shortened versions of pslams that still make good sense as a unit.
Psalm 62 is the proper psalm for the third Sunday after Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary, using only verses 5-12
on May 13, 2014 2:27pm
Psalm 62 is the proper psalm for the third Sunday after Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary, using only verses 5-12
Depends which Psalm 62 we're talking about. For Catholics, Ps. 62 is Deus, Deus meus, which for Anglicans is Ps. 63 'O God, thou art my God'. For Anglicans, Ps. 62 is Nonne Deo? or 'My soul truly waiteth still upon God', which for Catholics is Ps. 61 'Shall not my soul be subject to God?'.
on May 14, 2014 8:19am
If you are using English, as others have suggested, the translation is important.  For many passages, I find the Revised Standard from the 1960s a good choice.  It is (I think) mostly an accurate translation, and it is relatively euphonious.  All my "Moses at the Jordan River" oratorio used this translation as a basis, and it was a pleasure to work with the words.   And, again an opinion, feel free to shorten.  Chewing too much text just doesn't make sense in music. 
on May 15, 2014 3:08am
Yes, the RSV was the first to incoporate insights from the Dead Sea Scrolls and so some of the more obscure Hebrew was 'resolved'. No more noises in the water-pipes or causing the hind to give birth :)
on May 16, 2014 2:38pm
Mr. Alhadid,
Thank you for sharing your composition journey. Congratulations on this commission! When I set my first Psalm (136), it didn't occur to me to only set a portion of it and setting the whole thing was really fun and meaningful. Since then, however, I have worked with setting a few verses from a given Psalm and this seems to be what others often do in the many choral anthems we sing.  Since you have the luxury of communication with the person who suggested it, I would ask them if they had any particular verse that they would really like to have set. Be sure that you communicate about expectations and verify that they are okay with your choice to set whatever verses you intend to do.  I would also advise that you see what happens when you yourself try to sing the given text, instead of read it, because this will offer invaluable clues as to how to keep a natural flow through it.  I absolutley love setting the Psalms and hope to set them for the rest of my life. I hope you enjoy your experience very much and I wish you great happiness and good fortune in your writing.  From a spiritual perspective, I find that setting the Psalms is very special holy work to be involved with because it results in proclaiming the sacred words of God and in people being able to hear and understand these better. Let the emotional aspects shine through, give yourself the freedom to change as the text changes, and repeat what feels profound. Good luck and may you be blessed for your efforts!
  • You must log in or register to be able to reply to this message.