Sea Psalms

Gordon Crosse (1937)

Sea Psalms 1990

3333-4340-timp, 3 perc - hp, pn (+cel), str
Duration 
45
Text Author 
Language 
Commissioner 

Sea Psalms is a half-hour piece that celebrates a nation that has lived with and lived from the sea for centuries. Scored for chorus and orchestra it sets texts, mostly from the Psalms, concerning the sea. There are four movements of increasing length and complexity: the first two are largely atmospheric, the third is narrative and the fourth celebratory. They use common musical themes and motives but gradually expand the size of the forces used.

Part I uses verses from Psalm 77. This is set for double chorus with a very spare accompaniment for percussion harp and piano. The pitch G acts as a pedal note almost throughout and may be thought of as part of a huge perfect cadence resolved by the C major tonality at the end of Part IV.

Part II has no sung text - the chorus hum or vocalise on vowels throughout, but underlying the music are some lines by the Scottish born poet Kathleen Raine from her poem Shells which suggest the vast, slow, time scale of the sea and also its teeming internal life. The music moves several times through a simple chord sequence adding decorations at each repetition and suggesting at its climax a moment of divine intervention (the creation of human kind perhaps) by a brief plainsong quotation. Kathleen Raine's image of the rainbow as an octave of colours is the connection to part III which is a setting of John Heaths Stubbs's A History of the Flood. This poem demands to be sung by children's voices and is indeed set largely for two part children's choir. However, they are 'shadowed' and occasionally doubled, by the adult chorus throughout the movement. The full biblical story of the flood - the building of the ark, the Saving of all Species, the role of the raven and the dove, and the appearance of the rainbow - is written in a style of sophisticated innocence and deliberate anacronism (such as the comparison of the rainbow to a neon advertising sign). I have tried to mirror this by setting the poem in a very straightforward way, held together by the simple pentatonic motive heard near the start. This motive echoes the theme of Part I and the echoes are even stronger at the end as a bell like music prepares for the final psalm of thanksgiving.

Part IV sets verses from Psalm 107 and Psalm 98 with a short interlude between them. The themes are derived from earlier sections and are now played in their most obvious diatonic and tonal form. My model for this setting was the scherzo style of a Bruckner symphony and the final passages from Psalm 98 represent the concluding 'A' section of an essentially ABA form. The underlying meter is triple (6/4 and 9/4) but numerous cross rhythms and simultaneous meters make this the most complex part of the score a well as the longest.
Sea Psalms was commissioned by the Scottish National Chorus and is dedicated to them and other citizens of the City of Glasgow. I hope that one day this piece will be expanded to intermix settings of texts by Scottish poets and about Scotland.

Gordon Crosse

Performances 
1990: Royal Scottish National Orchestra
3
Flute
3rd doubling piccolo
3
Oboe
3rd cor anglais
3
Clarinet
3rd bass clarinet
3
Bassoon
3rd contrabassoon
4
Horn
3
Trumpet
4
Trombone
4th bass trombone
1
Timpani
3
Percussion
marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, tam-tam, suspended cymbal, clash cymbal, bass drum, tenor drum, side drum, whip
1
Piano
doubling celesta
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