Watch your language

Frontispiece to the King James Bible, 1611, sh...
Image via Wikipedia

Do you have a favorite language to sing in, or compose for?

I recently received a commission from a good friend to write a short sacred piece. Now that we have finally settled on Psalm 150–who doesn’t love the exciting praises with every instrument?–I set off right away to study the text in ye olde trusty King James Version. The more I read it though, the less I feel connected with it artistically.

Here it is in KJV:

1Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.

2Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.

3Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.

4Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

5Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

6Let every thing that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.

Not bad, right? “Unto” and “ye” aren’t too bad, you hear that in other English church music all the time. However, verse 2 stops me from setting this to music–“…according to his excellent greatness” for me is just not poetic. While the imagery offers ample opportunity of text painting, the English translation also doesn’t have much rhyme to work with, and the word accent doesn’t pose a strong rhythm either.

I thought about setting its Latin counterpart, but I just don’t want to compete with Maestro Byrd (“Laudibus in sanctis dominum”) or Palestrina (“Exultate Deo”), both of which among my all-time favorites. Thus I came across the Psalm in Spanish; particularly in its 16th century, Reina-Valera translation:

1ALABAD á Dios en su santuario: Alabadle en la extensión de su fortaleza.

2Alabadle por sus proezas: Alabadle conforme á la muchedumbre de su grandeza.

3Alabadle á son de bocina: Alabadle con salterio y arpa.

4Alabadle con adufe y flauta: Alabadle con cuerdas y órgano.

5Alabadle con címbalos resonantes: Alabadle con címbalos de júbilo.

6Todo lo que respira alabe á JAH. Aleluya.

José Salgueiro - Adufes
Image by retorta_net via Flickr

Now we have open vowels, rhyming scheme, and internal rhymes. We even have a tasty morsel of specific cultural reference– adufe is a drum used most in Christian rites only on the Iberian peninsula (mostly Portugal). Including a bit of Spanish flavor into the music seem to be inevitable. I hope to borrow essence of some traditional Spanish sound, as well as text setting ideas from Spanish Renaissance masters like Guerrero and Victoria.

I’ve already gotten to the last verse, and am having loads of fun setting Salmo 150. Hong Kong Young People’s Chorus, get ready!

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