I will lift up mine eyes
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:
he that keepeth thee will not slumber.
Behold, he that keepeth Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is thy keeper:
the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.
The sun shall not smite thee by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil:
he shall preserve thy soul.
The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
from this time forth, and even for evermore.
-Psalm 121, King James Version
Psalm 121 is typically read, and often set musically, as a text of assurance andcomfort. My setting is similar in that regard. What I find compelling, though, is the secondphrase of the psalm: “from whence cometh my help (?)”. Many musical settings treat thephrase “from whence cometh my help” simply as a modifier (no question mark); i.e. “…the hills from whence cometh my help” (take, for example, Mendelssohn’s“Lift thine eyes”). Most current translations, however, treat it as a question. The Hebrew syntax is not definitive, and the phrase can be readeither as modifier or question. Many translations do treat it as a question (the NRSV for example).
Given this ambiguity, the reflective nature of Good Friday(the concert theme for the commission), and the cry from the cross, "My God, why hastthou forsaken me,” I have treated the phrase as a probing existential question, where doI find help?, to which the rest of the psalm is the answer. This cry occurs twice in my setting — first at its normal spot in the text, and then returning more urgently just beforethe final blessing: "from whence cometh my help? …the Lord shall preserve thy going outand thy coming in…”
The pairing of saxophone and choir was a suggestion from the commissionging conductor Noel Edison; thepsalm is personal, there is no “us” in it, and the sound of the solo instrument reinforcesthis element of the text. The setting begins with choir and alto saxophone, continues with choir only, and concludes with choir and soprano saxophone, reflecting, perhaps, a kind of “elevation”. The music, commissionedby Noel Edison for the 2016 Good Friday concerts of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, was written in the fall of 2015 and completed in the early weeks of 2016.