Listening to Britten – Two Psalms

Wimborne Minster window detail (c) Ben Hogwood

Two Psalms – for mixed choir and orchestra (8 July – 26 December 1931, Britten aged 17-18)

1 Psalm 130 (Out from the deep)
2 Psalm 150 (Praise ye the Lord)

Dedication not known
Text Bible
Language English
Duration 14′

Background and Critical Reception

The Two Psalms were submitted, together with the Phantasy Quintet in F minor, as part of Britten’s application for the Mendelssohn scholarship at the London College of Music. They are scored for choir and orchestra, with an extended brass and percussion section.

The Psalms have only recently been brought to the surface, prepared for performance by the conductor Nicholas Cleobury at the Red House in Aldeburgh. They were given their world premiere at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on 27 January 2013, as part of a year-long ‘Britten in Oxford’ series celebrating the composer’s centenary.

Vaughan Williams tried to get them performed soon after submission, but Cleobury’s thoughts are that the Royal College was not set up for performance of student works in the way such establishments are today. There are certain ‘clunks’ in it, he says, and ‘the voice (of Britten) hasn’t quite come through’, although he ‘paints the words beautifully’ and the ‘architecture is absolutely wonderful’. Cleobury picks out influences from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, which Britten had not long seen performed in London.

Britten was to set Psalm 150 once more, in 1967.


It is a genuine thrill to hear Britten operating with larger forces, and the young composer (still only 17) throws himself into the task with sleeves rolled up, dealing with the big climax points in a way that gets a most impressive and individual sound – and bodes extremely well for future works.

The Psalm 130 setting is the more substantial of the two, and goes through a range of emotions as it begins ‘from the depths’, before growing outwardly more assured. It feels quite tortured at times before it settles in one of Britten’s favourite keys of calm repose, C major, but not before a fulsome soprano solo.

Britten judges the transition from this relative darkness to the dazzling light of Psalm 150 with great accuracy. This is by nature a more extrovert response, with a ringing call on the brass in response to the scurrying strings. There is a sense of ceremony but perhaps not outright joy, a feeling that Britten might not be about to let himself go completely – until the full-throated exultation from the chorus of ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord’, on which point the orchestra finish as if in coronation mode.

An impressive achievement that suggests there may be other high quality pieces of Britten’s college work that have not yet seen the light of day.

Performance used
Oxford Bach Choir, English Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas Cleobury (world premiere performance)

A full-bodied choral performance, with an impressive heft from the brass and percussion sections of the orchestra in particular.

No recordings available.

Also written in 1931: Stravinsky – Violin Concerto

Next up: Plymouth Town

This entry was posted in Choir and orchestra, English, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Listening to Britten – Two Psalms

  1. Pity these pieces are not yet recorded… will they be sometime this year?

  2. Colin Matthews says:

    It’s not accurate to say that Nicholas Cleobury ‘discovered’ them : they were catalogued in the 1970s, like all of Britten’s more substantial manuscripts, and offered to him for first performance.

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