Psalm 150, Op.67 for four part chorus, 2 treble instruments, bass instrument, percussion and keyboard. Optional parts, transposed if necessary for clarinets, trumbet, horn, trombone and viola (1 May 1962, Britten aged 48)
Dedication Written for the centenary celebrations of Old Buckenham Hall School – formerly South Lodge School, Lowestoft – July 1962
Text Psalm 150 (set in English)
Taken from the Decca recording made by the composer, who conducts the boys of Downside School, Purley. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
This was another anniversary commission for Britten, but one that was surely rather closer to his heart – the centenary of his old school in Lowestoft, now named Old Buckenham Hall School.
He responded with a piece that they could all perform together, a setting of King David’s final psalm that was commendably loose when it came to specifying the instrumental requirements. Paul Spicer, writing in his Britten Choral Guide for Boosey & Hawkes, describes how Britten makes ‘full use of the different forms of praise described in the verses of the psalm to colour his composition’, and he goes on to label the piece as ‘another brilliant, flexible and involving work for children’, which can ‘form a magical item in a school concert.’
Britten’s setting of the last Psalm of David is cut from the same cloth as Noye’s Fludde, as it is written to be performed by musicians of all shapes, sizes and abilities – though preferably of a school age. It therefore has a ‘bring it and sing it’ quality, and is all the more endearing when the performance is a bit approximate in its tuning, because it evokes the charm of a school concert performance.
Britten’s response to the words is typically inventive and enjoyable, with violins imitating the sound of harps, and a huge crash when the words ‘praise him with the loud cymbal’ are sung and then shouted. You can imagine the schoolchildren competing for that role!
Musically the psalm is firmly rooted in C major, Britten’s most affirmative key going with David’s most affirmative psalm. And there it largely stays, in a thoroughly uplifting mood of celebration – a nice contrast to its opus number predecessor, the War Requiem, from which it could hardly be more different.
Boys of Downside School, Purley / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
A thoroughly invigorating performance, this, with plenty of energy and enthusiasm as the composer would have wanted.
Britten’s recording, seemingly the only one available, can be found here.
Also written in 1962: The Beatles – Love Me Do
Next up: King Herod and the Cock