Over the course of ten days in early November, New Yorkers had the opportunity to attend Lincoln Center’s The Psalms Experience: twelve concerts with a capella settings of all 150 psalms, with the occasional organ accompaniment. The psalms were grouped according to twelve subjects. No composer was used more than once.
The results were beautiful, powerful, and maddening. The beauty and power came from the music itself, which was performed by some of the world’s great choirs: the Choir of Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Netherlands Chamber Choir; the Norwegian Soloists Choir; and the Tallis Scholars, who gave three concerts.
The first of these concerts focused on psalms of gratitude. My favorite pieces were by three lesser known figures. Samuel Wesley, the son of the Methodist Charles Wesley, was an organist and composer of church music. His “Blest is the man” (Psalm 32) had the quiet, reverent beauty reflective in English settings of compline. Mogens Pedersøn, a Danish composer and instrument maker who studied under Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice (ca. 1600), set Psalm 103 with soaring beauty and the clarity that the Lutheran tradition valued.
His contemporary in Mantua, Salamone Rossi, was the only composer serving the ducal family who also had permission to practice his Jewish faith publicly and to set Hebrew texts to music. Rossi’s beautiful “Odesha ki anitani” (Psalm 118) is the first polyphony I have ever heard in which the Psalms were sung in their original language. Schubert’s “Tov lehodos” (Psalm 92) was likewise moving, a composition in the last years of his life for the temple of the Viennese reformist cantor Salomon Sulzer.
The last concert featured lesser known composers and settings from plainchant (Psalm 58) and the Scottish metrical hymn tradition (Psalm 17). The evening concluded with a rushed performance of Thomas Tallis’s forty-part motet “Spem in Alium,” sung by members of all participating choirs.
The Tallis Scholars had the precise, gorgeous sound for which they have become famous. That sound, like the music itself, is intended for spaces with great resonance—usually, churches and chapels. In the New York Society for Ethical Culture and Juilliard’s Alice Tully Hall, many pieces lacked the resonance for which they are ideally suited. This was, in a sense, fitting. For despite its musicological excellence, The Psalms Experience presented the Psalms with their heart surgically removed.
I noticed this in the program notes for the Tallis Scholars’ concerts. The program opened with an essay (first published earlier this year in America) by Krista Tippett, longtime host of NPR’s On Being. Tippett argues that “the new nonreligious may be the greatest hope for the revitalization of religion.” The rise of the “nones” is not a cause for concern: “There are churches and synagogues full of nones. They are also filling up undergraduate classes on the New Testament and St. Augustine.” Many nones are are interested in monasticism, communal forms of religion, and a sense of wonder at creation.
Up to a point, this is true and good. These topics of interest may be seeds of growth and conversion. But as John Henry Newman drove home in his sermons—and as Francesca Murphy reminded us more recently—the heart of religion is the worship of God and obedience to him. “There is no such thing as abstract religion,” Newman wrote. “When persons attempt to worship in this (what they call) more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshipping at all.” In the religion of the nones, and in the religion professed by The Psalms Experience, there is little sense of sin, and of the need for redemption and obedience. This religion is not worship—at least, not the worship of God—and therefore quickly becomes the worship of self.
In the interview following Tippet’s essay, Jane Moss, Lincoln Center’s artistic director, articulated one theme of The Psalms Experience: “The Psalms is the only book in the Bible where humans are speaking to God, rather than the other way around.” She continued: “Throughout the festival we are delving into not only religious faith, but also secular varieties, like faith in love, faith in a better future, faith in one’s self, and most important for us, faith in the transformative power of art.”
The Psalms are not the only book in the Bible in which humans speak to God, as useful as that idea may be for secularizing them. One thinks of the songs of Moses, Hannah, and Simeon, or Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, to name but a few. This error raises the question: Where were the scholars of religion in the crafting of The Psalms Experience? Musicologists, journalists, and scholars of literature were all present. The project had its roots in Holland, the program informed the audience, specifically with Tido Vissier, managing director of the Netherlands Chamber Choir, the musicologist Leo Samama, and the theologian Gerard Swüste. The latter is a classical music radio programmer with a doctorate in theology from a Dutch Catholic university who preaches at an ecumenical church in Amsterdam and recently edited his own edition of the Psalms. But why not have a professor of Jewish Studies or Old Testament?
One could ask a similar question about the translations of the Psalms, which the audience received in a pamphlet at the end of the concerts. These came from the acclaimed professor of Hebrew Literature Robert Alter, and also from Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, by Norman Fischer, an ethnically Jewish poet and Soto Zen priest. In the New Revised Standard Version, Psalm 103 begins:
Bless the Lord, O My soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits.
In Fischer’s hands, this becomes:
My soul is for your blessing
All that is within me
A blessing for your nameless holiness
My soul is for your blessing
And remembers your gifts.
The aesthetic reduction mirrors the theological, for the Psalms are inescapably about the personal and intimate YHWH. Attempts by The Psalms Experience to relativize or erase this fact bordered on the ridiculous, as when Psalms 117, 147, and 148 were placed in the category “the state of mankind”—when their obvious subject is God.
A few days before The Psalms Experience, a debate sprang up online over whether Moana costumes for Halloween constituted cultural appropriation. It remains unclear to me how a Buddhist translation of the Psalms that effaces the Psalms’ basic nature is not a more egregious form of appropriation, even if proffered by enlightened ethnic Jews and post-Protestants. “My soul is for your blessing” seems a greater offense than a little white girl in a lei.
Some weeks after The Psalms Experience, the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem provided a study in contrasts. Verdi was an agnostic with an anti-clerical streak, and his Requiem is more a humanistic philosophical and political statement than a work of religious faith. But he respected the integrity of the original text, not holding back its terror and hope, even if he emphasizes the latter less than do some believing composers. The Met’s program notes echoed this, noting the importance of paying attention to the text, especially in our own time when it is less familiar. Calling both opera and the Catholic Church “essentially Italian creations” was a bit strong, but the program helped explain the original drama of the Requiem and the ways in which Verdi modified it for his own intent. A devout Catholic and a devout atheist could come away from the performance moved and troubled in the right ways.
By contrast, The Psalms Experience tried to explain to secular, enlightened audiences why they should care about the Psalms—and the result was a desperate attempt to fit the Psalms onto the procrustean bed of enlightened pieties. The feeling of being a wretch, the cry in the face of judgment, and the call of submission to a loving God who made you and will save and judge you even now—this is the heart of the Psalms, which the Lincoln Center organizers attempted to scrub out. “Their childish idolatries, their bright hopes of earthly happiness,” to borrow Newman’s phrase, did not completely efface the meaning and power of the Psalms, nor the glory of their settings throughout the ages. They did remind the audience that domesticated religion is not a deepening of human experience, but its truncation.
Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.