David’s revenge (i) Psalmus Hungaricus

In my previous post I indulged in some reminiscences about my first exposure to the world of professional music as a teenage chorister in London, talking about Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I sang in 1980. Today I would like to go back a year in thinking about a Biblical figure who has been uppermost in my mind recently for reasons both musical and non-musical: King David, the hero of the present three-part post. On July 24, 1979 I took part in a performance at the BBC Proms under Sir Charles Mackerras of the Psalmus Hungaricus Op.13 of Zoltán Kodály , a piece that I still regard as one of the twentieth century’s most underrated choral masterworks. Written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Buda and Pest and given its first performance in the same concert as Bartók’s Dance Suite, this setting of Psalm 55 is one of imposing emotional range, encompassing moments both of hushed meditation and rugged, declamatory ferocity in its trajectory leading from a cry of affliction and betrayal to contrite expectation and final vindication. That it is not better-known outside Hungary can surely only be attributed to linguistic factors (in 1979 we sang in English) and the difficulty of the cruelly taxing solo tenor part. Its climaxes may strike some listeners as bombastic, but there are also introspective passages of a haunting, evocative beauty, notably the clarinet and violin solos of the Psalm’s central section in which Kodaly displays a similar flair for delicate orchestral colour as that found in Hary Janos or his unjustly neglected Peacock Variations. Above all, what continues to stand out for me when listening again to the Psalmus Hungaricus is the unusually dramatic, almost operatic intensity of its portrayal of King David. This is a thorougly un-sanitized Psalmist who shines through not only as a sublime liturgical poet but the passionate creature of flesh and blood that we find in the Biblical record, capable of giving expression to even the most visceral of human feelings.

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

Zoltán Kodály, 1930

The première of Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus took place on November 19, 1923. Just two weeks later, another Davidic masterpiece, Le Roi David by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) received its first performance in the oratorio form which would make the composer’s international reputation. This piece now leads me to fast forward from 1979 to 2013 and a concert which was certainly one of the most unusual concerts with which I have ever been involved.

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