Happy are they who dwell in Your house was commissioned for the University of York’s ‘Lyons Celebration award’ (2016/17). This annual award was set up in memory of Jack Lyons by his widow, Lady Roslyn Lyons. One of Jack Lyons’ most cherished pieces was Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. The award asks composers to create an innovative project that is in some way inspired by that work.
Chichester Psalms depicts the Psalm of David. On researching the function of the Psalm, itself, I discovered the term Ashrei. In completeness, Ashrei is composed primarily of Psalm 145. The meaning of Ashrei in Hebrew is Ashrei yoshvei veitecha, od y’hallelucha, selah!, which translates to Happy are they who dwell in Your house; they will praise You, always! This is said three times throughout the day in Jewish Prayers as it is said to guarantee a place in the World to come. It is this ritual of repetition (or repetition of ritual) that intrigues me as a composer. Ritual is everywhere, not only in Religion, but also in our own daily lives. Everyone inhabits their own rituals, such as getting up and going to work etc., and amongst that they may also have their own individual quirks, all repeated on a daily basis, consciously and even subconsciously. I also think of ritual as the coming together of communities, often to celebrate the sometimes one thing they/we have in common. In music communities, there is also ritual involved in performance, such as rehearsals and the individual’s quirks and rituals they have before going on stage. There is also the ritual of an audience coming together as one to listen to and appreciate the same music. In relation to Ashrei, people are happy when they are together and close to God; they are together celebrating the same cause.
The word Psalm is derived from the Greek translation, Psalmoi, literally meaning "instrumental music" and by extension and historical use, "words accompanying music”. Within the work, the soprano and tenor voices sing or speak verses from the Ashrei text in various permutations and fragmentations throughout. However, the singers are largely part of the texture/timbre of the orchestra, rather than soloists as one may expect.
The work begins with a repeated whispered chant of the Ashrei text, in Hebrew. This is accompanied by soft ringing of three triangles and a repeated high pitch figure from the Eb clarinet, both offset by low rumblings in the pits of the orchestra. This texture gradually builds to an interruption of loud bell-like trombones simulating a call-to-prayer. Following this, the work has three distinct blocks of material (melodic interweaving, quasi-moto perpetuo and noise). These blocks are repeated and re-shuffled, each one varying in slightly different ways such as shortening and lengthening or the way in which they are represented harmonically. This for me symbolizes how Ashrei is ritualized three-times per day during the course of Jewish Prayers. The sections or blocks link into one another as a one-movement discourse, or sermon, if you will. The work ends with a punchy variation of the quasi-moto perpetuo material with interjections of the whispered Ashrei chant, ending the piece how it began.