Lili Boulanger

Psalm 130: Du fond de l'abime, for contralto, tenor, chorus, organ & orchestra

    Description by Adrian Corleonis

    From the reports of those who knew her, Lili Boulanger was a quick worker, though her setting of Psalm 130 was spread over the years 1914 to 1917. Its prolonged gestation owes, in part, to the interruption of the Great War and, with it, volunteer work for the Franco-American Committee, to frailty and bouts of ill health to the concomitant composition of several orchestral pieces -- e.g., Sicilienne, Marche gaie, Marche funèbre -- but, above all, to the work's sheer ambition. Contrasting with the small scope of the two Psalms composed in 1916 -- Psalm 24 plays around three-and-a-half minutes, Psalm 129 between six and seven -- the elaborately worked Psalm 130 extends in agonized sprawl over 25 minutes. Christopher Palmer described it succinctly: "After a long orchestral introduction which seems to open in the very bowels of the earth, a large-scale structure subjected to scrupulous motivic control is unfolded; despair, entreaty and terror in the first part yield to a serene confidence in the second, although the Hebraic severity of the closing pages negates any suggestion of facile optimism." The chorus intones the richly varied wail of an afflicted soul -- "Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!" -- broken at length by the hope of forgiveness and a vision of blessedness entrusted to the solo voice, here a contralto, joined briefly by a tenor, though the vision is not allowed to dominate -- the upshot is ambivalent, as is the nature of the endlessly invoked Jehovah depicted in the Psalms. Expressions of profound malaise mixed with menace and evanescent hope are accomplished by an extremely sophisticated array of technical means. Harry Halbreich noted "...the obsession for the Phrygian mode and for B flat minor...other modal scales, including the octotonic scale (Olivier Messiaen's future mode 2), the augmented 2nds of Hebraic minor, the whole-tone scale, chromaticism, the bold use of enharmony....This writing reveals the young woman to be at the edge of the avantgarde of her day." The Psalmist's easy assurances of 'steadfast love and plenteous redemption' are swallowed in an utterance at once submissive and disturbing; will Jehovah respond with the right hand of mercy or the left hand of wrath? Commentators have marveled that one so young, frail, and sheltered should have intuited such a rich, subtle, and tough-minded knot of feeling, but youth is by definition a time of passions, and imagination's reach should exceed the grasp of mundane experience, or what are the arts for?

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2009 Timpani / Zebralution
    2009 Chandos 30
    2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 463789
    2001 Carus 83135
    1999 Chandos 9745
    1999 BBC Legends 40262