Week 31: Friday, October 19, 2018
“I Lift My Eyes” by Joan Szymko
Text: Psalm 121 & Thich Nhat Hanh
Our school motto at Hollins University is Levavi Oculos. This comes from Psalm 121:1 – “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” We are located in the beautiful Roanoke valley, in southwest Virginia, in the shadow of Tinker Mountain, so the imagery is quite apt. You can literally lift your eyes from campus and see the Blue Ridge mountains.
This also means that I am constantly on the look-out for good settings of that Psalm 121 text! School tradition had always been connected to Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes,” but when I started in my current position, I wanted to pursue additional options. In my searching, I was introduced to Joan Szymko’s “I Lift My Eyes,” and my singers (and colleagues) have requested it ever since.
Szymko’s setting weaves together two distinct texts – the first verse of Psalm 121 and a quote by Vietnamese Bhuddist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The psalm verse speaks of outside strength and support – seeking and receiving help from outside of yourself. By contrast, the Nhat Hanh text is focused on inner strength and self-realization. They pair so beautifully together – two sides of the same philosophical coin.
The choral selection opens with a solo (or unison choir) on the melody, outlining the psalm verse and its related melodic material. For my ensemble, this was a great place to learn via solfege, to unify their vowels, and to work on phrasing. There were also larger skips and intervals (5ths, 6ths) to contend with. For my rehearsals, everyone learned this opening material together, in unison. Once the singers felt comfortable, we were able to transfer the knowledge of phrasing and dynamics to later in the song, when this material reappeared with harmony.
After presenting the psalm text and its melody, the song switches gears to the other poetic material. “I am solid as a mountain; I am firm as the earth…I am free.” Here the setting breaks into SSAA, with small repeated motives used in all four voices. In contrast to the opening, these chant-like motivic entrances are brief, imitative, and overlapping, and utilize primarily stepwise motion. It is as if you can hear the mountain being built, one layered voice at a time. The imagery at this point has shifted from a person seeking outside guidance (Psalm) to a person who is shoring up their own inner strength (Nhat Hanh).
Szymko’s setting then returns to the lyrical opening Psalm material, this time in four-part harmony. There are some tasty dissonances and resolutions here, especially on chords where a 5th divisi pitch has been added. The tempo picks up a bit and there are a handful of key changes – great for practicing modulations with diatonic solfege. My singers greatly enjoyed the expressive energy at this point in the piece – it builds on the established material from the opening, while expanding it tonally and harmonically.
Next, Szymko overlays the text and melodic materials from both sections, with “I lift my eyes to the mountains” occurring at the same time as “I am solid as a mountain.” This musical and textual juxtaposition truly resonated with my students.
As part of a contemplative pedagogy project that semester, they were completing choir journals, with writing prompts I would give them as homework. One day for a prompt, I asked them to discuss how they personally felt solid or free in their own lives. Then the next day, I asked them where or to whom they turned to for help or strength, when they needed support or encouragement. Together, those two journal entries were some of the best that term.
The closing section of Szymko’s composition takes the beginning “I lift my eyes” motive, and treats it imitatively across a variety of voices. The cascading entrances go from bottom to top [A2 to A1 to S2 to S1], creating a lovely lifting gesture, and then start over again. This pattern builds to the end of the work, where “I lift my eyes” goes directly into “I am free” for the final chord.
Overall, rhythmic material is limited to quarter, eighth, half, dotted half, and tie. Tonal structure is primarily diatonic, in related keys. The accompaniment is engaging and supportive. For choirs working to connect sight-reading skills to real repertoire, this can be a great selection in which to put their skills into action and be successful.
I already have this selection on the program for an upcoming university event this spring, and I cannot wait to start rehearsing it with my students next term. For groups wanting accessible repertoire with beautiful musical settings, contemplative texts, and possibility for strong emotional connections, this work by Joan Szymko is absolutely a perfect choice.
|I Lift My Eyes
|Date of Composition:
|Psalm 121:1, and a quote by Thich Naht Hanh;
lyrics constructed by Joan Szymko
|Wisdom, community, inner strength, purpose, self-determination
|SSAA with an occasional added note – total of 5 pitches at once
|For Aurora Chorus
|Santa Barbara Music Publishing – SBMP 658
|Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing:
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.