Adolphus Cunningham Hailstork III
I will lift up mine eyes

Born: 17 April 1941 in Rochester, New York

{Biography} {I will lift up mine eyes}


Prior to beginning work on I will lift up mine eyes I knew little of Hailstork’s work.  Like most living composers, especially black ones, his works are not as widely known as they should be.  The piece I know best is his orchestral overture An American Port of Call.  This gets performed with some frequency, and it’s a nice work.  But I wasn’t prepared for how very much I would enjoy I will lift up mine eyes and how that would be the piece I most looked forward to rehearsing (this for a concert that also included Mozart and Beethoven).

A Rochester native (hooray!), Hailstork’s musical education included degrees from Howard University, the Manhattan School of Music (David Diamond was one of his teachers there), and Michigan State University (from which he received his Ph.D. in composition in 1971), as well as a summer in France with noted pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.  Upon receiving his Ph.D., he was immediately hired into the first of several academic positions.  Since 2000 he has served as “eminent scholar” at Old Dominion University in Virginia, which (let’s be honest here) has much nicer weather than Rochester.

Numerous commissions have led him to compose in all major genres, with works for keyboard, voice, chamber ensemble, choir, orchestra, and band, along with multiple operas.  His works are performed internationally by major ensembles and major conductors (e.g. Daniel Barenboim, James DePriest, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur).  Recognition of his achievement (this is a partial list) includes the Ernest Bloch Award for Choral Composition (1970–1971), the Belwin Mills/Max Winkler Band Composition Award (1977), first prize in the 1995 University of Delaware Festival of Contemporary Music, appointment as Cultural Laureate in Virginia (1992) and honorary doctorates from the College of William & Mary (2001) and Michigan State University (2004).  Colloquially he is thus Dr. Dr. Dr. Hailstork.

I will lift up mine eyes

Hailstork’s cantata was written for tenor solo (a part that goes up to high C!), SATB chorus, and small orchestra consisting of single winds and brass, timpani, percussion, and strings.  The work was composed in 1989 and revised in 1996), and is “dedicated to the memory of Undine Smith Moore,” a leading black composer of vocal music who died in 1989.

The texts of the three movements of the work are drawn from the psalms, which immediately calls to mind two other major works that do the same: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, written for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, written for the 1965 choral festival at Chichester Cathedral.  Stravinsky sets the texts in Latin, Bernstein sets them in Hebrew, and Hailstork uses English.  This leads us to a brief history of the psalms.

The history of Bible in general and the Psalms in particular is messy and complicated.  What follows is a general summary.

The psalms are 150 poetic texts in the Old Testament written in Hebrew; tradition says that these were created by King David although many, perhaps most, people today consider that idea a pleasant fiction.  Regardless of authorship, they are universally agreed to be very, very beautiful.

They are also confusing in terms of their numbering.  This confusion goes back to a few centuries before Christ, when a group of 72 scholars (six each from the twelve tribes of Israel) translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek; this version is known as the Septuagint, after the (approximately) 70 scholars who made the translation.  During the process of translation, most of the psalms were renumbered (the reasons for this are the subject of theological seminars, not the Choral Singer’s Companion, so you will have to take my word on this).  In late antiquity St. Jerome (ca. 340–420) translated the Bible into Latin.  His translation—the basis for the Catholic Bible—is known as the Vulgate, as Latin at that time was the “vulgar” language—the common language that many people spoke.  For the Psalms he used the Septuagint—hence a different numbering from the Hebrew Bible.

In the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation came along, and with it the desire to translate the Bible into the vernacular, since by that time Latin was no one’s first language.  This desire had been present in some circles previously, but had largely been squashed.  In general, Protestants went back to the Hebrew Bible for their translations, thus reverting to the original Hebrew numbering for the psalms.  In the two Bibles I own, the famous psalm that begins “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” is the 23rd Psalm in my (Protestant) King James Bible but the 22nd Psalm in my Saint Joseph “New Catholic Edition” of the Bible.  Supposedly recent Catholic Bibles have reverted to the Hebrew numbering, but I don’t own any of them.

Here is how the numbers compare:

Hebrew/Protestant Both Greek/Catholic
9 & 10   9
11 to 113   10 to 112
114 & 115   113
116   114 & 115
117 to 146   116 to 145
147   146 & 147
  148 to 150  

Hailstork uses the Protestant numbering for his psalms, and chooses 121, 13, and 23 for the three movements (Bernstein uses the 23rd Psalm for the second movement of Chichester Psalms).  The briskly moving first movement sets verses 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7 of Psalm 121.  The tenor is in the lead, and the chorus usually either alternates material imitatively with the soloist, or doubles him.  The phrase “maker of heaven and earth” generates a lyrically contrasting section to the opening music, and then the opening material returns, first with new lyrics (the sun will not smite thee by day) and then with the original “I will lift up mine eyes” text, leading us to a strong conclusion.

The second movement completely blew me away the first time I sang it.  It often takes multiple hearings/rehearsals for a piece or a movement to grow on me, but not with this (nor with the second movement of Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony; significantly, both are slow movements).  It’s truly an astonishing movement.  Hailstork instantly creates a mood that is brooding, mournful, sombre.  The contrast with the first movement is sharp; we are in G minor rather than the bright C major that ended the first movement, the tempo has slowed way down, and the beginning is simply a haunting reiterated D that is present for almost the entire movement, and almost always as a regularly repeating quarter note.  The instrumental introduction is fairly long (29 measures vs. 12 in the first movement), and when the choir finally comes in, it’s with humming or “oo” for another 17 measures.  This section reminds me of the third movement of Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem (“Reconciliation”).  I wonder whether Hailstork knew that piece?

Finally the solo tenor enters with the psalm text—a much more painful text than that of the first movement’s Psalm 121, and one that would surely resonate powerfully with a black American composer.  Hailstork uses only the first three verses, and only the tenor gets to sing them.  As a choir, we repeat simply “How long, O Lord?” again and again.  At m. 89 we begin to build towards the fortissimo dynamic climax of the piece (m. 97), starting with “a few light voices” in the sopranos, then all sopranos, then adding tenors, altos, basses.  Meanwhile, above the choir, the solo tenor improvises, as do a choir alto and a soprano. The instruction for the alto is to sing with a “‘gospel’ sound chest tone;” all soloists are to “improvise in a mournful style choosing from ‘How long, O Lord,’ ‘Answer me, O Lord,’ and ‘Give light to my eyes, O Lord.’“  This section is obviously gospel-inflected in its construction, not just vocal timbre.

Once we hit our peak dynamic there’s a gradual decrescendo, and then suddenly the text and motive from the first movement returns: “I will lift up mine eyes,” and we are back in C major.  The movement ends with hope, not sorrow.

Hailstork moves us into A major for the closing movement, and for once the choir is in right away.  The tempo is stately; we sing clear chordal harmonies with the “Alleluia” text that Hailstork has added to the psalm.  This textual addition and the chordal opening seem like a direct reference to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which also opens its third movement (setting Psalm 150) with an added choral alleluia.

Alleluia is the only text we sing for the first 29 measures; the tenor soloist gets the psalm text first.  We are building towards a movement that is wonderfully gospel in nature.  The harmonies and the general bass line (especially that descending tetrachord in the first measure) of the first two measures are repeated again and again and again—this is a total vamp, exactly what we would expect.  The harmonies are static and relatively simple, but the instrumental parts keep getting gussied up.  Over the harmonic vamp, the tempo gradually accelerates and, as soon as the chorus moves to the psalm text, our melodic lines move to syncopation, triplets, syllabic text-setting, lots of repeated notes, and close harmony as we restate short motives again and again.  I don’t know about everyone else, but I absolutely want to move back and forth, back and forth with this—the music renders a staid performance impossible!

The dramatic shift at m. 71 throws us into the final section of the movement—we are suddenly back in the tempo of the first movement for a quick return of “I will lift up mine eyes,” both text and music, thus unifying the entire work.  Twenty measures later, though, we’re back in A major with instructions to sing “majestically” as we slow down and return to the Alleluias (music and text) that began the movement.  It’s slower and softer until the end, with the tenor soaring high above us for the final piano “alleluia.”

What a terrific piece!

October 2023