Psalm 23 – The Lord’s my Shepherd

Have you ever wondered at the beauty of Psalm 23, its meaning and its comforting message?

“The Lord’s my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose. Through restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit. And though I go through the valley of darkness no evil will I fear. You are there with your crook and your staff and with these you give me comfort. Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me the rest of my days.”

What a marvellous prayer and what a reassuring message! The lyrics are a gift to a composer, and I’d like to share with you the story of how I wrote my own setting.

One day I found I had no music for my newly formed Children’s Choir to sing at Mass. They needed something for a couple of weeks ahead, and in desperation I sat down and wrote a setting of Psalm 23 for unison voices and organ. It was well received but … little did I know that it would go right around the world!

The song was published and it was learned by a young soprano called Charlotte Church. Imagine my surprise when I was rung up by a friend who asked, “Did you know your piece is a track on Charlotte Church’s famous CD Voice of an Angel?”

I didn’t know. So I rang up the record company and told them who I was and they came out with the wonderful line: “We thought you were dead.” I explained that I was alive and well and looking forward to my royalty cheque!

Silent Night

In a way this story is similar to that of Silent Night, written at short notice because the organ had broken down and the choir had nothing to sing!

There are many well-known settings of Psalm 23 – Schubert’s and, of course, the wonderful hymn which is sung all over the English-speaking world – Crimond.

The lyrics are very pastoral and it is interesting to consider how a shepherd looks at Psalm 23. The Lord as a shepherd caring for his flock is an enduring image of many, many centuries. “Pastures green” and “Valleys of darkness” are country phrases and the idea of the Shepherd looking after his sheep with love and affection has really caught people’s imagination. You know well that the Psalm 23 was written in a mainly rural age when there were no trains, planes, or cars with wailing sirens.

Do-It-Yourself Psalm 23

If you want to set Psalm 23 you’ll need to capture this in your setting, underlining the meaning of the words. As a composer you have to describe the poem and help it to live. In something as famous as Psalm 23 you must be careful not to “gild the lily”. It needs a simple setting which leaves the words to speak for themselves. And the music mustn’t detract from the colour and pastoral nature of the text.

Do you ever wonder how to compose? How on earth do you get started? Well, it’s a good idea to take a simple text like Psalm 23 and just try and sing it to see if you can come up with a good tune. If you hit upon a fine song you can always find someone who will write it down for you. Have a go – you never know how far your song will travel!

by Colin Mawby

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