In a recent series of concerts at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center—titled The Psalms Experience—four renowned choirs sang all of the 150 Psalms, each set to music by a different composer. Nathaniel Peters notes in his review that two of his favorite performances were in the Psalms’ original language:
Salamone Rossi was the only composer serving [Mantua’s] ducal family who also had permission to practice his Jewish faith publicly and to set Hebrew texts to music. Rossi’s beautiful “Odekha ki anitani” (Psalm 118) is the first polyphony I have ever heard in which the Psalms were sung in their original language. [The Catholic composer Franz] Schubert’s “Tov lehodos” (Psalm 92) was likewise moving, a composition in the last years of his life for the temple of the Viennese reformist cantor Salomon Sulzer.
Overall, Peters found the performances “beautiful, powerful, and maddening”—maddening because, “despite its musicological excellence, The Psalms Experience presented the Psalms with their heart surgically removed.” He writes:
The program opened with an essay . . . by Krista Tippett, the longtime host of National Public Radio’s On Being. Tippett argues that “the new nonreligious may be the greatest hope for the revitalization of religion.” The rise of the “nones,” [i.e., those who list their religion as “none” on surveys], is not a cause for concern: “There are churches and synagogues full of nones. They are also filling up undergraduate classes on the New Testament and St. Augustine.” Many nones are interested in monasticism, communal forms of religion, and a sense of wonder at creation.
Up to a point, this is true and good. These topics of interest may be seeds of growth and conversion. But as [the great British theologian] John Henry Newman drove home in his sermons, . . . the heart of religion is the worship of God and obedience to Him. “There is no such thing as abstract religion,” Newman wrote. “When persons attempt to worship in this (what they call) more spiritual manner, they end, in fact, in not worshipping at all.” In the religion of the nones, and in the religion professed by The Psalms Experience, there is little sense of sin, and of the need for redemption and obedience. This religion is not worship—at least, not the worship of God—and therefore quickly becomes the worship of self. . . .
Where were the scholars of religion in the crafting of The Psalms Experience? Musicologists, journalists, and scholars of literature were all present. . . . [W]hy not have a professor of Jewish studies or Old Testament? . . . By contrast, The Psalms Experience tried to explain to secular, enlightened audiences why they should care about the Psalms—and the result was a desperate attempt to fit the Psalms onto the procrustean bed of enlightened pieties.