Birds of the Psalms by Patricia Van Ness


Looking at the Hubbell telescope’s amazing photos of the universe, one cannot help but be struck by the unbelievable beauty of our universe and our relative insignificance in comparison to it: all human beings at some point ask the eternal questions: what is out there, and why are we in it? Mathematicians and musicians have attempted to answer those questions with logic (logos=ratio) and with calculation. On our centuries-spanning journey from Byzantium via England and stopping by woods of Maine, we find similar efforts to express and understand the unknown in the souls of all our composers, male and female be they both.


Patricia Van Ness is one in this long line of composers who use the mathematics of music to express the universe: Musica Universalis, or what we call the Music of the Spheres, posited that the sun, moon, and planets revolved around earth in their proportional spheres, which were the same as the ratios of pure musical intervals, creating musical – and universal – harmony.


Cicero asked: “What is that great and pleasing sound?” and he answers, “The concord of tones separated by unequal but nevertheless carefully proportional intervals, caused by the rapid motion of the spheres themselves.”


Robert R. Reilly, author of Surprised by Beauty, writes: “According to tradition, the harmonic structure of music was discovered by Pythagoras about the fifth century B.C. Pythagoras experimented with a stretched piece of cord. When plucked, the cord sounded a certain note. When halved in length and plucked again, the cord sounded a higher note completely consonant with the first. In fact, it was the same note at a higher pitch. Pythagoras had discovered the ratio, 2:1, of the octave. Further experiments, plucking the string two-thirds of its original length produced a perfect fifth in the ratio of 3:2. When a three-quarters length of cord was plucked, a perfect fourth was sounded in the ratio of 4:3, and so forth…Pythagoras thought that number was the key to the universe. When he found that harmonic music is expressed in exact numerical ratios of whole numbers, he concluded that music was the ordering principle of the world [emphasis mine].”


(From “The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music” The Intercollegiate Review —Fall 2001)


Aristotle wrote in Metaphysics, that the Pythagoreans “supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.” Music was number made audible. By making it we participate in the universe.


Plato taught that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.”


The most perfectly proportioned musical intervals are, in Pythagoras’ order of perfection: the octave, the fifth, and the fourth. When these intervals are sung or played perfectly in tune, the wavelengths are proportional, and thus what we call “in tune” – there are no impeding vibrations, no interferences, the air in the room quiets. Notice, when a violinist tunes her instrument, the arrival of perfection is a quieting of noise, a perfect line of sound. The same is true of voices, even with vibrato. Composers who write for voices and string quartets know that this kind of perfect tuning is available to them because these instruments don’t “temper” the tuning. When music uses a preponderance of perfect intervals in elongated harmonic rhythm, as with accompanied chant, the introduction of notes NOT in proportion, or any harmonic shifts, are that much more arresting. What you’ll hear in most of the music on this recording is spacious, eternally ethereal, gradually shifting perfect intervals that reach deep into our souls and set sympathetic vibrations through our bodies: we respond on a visceral level.


The men whose music we’ve added to this program were fortunate in their employment and training: Weelkes at Chichester Cathedral, Purcell at Westminster. Rachmaninoff’s maternal grandmother regularly took him to Russian Orthodox church services when he was a child, where he was first exposed to the liturgical chants and church bells. Tchaikovsky, also familiar with the chant and church bells, wrote for the exercise of it, harmonizing the ancient chant.


Over all of this sacred music looms the tremendous figure of the cathedral or the basilica, whose acoustics perforce play a major role in a composer’s aural vision. These great buildings, whose proportional design and immense space were an attempt to explicate and emulate the heavens, insured that anyone standing inside them would feel awed and inspired, humbled, and perhaps even terrified in the true sense of the word. What a space to compose music for! Patricia Van Ness’s Psalms assume the same acoustic, and thrive in it.


-Amelia LeClair



From the Composer: Patricia Van Ness


Several years ago I began a long-term project entitled Music for the Psalms, composing an anthem for each of the 150 passionate prayers in the Book of Psalms. One reason I chose to do this was a desire to come to terms with the often difficult language of the Psalms.  I have learned to do so by interpreting the Psalms in both the modern and the historic contexts; for instance using the modern, the “enemy” often  mentioned can become internal rather than external, such as a thought within that causes one to fret and lose patience with oneself.  War-like “victories” that crush the enemy become the overcoming of these hindrances to happiness aided by the divine; one is then able to thrive and be happy.


The theme of Birds of the Psalms is the safety to be found under the divine wings of a bird.  In the Psalms and throughout the Bible, birds are generally used in two ways: with the divine depicted as a bird who protects, or with a bird being protected by the divine.  Berkeley Professor Robert Alter comments, in his translation of the Psalms, that the references to a sheltering bird in the Bible may have led to the image of a dove as the holy spirit in the Christian tradition, and to the Shekhina by the Jews -- the Semitic root of Shekhina being “to settle, inhabit, or dwell,” often used to refer to birds’ nesting and nests.


There are six different Psalms where the sheltering bird appears, and the verses vary only slightly  (“Under the shelter of your wings I will trust,” or “In the shadow of your wings I will rejoice”).  I used all six of these Psalms in this ten-anthem grouping, setting each in extremely spare, melismatic ways to emphasize them.  I wanted the texts to be essentially the same --  that we are protected -- but needed musically to describe that protection in six different ways.  This challenged me to explore more complex harmonic structures, inspired by the old church modes and inspired as well by Cappella Clausura’s virtuosic ability. Three more anthems highlight Psalms where birds are sheltered.  The final movement, a reprise of the first, uses my text, inspired both by the sheltering texts and my belief that beauty and the divine are one.


My deepest appreciation goes to Amelia LeClair and Cappella Clausura for both this commission and live recording. I am delighted with, and marvel at, the beauty of Amelia’s interpretation and the musicians’ virtuosic performance.  Thank you!





Navona Records offers listeners a fresh taste of today's leading innovators in orchestral, chamber, instrumental, and experimental music as well as prime pieces of classic repertoire. Our music is meticulously performed by the finest musicians and handpicked to ensure the most rewarding listening experience.

223 Lafayette Road

North Hampton NH 03862



press (at)

603.758.1718 x 151