About this work
The three Psalm settings by Alexander von Zemlinsky are virtually the entirety of his output of sacred music. This one was written during a busy, prosperous phase of his life. He was the First House Conductor at the Vienna Volksoper and in 1907-1908 was on the conducting staff of the Vienna Court Opera, then headed by Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky's style, like that of his relative by marriage Arnold Schoenberg, took Mahler's style more or less as a point of departure.
The 23rd Psalm is the most famous Psalm (a group of 150 texts in the Judeo-Christian Bible praising God, most traditionally written by King David). It is familiaryly known as the "Shepherd Psalm" and is an extended metaphor of God in the role of a protecting shepherd to each individual of his people. Zemlinsky's setting uses musical color to illustrate the text, such as the flowing oboe solo with its inevitable pastoral associations. He uses an exotic combination (percussion, celesta, glockenspiel, and two harps - King David was a "harp" player) every time an image of nature occurs. The polyphonic style of the choral writing is similar to Brahms' sacred music, although the harmonic language is more chromatic. Some of the melodic material derives from synagogue chants.
This beautiful choral work is about eleven minutes long, and was premiered on December 10, 1910.