I first collaborated with Linda Bonney Olin in February of this year. Our setting of Psalm 8, “How Often in the Deep of Night” was part of my 2022 Psalm Collaboration project. I’m now coming back to some other texts she sent in February. Among them was “My Heart Is Sick.”
The song title certainly catches one’s attention. Though the title doesn’t sound as inspiring as, say, “Like a River Glorious,” there are plenty of times when our hearts are sick and we don’t feel glorious at all. The Psalmist is certainly experiencing one of those times in Psalm 102. The Psalm vacillates between utter despair (“I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears”) to hope in God’s unchanging love and ability to save.
As I began working with the text, I could hear waves of dissonance that mirrored the heart-sickness and longing of the Psalm. Indeed, many notes of this melody are dissonant against their accompanying chords. What keeps all this dissonance from descending into chaos is an undulating stepwise motive that is woven throughout the song. It’s surprisingly singable.
Of course, there’s no lily I’m unwilling to gild! As I wrote the piano part, I began to imagine what the song might sound like with an accompaniment of low strings instead. I finally gave in and wrote one. The score calls for a cello quartet, but I’m sure I could be convinced to re-score it for string orchestra if you asked nicely. On this demo, though, it is played by a quartet of basses played by yours truly. For those of you who are having a hard time imagining a quartet of low strings accompanying this Psalm, a demo of the piano accompaniment is below.
The tune is named DESERT OWL after the lonely nocturnal bird in verse 2.
1. My heart is sick, my body weak.
I’m starved to skin and bones.
My mouth, too full of dust to speak,
can utter only groans.
O God, my God, see my distress
and heed my wretched prayer,
for I am poor and powerless
without your gracious care.
2. As lonesome as a desert owl,
I lie awake, in tears.
Around me adversaries prowl,
with curses, taunts, and jeers.
And you, the God I have adored,
in anger shun me too.
Restore me to your presence, Lord,
to walk once more with you!
3. Our days on earth so swiftly pass,
like waves on restless seas.
We fade away like withered grass,
like smoke upon the breeze.
But you, O God, will always be,
eternally the same.
All generations, hear and see!
All people, praise God’s name!