Make Me to Know the Measure of My Days


A haunting meditation on mortality, to text of the 39th psalm.  The sopranos open the piece on a beautiful modal melody, with smoothly flowing harmonic support from the lower voices.  Textural interest increases with the second verse as all parts take up the text in their unfolding lines.  A new sonic “vista” opens in the third verse, as an insistent ostinato in the men’s parts undergirds the alto’s rich delivery of the melody and the soprano descant above, culminating in a dramatic peak.  After an interlude allows the intensity to settle, the original material returns, bringing the piece to an introspective, compelling close. (Alternate text: A Coventry Carol)

A licensed copy is required for each member performing.



You never know what moment will call forth a new melody.  I was on a Peace Studies trip to Brazil in January of 1993, and we were staying at an old convent on the edge of a rainforest area.  Formerly bustling with life, the large compound was now used only by a few elderly nuns, and — an image I can’t forget — a small band of scarlet macaws that enjoyed their back garden.

I had brought a tin whistle with me, knowing I’d be far from pianos on the trip, and found a great acoustic in a now-unused dining hall, filled with old wooden tables and long benches, dusty and stacked atop each other. On one wall, I happened to notice an original “fine art” painting hanging there, depicting Jesus and John at the Last Supper.  As I walked up close, I couldn’t help but wonder about the painter behind this hidden gem of an artpiece, which seemed to vulnerably express how moving the tenderness of this intimate friendship was to him/her.

The strangely exotic yet familiar setting, with macaws of the jungle and nuns of the convent, combined with the soulful painting — that somehow seemed to radiate with feeling into that quiet room after years of being unseen — to put me in an unusual, receptive mood.  I began to play the tin whistle, and out came a haunting modal melody, true to the mystery of the moment.

I wrote it down when I returned home, but left it at that.  A number of years later, wanting to set it for choir, I found a psalm that caught my ear: Isaac Watts’ rendering of Psalm 39.  Its opening line was “Teach me the measure of my days,” which I adapted, needing two additional syllables to fit the tune (and gaining alliteration in the bargain): “Make me to know the measure of my days.”  I also discovered that, with a few similar syllabic additions, the traditional text of “Coventry Carol” would also fit the pensive mood of the tune.

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SATB a cappella

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