Finney's Pilgrim Psalms

Pilgrim Psalms

The Harvard Choruses released the first commercial recording of Ross Lee Finney's Pilgrim Psalms in the Fall of 2016. Copies of this album are available for purchase from Amazon and iTunes, or directly from our student groups at Harvard Choruses concerts. Information about Pilgrim Psalms and two other Finney tracks on the CD ("Immortal Autumn" and "Words to Be Spoken") is below.

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Ross Lee Finney was born in Wells, Minnesota in 1906 into a family that cultivated a lifelong interest in American history and music. By the age of twelve, Finney had distinguished himself as a musician, barnstorming small communities in the Midwest as a cellist in a string trio, playing alongside his two brothers. In 1924, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, studying composition with Donald Ferguson. Finney would transfer to Carleton College where, after graduating, he briefly taught cello and music history. After a year in Europe performing in a jazz band to subsidize his study with the master teacher Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Finney returned to the United States in 1928 to teach at the Tilton School for Boys in New Hampshire.

During his short time at Tilton, Finney regularly traveled some eighty miles south to study at Harvard with composers Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960) and Walter Spalding (1865-1962). The precocious composer had mixed feelings about his time in Cambridge, writing to his brother that he had “almost uncontrollable hatred for the academic nonsense around here,” and “Harvard ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” At age 22, Finney was appointed to the faculty at Smith College where he met his wife Gretchen, herself a distinguished scholar of 17th-century English literature and music. In 1942, Ross Lee developed and taught one of the first academic courses dedicated to American music. Year laters, he wrote:

During the mid-thirties there was a growing feeling that the United States should isolate itself from the political tensions in Europe. One effort of this hysteria was an increased emphasis on American history. A younger group of faculty wanted to organize an inter-departmental American studies degree program. I did the course in music, as best I could...To teach a course on “Music in America” was much harder in the 1930s. There were few recordings, few scores, and only a few studies...I had to get out my guitar and remember the songs I had sung as a child and learn a few that I had not known. Digging out Waldo Selden Pratt’s Music of the Pilgrims, I learned to sing several of the Psalms with my guitar and I made the class sing psalms and choral works by Billings from scores projected onto the blackboard... It was fun to teach, but a little unorthodox. I suppose now no good university would be without a course on music in America.

Indeed, a revival of interest in early American music swept the country beginning in the 1930s. Later, during the Second World War, schoolteachers taught democratic values and national pride through song and performing arts organizations, government funding agencies, broadcast radio and others advanced American pride and principles through a renewed appreciation, and appropriation, of early sources. Among these included the hymnody of the 17th-century, the composer William Billings (1746-1800), and the music of the Revolutionary War.

As scholar Annegret Fauser writes, “[the] musical models from the Revolution served a dual function: they embodied a preclassical sound world because of their modal texture, and they grounded this idiom in a foundational period of American history...the American Revolution gained considerable currency both as historical evidence of genuinely American creativity in art music and as nativist inspiration for contemporary composition.”

While teaching his trailblazing course in American music, Finney had discovered the tunes of the Ainsworth Psalter from Waldo Selden Pratt’s 1921 collection, The Music of the Pilgrims: A Description of the Psalm-book brought to Plymouth in 1620. Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622) was an English Nonconformist clergyman and scholar of Hebrew who fled to Amsterdam from England in 1593. His Book of Psalmes: Englished both in Prose and Metre transcribed and translated tunes from contemporary French and English Psalters for his English-speaking congregation of religious exiles in Amsterdam. The Plymouth colonists brought the Psalter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. Soon, the Ainsworth Psalter was superseded by the Bay Psalm Book of 1636, the first book published in British North America.

Finney channeled his engagement with the Ainsworth Psalter into a modernist musical idiom, developing an elaborate choral work that set individual psalm tunes “planned so as to distribute the performance between different school groups.” He ultimately created a suite of fifteen compositions, entitled Pilgrim Psalms, based on the Ainsworth melodies. The Pilgrim Psalms consist of movements for a variety of choral voicings, both a cappella and accompanied by organ, as well as two organ interludes, and a final number enlisting the audience. In Finney’s cantata, all the Psalms retain the archaic spelling of their original English texts.

Having nearly completed the work, Finney was drafted into military service in 1943, where he worked for the Office of Strategic Services in Europe. During one of his journeys, he stepped on a land mine and was struck in the back by a shell fragment, later receiving the Purple Heart and a Certificate of Merit for his service. He continued work on the Pilgrim Psalms during the war, writing to his brother that “it is to be a work of several pieces – each piece a setting of a Psalm from the Ainsworth Psalter using the one tune as a basis but setting them for mixed chorus in a very free manner, sort of like a choral prelude... I have never gotten a greater kick out of working. Time seems too short.”

The Pilgrim Psalms reveals Finney’s mastery of compositional economy and craft. He embellishes these early 17th-century tunes with a variety of dexterous techniques: mode-mixture, polychoral antiphony, quartal harmony, theme and variation, bitonality, mixed meter, textural variety, polyphony and counterpoint, ostinato, and other principles. Though he treats the tunes with subtle sophistication and varied artifice, Finney maintains an essential clarity, naturalness, and accessibility in the work. “Simplicity is something natural to my background,” he reflected about his style at the time, “complexity has no virtue to me.”


Pilgrim Psalms was premiered on June 2, 1946 at the Cornell University Festival of Contemporary American Arts. John Kuypers led the first performance with Cornell’s Sage Chapel Choir and Festival Orchestra in a version of the work for strings and brass.

Like many of his contemporaries in the postwar United States, Finney would eventually veer away from nationalistic works and move towards serialism. “The rampant nationalism that I had witnessed in Europe, and loathed, almost erased my interest in Americana,” he later explained. “It became clear to me that the quotation of folksongs in my compositions could result in a trivial procedure that destroyed my musical intention... The experiences during the war made me feel the need of an expanded musical vocabulary, and gradually I turned to a more chromatic statement.”

"Words to Be Spoken" appears in Modern Canons, a collection of thirty-eight contemporary short compositions published in 1947 that includes entries by Alberto Ginastera, Paul Hindemith, Vincent Persichetti, Hanns Eisler, Randall Thompson, and others. Finney sets a very short four-part canon in D-minor that concludes with a homophonic coda. MacLeish had dedicated the poem to the memory of Baoth Wiborg Murphy, a young boy who died in 1935 of meningitis at the age of 16. Baoth was the son MacLeish’s close friends, the wealthy Jazz Age socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy. MacLeish described the couple as “sort of a nexus with everything that was going on,”particularly in the expatriate community living in the south of France in the 1920s that included MacLeish, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and others.

"Immortal Autumn" was written for an International Contemporary Music Festival at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952. The piece was premiered by the Heinz Chapel Choir under the directions of Professor Theodore Finney, Ross Lee’s brother and a longtime choral conductor at the University of Pittsburgh. Immortal Autumn is scored for mixed chorus, tenor solo, and organ and, like the movements in the Pilgrim Psalms, is based on a preexisting melody that Finney had sung in his youth. “Oh lovely appearance of Death” is a hymn from the “the great awakening” movement in 19th-century American evangelical Christianity. In Immortal Autumn, Finney shrewdly disguises the hymn tune by composing it backwards, in retrograde – a serial technique. Like many of his contemporaries in the postwar United States, Finney would veer away from nationalistic works and move towards serialism. “The rampant nationalism that I had witnessed in Europe, and loathed, almost erased my interest in Americana,” he later explained. “It became clear to me that the quotation of folksongs in my compositions could result in a trivial procedure that destroyed my musical intention...The experiences during the war made me feel the need of an expanded musical vocabulary, and gradually I turned to a more chromatic statement.”

In 1949, Finney began a long and illustrious tenure at the University of Michigan as professor of music and composer-in-residence. There, he mentored a group of gifted composers, including William Albright, Roger Reynolds, and George Crumb, among others. He would go on to write several books and compose numerous eclectic works. He was the recipient of the Brandeis Medal (1968), two honorary degrees, commissions from the Coolidge and Koussevitzky foundations, and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962. Finney died in Carmel, California in 1997 at the age of 90.