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Sea Psalm

for male speaker and five male singers

Composition Date: 2008

Duration: 30'



Commissioned by Opus Anglicanum with funding from the Opus Anglicanum Trust, and first performed by them on June 8th 2008 in Glasgow Cathedral.

Programme Note:

Sea Psalm

The work takes as it’s starting point the hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save, and is constructed of fragments taken from the hymn, which then come together in a statement of two verses at the end.*

The text is a juxtaposition of Psalm 107 with an account of the sinking of HMS Duchess in 1939, from Sub-Lt J R Pritchard RNVR, only surviving officer. On 12 December 1939 HMS Duchess (Lt.Cdr. R.C.M. White, RN) was arriving in the Clyde escorting Barham. At 0400 hrs in the North Channel, 9 nm off Mull of Kintyre, at position 55.19 N, 06.06 W, possibly due to fog in the area, the zigzagging pattern of the Barham and Duchess crossed: Barham impacted the Duchess, cutting her in half. There were only 23 survivors of the 160 crew.

This was far from being a natural disaster; but the psalm reflects man’s vulnerability at sea. In the case of the sinking of HMS Duchess, there was no storm: the work highlights the helplessness of individuals in the relentless tide of war.

The setting of the psalm forms a refrain to the spoken account of the tragedy, which is delivered over a wash of wordless vocalise and whispers.

Sea Psalm was commissioned by Opus Anglicanum with funding from the Opus Anglicanum Trust, and first performed by them on June 8th 2008 in Glasgow Cathedral.

Sally Beamish 2008

The audience may be invited to join in the second verse.


I joined Duchess in the Med; she was on her way back from the China station. We were at Alex, at a party given by the Admiral and he said, we’ve had a signal, we’re at war.

They that go down to the sea in ships, and occupy their business in great waters;

These men see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.

Then at Gibraltar we were told ........on the way back we were run down by Barham. I’ve never told you about this have I? I didn’t want to........well you don’t want to talk of it; it was an accident really. Three of us D class were to escort Barham to Greenock. She was a battleship. Near to Glasgow, off the Clyde but well out to sea still. It was the middle of the night, all blacked out and zig-zagging you see. Submarines. So all of us charging about in the dark. I was Emergency Gunnery Control Officer that night and so had to sleep in the little cabin just below the bridge on the port side; the captain always sleeps starboard you see.

For at his word the stormy wind ariseth, which lifteth up the waves thereof.

They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep; their soul melteth away because of the trouble.

I was fast asleep then woken by a terrific bang. I.......... I knew the ship was going, you could just feel it. I ......well.... I came out of my cabin and the captain was banging on the door, his door had got jammed and he couldn't get out and was banging hard on the door, so I let him out and he went up the ladder to the bridge double quick and I followed, my nose right behind him quick as quick. As he came out on the bridge I heard him say 'What is it Sub? Oh its Barham', and that's all. The Sub-Lieutenant you see, he was officer of the watch, and I suppose.......because at that moment there was a terrific lurch to starboard, the Captain and the Sub and the others on the bridge just dropped away downwards as she lurched but I reached out .... just instinctively reached out my hand over....and got my arm over the comming of the bridge. You just knew she was going, you could feel it. A watchmen was there looking frightened ........ well..... I said 'Get your coat off and follow me', went over the bridge stepped onto B gun and dived into the water. I don’t know if he did.

They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end.

It was bitter cold and I was just wearing pyjamas. There was a chap swimming ...... it might have been the watchman.... I don't know, swimming with his paws, his hands, over a greatcoat, to give him buoyancy you see. And I said, Oh you’re here, good. It was very cold; it was December you know, and I’d only got on pyjamas. The ship just turned over and slid down..............and I heard, 'There's one here', and there was Barham’s whaler. They must have cleared her way very quick. I was hauled scraping myself over the side. That hurt. You see I had no clothes on, just pyjama trousers.

So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, he delivereth them out of their distress.

I was laid on the bottom boards and I think I passed out; but then there was a terrific explosion. The depth charges had gone up; at that stage in the war they were always set ready for action, and as the ship sank it reached the depth set and they went off. Very lucky I was in the boat by then or that would have been it. At the explosion I struggled to get up and out of the boat and I remember the bowman pushing me back down into the bottom of the whaler.

For he maketh the storm to cease, so that the waves thereof are still.

Then are they glad, because they are at rest; and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.

I must have passed out because the next thing I remember is the warmth and I was being supported by a sailor each side with my feet dragging along inside Barham, being taken to the sick bay. I was put in a bunk and felt so warm after the cold sea….The next thing was I sicked up all over the bunk and I remember apologising to the Chief sick berth attendant. It was the fuel oil I suppose.. He said don't worry about that, and I kept on apologising and eventually he said for God’s sake stop saying sorry. The next day we docked at Greenock and there was an enquiry. I was the only officer to have survived, and thirteen men out of the ships complement. I told them what I knew, told them my yarn.

For he maketh the storm to cease, so that the waves thereof are still.

Do you know, there were two men having an illicit bine, strictly against orders, no smoking on deck in the blackout. There was this chap, he was always in trouble, where ever there was something going on or some mischief he was sure to be in it; they were smoking just where Barham struck; the ship rolled over to port and as she went they stepped over the rail, walked the side as she rolled and on to Barham and never got their feet wet. At least that was their story.

We had nothing you know, and one chap lent me his spare suit so I was dressed as full lieutenant though I was only sub then. There was an enquiry the next morning at Greenock; well I was the only officer left, so I was there, telling my yarn, and the officers from Barham. The Admiral said to me, Barham could not have rolled you over, that's impossible, you imagined it.

Then are they glad, because they are at rest; and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.

Then I was told to take the surviving men, only thirteen, down to Chatham. She was a Chatham ship. We went on the train with travel warrants and meal tickets. I led them to the First Class dining car, and there were quite a lot of snooty glances you know, because the sailors were dressed in odd and borrowed clothing. One lady said to me, are they ours? I said to her, yes, they're ours. She said they look very untidy, so I said yes, they've been for a swim, and that was that.


Verse 1

Eternal Father strong to save

Whose arm doth bind the restless wave

Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

It’s own appointed limits keep

O hear us when we cry to thee

For those is peril on the sea

Verse 2

(with audience – optional)

O Saviour, whose almighty word

The winds and waves submissive heard,

Who walkedst on the foaming deep,

And calm amid its rage didst sleep;

O hear us when we cry to thees

For those in peril on the sea.


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