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A Good Understanding (2005)

For Tim Brown & the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge & the Trebles of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York
SATB, trebles, percussion, organ

A Good Understanding was written for Tim Brown and the choir of Clare College, Cambridge with the generous cooperation of John Scott and the Boys of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. A Good Understanding, with texts culled from two psalms, was originally designed to share a program with Rutter’s expansive and expressive Mass of the Children. The piece unfolds episodically ““ short choral phrases alternating with longer instrumental interludes. The first half of the text is typical psaltry praise-making: outlining agreements, explaining the rules; the music is, accordingly, severe but practical. The second half of the text begins, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom / a good understanding have all they that do his commandments.” I find the idea of “a good understanding” to be an especially exciting reward for following the rules; the boys sing pulsed syllables and long descants to celebrate the covenant while the choir sings a lilting, repetitive refrain. – Nico Muhly

[audio:02 A Good Understanding.mp3]
Live Recording
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge & the Trebles of Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue
James McVinnie, organ
Tim Brown, conductor


The LORD reigneth; let the people tremble: he sitteth between the cherubims; let the earth be moved.

The LORD is great in Zion; and he is high above all the people.

Let them praise thy great and terrible name; for it is holy.

He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: they kept his testimonies, and the ordinance that he gave them.
(Psalm 99, 1-3, 7)

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.

(Psalm 111, 10)


  • Wow. . .so cool. . .this is really powerfull! It’s pretty terrifying even on my crappy computer speakers. . .

  • hey….. That piece is amazing …. but I just wanted to say It was soo fun working with you and I hope you come back to Iceland some time and work with us 😀

  • I agree with Ester. It was refreshing to work with such a talented guy like you here in Niceland. You´re one of the few contemporary composers who inspires my own compositions.

    Here is my Stabat Mater:

  • wonderful.

  • Thank goodness for The New Yorker or I may have never found out about you. I’m a food writer and have let my musical passions slide the past few years, but I’ve long been a fan of Steve Reich and Boulez and Henze and Brian Eno and David Bowie and Captain Beefheart and early music, particularly chorales. Your work is beautiful; your blog, a refreshing joy.
    Thank you.
    John Taylor

  • i was watching ‘joshua’ and noticed that the music was extremely well done. it really struck me that the composer wasn’t reducing contemporary music techniques to mere effects. there was an obvious understanding and display of control. thought i’d find out who was behind that music. glad i did. really beautiful stuff. you have an outstanding voice. cheers!

  • oh nico….

    i just wish
    i wasnt confined
    to Portland, OR.

    you dont come here
    often enough.


  • It would be good to re-record it so that I could actually get the organ part right!

    J x

  • This might seem a little out there, but this is my favourite choral piece to date. I totally had a musical orgasm at the “tse tse tse tse tse tse” bit. Or what sounded like “tse”. Thanks, Nico. A huge inspiration and wonder to listen to.