Britten composed the Psalms between July and December 1931 while he was at the Royal College of Music. He revised them shortly after, completing the revisions in January 1932. While they were never performed in the composer's lifetime, the psalms were well-regarded by both Britten (according to comments in his diaries at the time) and by others he consulted about them. He took them to composition lessons with John Ireland on at least one occasion, and also discussed them with Herbert Howells who gave him encouraging comments. In February 1932 Britten showed them to Vaughan Williams, who attempted several times to get them performed, but with no success. In May 1932 he submitted them, along with Phantasy Quintet in F minor (Jan-Feb 1932), in support of his application for the Mendelssohn Scholarship at the Royal College of Music (the application was unsuccessful, although he was awarded £50 by the scholarship committee in order not to 'discourage' him from composing).
The psalms are scored for full orchestra and chorus and are among the most substantial works Britten composed while at the Royal College. They are the only large-scale works for chorus and orchestra composed in this period: the next work for comparable forces is Ballad of Heroes, written in 1937.
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