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Crystal Ball, Apr-May 17

Crystal Ball

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

Note: Another bulletin for South Woden members. Scroll down for weekly posts.

  • Psalm leaders are needed for this whole period.
  • Assuming leaders follow the Revised Common Lectionary and want to sing a psalm, here are weekly suggestions for April and May. 
  • For remaining Sundays in March, refer to the previous Crystal Ball.

2 Apr. Sinead’s chorus Out of the depths, with paraphrased verses to fit the song, will serve us well for Psalm 130. Jo leads us as usual in this song. Backing singers please, ladies and girls.

9 Apr. Liturgies are:

  1. Palms: Psalm 118, for which The Building Block by Paul Stookey is suitable.
  2. Passion: Psalm 31. PFAS 31C is a favourite that we have sung many times.

16Apr. Depending on the chosen liturgy, Psalm 118 and that building block come up again. A handy alternative is Together in Song 74.

23 Apr. Psalm 16. At this point three years ago, PFAS 16D was sung; it would be a fine choice again. (An enthusiastic quartet could also turn their attention to the Lassus motet, Benedicam Domino, three pages of nice SATB. All quite moderate and not too demanding … until the alto has a moment:ps16-lassus-moment

30 Apr. (John S in the lead.) In Dropbox sit two settings of Psalm 116: one is the PFAS version 116D, sung at Yarralumla as a small group three years ago. (Available but not published here for copyright reasons.) The second is for male voices in Eastern Orthodox style with chanted verses, enjoying the experimentation of harmonies changing under a lead voice on a monotone. PDF file here: Ps116 Orth.)

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

7 May. Psalm 23 arises again. Recommend a reprise of Paul Kelly’s Meet me in the middle of the air. If the team are available from singing El señor es mi pastor, PFAS 23I, a month ago, why not enjoy that again? If not, there are ten other settings in PFAS and dozens elsewhere.

14 May. Over the last few years for Psalm 31 we have used an excellent refrain from Psalms for All Seasons, 31C. Written by AnnaMae Meyer Bush, its four short phrases capture much of the wisdom of the Psalter: “My times are in your hands. You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” Additionally, it’s worth a little rehearsal to learn the second (lower) echo part which adds to the musical delight.

21 May. PFAS again offers a good choice for Psalm 66, Cry out to God in joy, PFAS 66A. In our ‘red book’ TiS 36, All you nations sing out by Lucien Deiss, is a neglected but good alternative if you have a few singers who can read or learn the verses.

28 May. Psalm 68, which is akin to the previous week’s 66 in asking nations to sing with joy, concludes this two-month period of the web-master’s absence, posts having been scheduled long ago.

  • The setting in TiS 38 requires a sight-reader for the verses and some rehearsal,
  • PFAS has a possible responsorial setting in 68B.
  • Perhaps easier is a home-grown refrain that can be sung as a round (second entry, if only two parts, is at bar 3; or every bar if bravely designating more parts), the verses being chanted to a tone of choice (there are bunches of them in NCH and PFAS). We have sung this with the children:

ps68-refrainbol

Psalm 130, 2 April 2017

This psalm is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). It’s also the sixth of seven penitential psalms: not that it matters greatly, as the idea of ascent captures the imagination more powerfully. The song is a statement of the mystery not only of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations, but also of our access to grace. The first verses, if you have not already looked it up, get right to it. In Sinead’s version:

Whales off Bribie

Whales playing off Bribie Island

Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; don’t let my cries for mercy be ignored.

Arising from the depths surely adds a new dimension to ‘ascent’. The poem recognises that despite our efforts and capacity for good, we will never reach divine standards in behaviour or nature. The psalmist just waits upon God ‘more than those who watch for the morning’, trusting that divine power will bless with hope (v. 5), love (v. 7) and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; vv. 7, 8). Turn up this text next time you are in the doldrums.

Life in many places has often been pretty rough over the years; people fight, wars arise over land, resources or power grabs. Days are very dark for ordinary people feeling the consequences of conflict. When things fall apart like that, community rulers try new ways of patching them up and preventing recurrence.

Schwych CharterThe charter shown here is one such attempt. It’s a page of a 16th century Book of Alliances of Schwyz, in the middle of Switzerland, a transcript of an earlier treaty between confederations or cantons, the Sempach Charter of 10 July 1393. This document sought peace by agreeing that military force would only be used in defence against external threat not between the valley communities. Amongst other things, it laid down rules of conduct:

Feuds are prohibited between the confederates and unity should reign in all military campaigns. The proceeds of war must be divided, monasteries and women spared. Plundering is only permitted after victory.

All well and good — as long as you are the victor!  On the whole, however, treaties don’t have a great track record. They look good but are often ignored in the interests of expediency, greed or control. At such times, the common people suffer again and again. (The celebrated Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary slipped by recently, left an important marker for human rights. But the treaty itself was much repealed within a few decades.) No wonder the writers of the psalms were doubtful about trusting in princes (Psalm 118) or great armies (Psalm 33). This psalm provides quite a different focus. The peoples’ cry from the depths continues:

Hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications… For there is hope of steadfast love and forgiveness. (verses 2-4)

The tone of the psalm thus encourages confidence in divine forgiveness and help. However, it wisely counsels patience:

My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning (v.6)

Music

Verse 1 delivers such a strong image that it features prominently in many of the songs and antiphons associated with Psalm 130:

  • In PFAS, for instance, six of seven suggested music options are titled in those words or the idea. (The first by the way, 130A, goes back to one by Martin Luther in 1524.)
  • In the hymn book TiS No 81 for Psalm 130 begins the verses the same way, but chooses the theme of mercy and redemption for the antiphon. It’s quite a nice setting and should not be overlooked.
  • A favourite version by Sinead O’Connor works well, lending itself to a solo or supported singer presenting words more closely following the psalm text than the Sinead song. Her opening lines quoted above make a good responsive refrain.

Classical settings abound for the enthusiastic choir or quartet. Michael Praetorius alone wrote more than ten motets drawing on this text. JS Bach, Des Prez, Lassus, Sweelinck, Tallis, Wesley, Weelkes … the list of rich pickings goes on. Again, many of these composers were obviously captivated by the imagery of those first few verses, imagining what ‘Out of the depths’ might really look like. Whatever works.

Psalm 23, 26 March and 7 May ’17

IMG_1067The Shepherd psalm arises again in another of its frequent appearances.

Following the desolation of Psalm 22 (“Why have you forsaken me?”), the restoration and peace in this the next psalm is a comfort. How sweet is resolution after a time of conflict, oppression or depression. The Psalter does not say ‘No pain, no gain’. This would be inconsistent with the concept of grace. But its songs often reflect on the coexistence of suffering and joy, and the power of divine love to transform one into the other:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. (Ps 23:4)

This poem in many minds may be irrevocably tied to Jessie Irving’s famous tune CRIMOND (TiS 10). However, many other fine choices are available to the enterprising music group, while still respecting the much-loved phrases of this psalm. One excellent choice to sing tranquillamente is a setting in the beautiful Spanish language from Psalms for All Seasons 23I, written in 1975 by Ricardo Villarreal. The people’s refrain is as follows: “El Señor es mi pastor; nada me puede faltar / My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.” This is sung in G minor, the root chord alternating with its dominant seventh D7. The verses, best sung with feeling by a small group (in South Woden in recent years it has often been by male voices) slip into the related major key of Bb, before quite rapidly modulating smoothly back to that G minor again. Neat and effective. (It’s a powerful but not unusual progression, similar to the attractive pattern in Show me which way to go which we encounter with Psalm 32, though the changes come in a different sequence.)

Some other modern settings follow:

  • If building a Spanish theme, Santo santo, an anonymous tune from Argentina which may be found in TiS 723 would nicely supplement this psalm as incidental music.
  • TiS also has a Gelineau setting at No. 11
  • PFAS offers ten other settings including a t wo-part responsorial setting by Marty Haugen at 23G
  • Carolyn Jennings in NCH uses verse 2 in a simple singable melody and harmony for the refrain. Choose your own tone for the verses.
  • Finally, don’t overlook the great Paul Kelly song Meet me in the middle of the air, which draws on Psalm 23 and I Thess.4:17. Lovely song, good harmony.

Tempting classical music for contemplation includes J S Bach‘s canatata BWV112 based on this psalm. One short section, 112e which is verse 5 for example, would grace any worship gathering. Another nice setting for a trio is Der Herr ist meine Hirte, by G P Telemann.

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, Psalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

William Shakespeare, who died around 400 years ago, was around and writing when the Authorised or King James Version was prepared and published (1611, also the year when Tomás Luis Victoria died). Despite some speculation about the words ‘shake’ and ‘spear’ appearing in Psalm 46, there’s no known connection between the writings of Bard and Bible. The purposes and intended audiences of William and David were quite different. How fortunate we are, though, to have two such rich contributions to our heritage, culture and literature.

Psalm 95, 19 Mar 17

This psalm rewards the reader with new dimensions upon each reading. The first half starts with a song, indeed a shout, of praise and thanks to the creator of a fantastic world; and not just any old song but:

let us come before God with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout with psalms (v. 3)

Writing a psalm that urges us to sing psalms seems a bit like blowing your own trumpet; but we assume many of these songs were familiar as part of the culture of the children of Israel from the days of the exile in Egypt.

Wilderness

So the song dips back in time to remind the reader of those trying days in the wilderness that form the backdrop to Lent, after Pharaoh let the people go – into freedom from slavery, sure, but also into the wilds, deserts and privations. When read in Lent, the preceding Old Testament reading is from Exodus 17, the people complaining of their wilderness thirst. Similarly, Australia’s heartlands can be both impressive and fearsome. The psalmist goes on to remind us that trials and hardships pass; do not to take the short view, for in the long run we shall find peace. The song is an encouragement not just to be thankful but also to be humble and not to ‘harden our hearts’. (v.8)

Praetorius

Books of psalms, Michael Praetorius

Music

TiS. Two lively options for Psalm 95 are available in ‘the red book’:

  • TiS 52 is “Let us sing to the God of salvation” (Most rollicking songs like this had a corrupt version doing the rounds of the camp-site or youth group. What was your version of this one: “Give me unction in my gumption let me function“?)
  • TiS 53 is the Calypso Carol.

TEP. A simple refrain from The Emergent Psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice: “Come let us sing, let us shout for joy”. The tune is lightly syncopated but the ‘inside’ harmony is remarkably sedate for Mr Everett: I-IV-I in E major. However, he resolves in the last cadence to an E minor on the assumption that verses will be spoken with a backing vamp. Sung verses might well demand the Em tonality but this should be optional as it will depend on the chosen tone.

PFAS. Three settings in this source invite attention:

  • The first, 95C (Come let us sing), is a chant by William Boyce in the form of an unusually long double tone. This would suit more traditional tastes very nicely. While the harmonies are not adventurous, it can be sung in SATB to rich effect.
  • Over the page, PFAS 95E (O that today) is a lilting tune in E minor by Andrew Moore, with a choice of two tones for the verses. A couple of features make this refrain attractive. First, it flows up and down nicely to finish on the tonic major. Next, both bass note and chord sequence follow a loose stepping pattern down then up, in either a single or double-step (thirds) fashion. This means little when written thus but the musical effect is pleasing. You have to be there.
  • Finally, an oboe descant part featured in “Let not your hearts be hardened” at 95I promises a nice song, including refrain and sung verses.

For the more adventurous, a swag of classical setting of 95 may be found in the public domain, including a smaller but still impressive swag of tunes from a shoe-maker, Thomas Clark (1775 – 1859). Clark, who according to his obituary “received but a scanty education, but was an incessant reader”, was also an incessant composer. You get the picture when, while scanning page upon page of titles by this director of music in Canterbury, the eye falls on A Twelfth set of Psalm Tunes. Being in the form of rather conservative hymns, they do not earn a prominent place in our repertoire.

Elsewhere in the big swag, a piece by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), impressively entitled “Venite exultemus Domino: In festo Natalis Resurrectionis Ascensionis” (being the incipit followed by a direction on seasonal usage), is remarkable for its arrangement for nine parts in three trios. Each voice was published in 1607 as a separate book (see illustration). As is his way, he directs that these parts may be for voices, instruments or organs.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius. Danish Royal Library.

Psalm 121, 12 March 2017

Mt Taylor

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. (v.1)

Or so went this familiar line from Psalm 121 in that old dusty King James version on the top shelf somewhere. This is the second of the songs of ascent (120 to 134). Originating perhaps as pilgrimage songs, the psalms of ascent depict the journey figuratively, a rising access to a higher plane. This rising ground is reminiscent of Psalm 15: “Who may abide on the holy hill?”   The answer in verse 2 (“My help comes from God, maker of heaven and earth“) prepares the ground for an assurance of protection in the last four verses of the song: “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (6) The moon? Remember that in ancient times the physical arrangement of the heavens was little understood and subject to much speculative superstition.

Music

The innovation prize goes to Isaac Everett who suggests using Help! by John Lennon of The Beatles. This would work well as an antiphon. Definitely not in the King James tradition, but a great idea if you are feeling brave – and have your own in-house rockers. For the less adventurous:

  • Everett in TEP also provides a refrain by Lacey Brown that looks quite tricky to learn but would settle into a groove. Unusually, the text is not actually taken from the psalm but the theme is certainly there, depicting the singer looking around for help.
  • The second of two settings of Psalm 121 found in Together in Song, No 77 offers other attractions (the first, 76 is a Ravenscroft hymn from the Scottish Psalter, 1615.) Responsive participation by both the lead voice(s) and people are neatly woven into a paraphrase and music setting by John Bell. Cantors may lift their eyes to the beauty of hills seen and unseen by singing the first two lines in the book, the people responding accordingly. That theme of protection and safety permeates this song.
  • PFAS 121D, amongst the nine choices for 121 in this excellent psalter, is a good responsorial setting. The refrain music, with attractive harmony changes (Dm-C-Eb7#11-D7#9-Gm-G-Bb7 …  sumptuous harmony shifts and chord extensions), is well worth a look.
  • NCH has a simple refrain: “My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”
  • Michael Card has also written a nice anthem on this text, words in Hebrew, with phonetic transliteration, and English. (© Birdwing Music 1990)

Psalm 32, 5 March 2017

Psalm 32 is one of the psalms of penitence (the second after Ps. 6; this theme takes up the first half of the song), but also of refuge — “You are my hiding-place” (vv. 6 -7). Then it changes direction, breaks into other riffs of guidance or wisdom (8-9) and finally thanksgiving. Of the seven traditional penitentials, David in this song is particularly conscious of personal failings, confession and forgiveness. A tweet by Ben Myers summarising the psalms captured it cleverly with a positive twist:

Psalm 32: When I finally got the courage to confess my sins, I discovered You weren’t even listening. You were singing to me. #psalmtweets

A woman’s touch

Ideas herein other than penitence are worth consideration. Never far from the psalmists’ pens are thoughts of refuge, wisdom and guidance. Sometimes, refuge is presented as a shelter from violent conflict. Here, David says: “You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble”, (verse 7) then goes on to relish divine guidance, (8) and understanding. (9) More often in the highways and byways, relief from hunger, poverty, oppression and homelessness are far more relevant. There’s no vector in this psalm to point us directly to International Women’s Day which will be celebrated about the time this psalm arises in the Lectionary. However, women have often been primary agents for refuge and guidance to the young, penitents and destitute over the centuries.

Beguinale, Brussels

The psalms give little prominence to women. However they do recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (22:9, 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. This includes the provision of shelter and care (22:9-10) as beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in older European cities. Psalm 131 sounds as though its author may well have been a woman. Her experience of the divine is described as relating directly to a mother rather than father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

On the other hand, the psalms omit some courageous women when equivalent male prophets are mentioned by name (Miriam in Ps. 99). Pity, but perhaps this just reflects the pattern of other records and writings in those early cultures when men wrote the poetry, policy and history. This is no reason to discount this ancient poetry. An inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

Music

Modern sources (other than TiS, whose setting in No 20 can not be recommended for its hymn format and dated language and style) recognise that ‘Penitential’ is just a label obscuring many more varied ideas which, while not overtly feminist, support themes of strength, nurturing, guidance and shelter:

  • Psalms for All Seasons suggests You are my hiding place, which many more demonstrative groups will enjoy.
  • The guidance thread in verse 8 emerges in The Emergent Psalter, a very memorable and lilting Isaac Everett antiphon that will easily conjure up a mother’s watchful coaching: “Show me which way to go, counsel me with your eye upon me.” Everett has the chords slipping easily from minor to relative major sequences and back again in a short space.
  • NCH, commended for its broadly inclusive approach, offers a simple antiphon from a woman’s pen (Emma Lou Diemer, 1994) that emphasises surrounding love.

If a few good sight-readers are available, two short trios are worth a look:

Ps32Lassus

  • Orlando di LassoDixi confitebor, verse 5 only; starts simply but becomes more complex; an excerpt is shown in the illustration. Readers may recall that Lassus wrote a famous and much more ambitious set of Penitential Psalms, including this one.
  • Thomas Tomkins, Blessed is he, verses 1 and 2.

Note for SWUC: no sung psalm as we enjoy a Shaker song, ‘Simple gifts’.

Psalm 2, 26 Feb17

Psalm 2 complements the first psalm as a joint introduction to the Psalter with the assurance that the divine Spirit, with inevitably associated moral and behavioural constructs inferred from the Torah, is supreme above temporal rulers of the world. While this theme has ancient roots in the stories of creation and the establishment of the tribes of Israel, it also has a very modern message, as:

… nations conspire and people plot in vain; the rulers of the earth set themselves and leaders take counsel together … ‘Let us break their yoke, let us cast their cords from us’. (v.1-3)

Rulers then and now conspire to throw off the ‘bonds’ or ‘yoke’ of benevolence, truth and justice. There is a lot to be said for separation of church and state, especially given human tendencies to bend religious dogma for selfish purposes, power or control. That is not the same as governments ignoring or running counter to ethics and values recognised by humanists, Christianity and most major religions of the world. Does it matter that leaders base decisions and policies on ‘alternative facts’, declare history false, or ignore the law? Of course it does. Words have consequences, sometimes quite unpredicted and unintended. People without power suffer.

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

Maps drawn by the great navigators of the seventeenth century show how spheres of influence and fiefdoms spread around the world. Planted flags and place names reveal just a little of the manoeuvring and politics of exploration and possession, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes in that of nationalism, empire or commerce. Today, rulers change or ignore constitutions to gain or stay in power, use or abuse the church according to their ends, and take little heed of any moral compass. The psalm is a good reminder to dictators and democracies alike.

In amongst the sheep going astray, feeding of the flock and the hallelujahs of The Messiah by George Frederic Händel (1685 to 1759, a contemporary of J S Bach), behold this psalm text turns up in full force. Handel inserted some of this rage into his oratorio in a bass solo air Why do the nations? (quoting v.1), and the furious chorus Let us break their bonds asunder (v. 3). This latter is one of the show-stoppers, sometimes omitted since it’s not an easy sing when taken at full gallop.

Such atmospherics are nevertheless appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday, for which this psalm is scheduled. But Händel’s great music is not a likely choice for a light Sunday morning antiphon. Fortunately, much easier responses are to be found in modern sources (although there is no setting in TiS).

  • PFAS 2D is a simple tune. Two refrain text are provided. The first (“You are my son …”) is only relevant when associated with the Transfiguration. The alternative general text (“The Lord is King, with trembling bow in worship”) is a good admonition for wayward leaders, but may engage neither the average listener nor singer.
  • However, PFAS also recognises the turbulence and danger of the situation and provides both a ‘Dramatised reading‘ (2B) and a ‘Liturgy for Responsible Exercise of Authority‘ (2E). This latter title sounds a rather cumbersome but there’s no doubting it’s right on theme.A light burden
  • Another in The New Century Hymnal by Carolyn Jennings has much milder but more comforting words from the final phrase (v. 12) which refers us back in full circle to the beginning in Psalm 1: “Happy are all who take refuge in God”, whose bonds, according to Matthew 11: 30 and another chorus in The Messiah, are anything but onerous: “My yolk is easy and my burden is light.”
  • Everett’s singable refrain in TEP notes that the rulers of the world have set themselves against God.

Note: The alternative Lectionary reading is Psalm 99. For commentary on this song, please review the post on 7 Feb 2016.