Psalm 40

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year, is a rich and captivating poem, said to be by David. It begins with patience, awe, thanks and song:

God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. God put a new song in my mouth.

The poem continues with the image of a parent stooping to hear and comfort a child. It then evolves like a harbinger of Mary’s song the Magnificat, before concluding with a prayer, repeated in Psalm 70 and elsewhere, for continued blessing.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

Antiphon for Psalm 39 (40) in an English Psalter, early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83 f35r.

Choose your antiphons

Responsive refrains are often drawn from a key verse in the psalm being sung, or a related or derivative text from other biblical references.

The beautiful early manuscript of the Howard Psalter in the British Library, digitised and illustrated here, reveals an interesting departure from the practice of using a verse of the psalm being sung. It takes a little unravelling. Those familiar with Latin and the medieval scribes’ habits of abbreviation in manuscripts will have a head start.

Here is my take. The decorated text at the top of the page is the final verse of the Psalm 40, the rest of the psalm appearing on the previous page:

Adjutor meus et protector meus tu es; Deus meus, ne tardaveris / Thou art my helper and redeemer: make no long tarrying, O my God. (Ps.40:17, BCP)

Then the music is appended, with its ‘antiphona‘ heading, in square notes on a four-line C clef. A close look reveals that the second staff casually switches to an F clef. That must have kept the monks alert.

Illustration from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter 13C. BL MS 21926 F66v

Illuminated capital and text of Ps 38 from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter 13C. BL MS 21926 f66v

Now what about the words underlying the music? First, the small ‘a‘ in the last line is a kind of pointing, a cue for alternating responses by groups, or answering a priest or cantor. You will not find the antiphon words in this psalm. The fist phrase, starting with the tall decorated ‘U’ and up to that a, is borrowed from the previous Psalm 38:2 (in the Vulgate; our 39:1):

Ut non delinquam in lingua mea / (I will take heed to my ways) that I offend not in my tongue

[These words also appear in the next illustration.]

Then, the last little phrase beginning with a fancy S looks extraordinarily like a much abbreviated quote from the next sequential Psalm 40:5 (our 41:4):

Sana animam meam Domine / Lord, heal my soul

Reaching out thus to neighbouring psalms may have been intended to help learning and to reinforce the continuity of the Psalter. Whether coincidentally or deliberately, both of these quotes from the preceding and following psalms happen to begin with Dixi / I said.

Later …

Leaping forward a century or two to 1564, Claude Goudimel writing in middle French stuck to the text of Psalm 40. Lassus (1585) then Mendelssohn (19th century) both wrote nice four-part inventions on the opening verses that they probably regarded as modest affairs. In the Lassus work, that Latin phrase ‘I waited patiently for God’ appears as the tasty title Expectans Expectavi.

And finally …

To the present day: the three songs in Psalms for All Seasons and Together in Song No. 23 all use those same opening verses. Everett in The Emergent Psalter goes for verse quoted above. Pointing out how much they make of two chords, he also urges consideration of the chorus of U2’s song “40”. Listen:

Psalm 81, 28 Aug ’16

Psalmist Asaph begins by casting into a shimmering spotlight some energising phrases:Lyre player, AlteNatGal

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the merry harp and the lyre. Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon, and at the full moon (v.1, 3)

Then this touch of mystery:

I hear a voice I had not known: “I eased your shoulder from the burden You called on me in trouble and I saved you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder and tested you at the waters of Meribah” (vs. 5-7)

Asaph was one psalm writer who knew his history and used it in his songs. Whether today’s reader knows the background or not, the poetry sparks thought, dreaming, soaring imagination and hope.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Meribah, for example, refers to a real historical event  (disputation, angst and water from the rock; Num. 20). Knowing the history helps. If not, you just say: “Some secret, ancient or holy places, I imagine.” One can still feel the warmth of being in the company of a great cloud of witnesses, hopeful humanity, whoever they are.


The upbeat refrain in The Emergent Psalter (Everett notes: “This antiphon sounds great with power chords and a little distortion”) uses that mysterious verse 5 quoted above.

Psalms for All Seasons has a small clutch of offerings that most musicians would relish. Like the phrases already mentioned, they seem to display a theatrical bent:

  • 81A Sing with joy, antiphonal, with solo and tutti voices and verses to a tone; words and music traditional Malawian
  • 81B Strike up the music! with a quiet ostinato of ‘Hear my voice’ behind the reading of the verses (and an added flute part)
  • 81C in hymn style, and therefore not our choice, but interestingly breaks for ‘a reading of the law’.

Predictably, that opening call to raise a joyful song and blow the ram’s horn captured several classical composers such as Byrd (two setting for 5 and 6 voices), Hassler, Palestrina (again à5) and Scarlatti (SATB).

[PS. This is the 200th post. 150 psalms, and still 17 ‘un-blogged’.]

Psalm 83

Horse and chariot carvingThis psalm, last of the songs by Asaph, is a historically informed (that’s Asaph for you) prayer for action against evil. Well, it’s actually against Israel’s enemies; but it’s hard to take a prayer for violent destruction of opponents too literally in the politically correct twenty-first century. It’s just as hard not to look at it as unreconstructed in the face of the new commandments of love. After many verses of indignant anger, Asaph in verse 16 takes a missionary turn and trusts that enemies will eventually acknowledge God — a rule of love, a peaceful world and such?

For these reasons, Psalm 83 is a skip (not in the Lectionary) and why I’d skip it too. Why find tuneful ways to string together seventeen names of people and tribes from millenia ago, the character and significance of which are largely irrelevant to most of us?

Settings both classical and contemporary are few and far between — surprise! One musical interpretation appears in Psalms for All Seasons. Even then the notes say: ‘Sing angrily’ — and it is quite true that we should be angry against injustice and inaction.

Psalm 38

The third of the seven Penitentials, this psalm is glass half empty — no, make that a quarter — through to verse 14. The opening verses mirror those of the first Penitential Psalm, 6. The singer regrets failure, inadequacy, illness and a thorough-going weariness. Then comes the half full, and an urgent request for comfort:

For in you O God I have fixed my hope; you will answer (v.15)

Do not forsake me, or be distant; make haste to help me O God, my salvation. (21, 22)

So this could be a song for Lent, or just when you are ill or feeling low.

There’s not much music to help you out in the hymn books — 38 and 39 are not included in the Lectionary. Our regular psalters give you one or two tunes. However, as other blogs have noted, the Penitential Psalms seems to have been de rigueur for the serious composers of yesteryear; Byrd, Dowland, Gesualdo and Lassus all lined for 38; and many more went to town on the middle one, Psalm 51. (Others are 32, 102, 130 and 143.) Producing a compendium of all seven won gold.

Ps38 GesualdoCarlo Gesualdo was certainly a colourful creator of classics. Music by this very expressive musician (and Prince of Venosa in the south of Italy) is very rewarding to sing.

It is also quite demanding — note the absence of bar lines and the apparent independence of individual voices in the illustration. Cadences are sometimes surprising and unpredictable, often passionate.

Gesualdo was both creative and cruel. He famously murdered his wife and lover when he caught them in the act. He was not convicted, but according to the current Wikipedia entry:

The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music.

The work he wrote for Psalm 38 confines its attention to the prayer for help in the final verses quoted above; but it sounds as though he may have felt the pull of the Penitential Psalms stronger than most.

Psalm 26

We find early in this song an echo of Psalm 1. The writer, thought to be David, declares his innocence and refuses to ‘sit with the wicked’ (v. 5). He offers a prayer for justice and confirmation of sticking to the ‘right way’ — that powerful word ‘integrity’ occurs at beginning and end in some translations.  Psalm 1 assures us that blessings will reward such a choice.

All other ground is sinking sand? (Murray River mouth)

‘… All other ground is sinking sand’ 

Psalm 26 thus declares the wonders of divine love and encourages personal integrity, that we might sing confidently with the psalmist:

My foot stands on level ground (v. 12)

Such poetic phrases leap out of the psalms all the time. It will depend on the eye of the beholder, of course. Composers writing refrains for Psalm 26 seem to agree that themes of love and faithfulness appeal:

  • Isaac Everett in TEP imagines this psalm as a good processional or call to worship, and recalls Jesus setting his eyes on Jerusalem. He thus selects verse 3 and modifies it slightly to: ‘I’ve set my eyes on your love. I walk in faithfulness to you.’ Typically, he slips from past into present (and often future) tense. Also typically, it’s a nice flowing refrain. This one starts in E minor, going through the relative major and associated chords and ends in a B7 turnaround.
  • John Becker in PFAS 26A is right there with Everett. His paraphrase of verse 3 in a similarly structured refrain goes: ‘Your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.’
  • Josef Haydn much earlier (1794) wrote a trio entitled, rather mysteriously: ‘How oft, instinct with warmth divine‘. The word ‘instinct’ in this case is archaic and means imbued, as the singer continues ‘…thy threshold have I trod.’ So Haydn was captured by ideas later in the psalm,  notably verse 8. His subtitle says: The Psalmist declares his Love for God’s House and determines to bless God. Reminiscent of Joshua’s “As for me and my house …” (Josh.24:15).

200 years earlier again (1597) Giovanni Gabrieli, in a major work for two choirs of five voices, eschewed key words and just went with the first five verses. The incipit provides the title: Iudica me Domine/Be thou my judge, O Lord, for I have walked innocently.

Psalm 103, 21 Aug 16

Note. The primary reading for this Sunday is Psalm 71:1-6. Please see the relevant post here>. The secondary readings include Psalm 103, said to be ‘of David’.

This song is a well-rounded tour of all the ingredients for worship — praise, why we are blessed despite the brevity of human life, and the kindness inherent in the divine spirit who pardons, heals and seeks justice.

New land

One of the benefits of writing about music on a theme is coming across composers of whom you have never heard … or completely forgotten. Like Ivo de Vento whom we met in another post.

In amongst commonly appearing names like Jeremiah Clark, Lassus, Schütz and Tomkins, there are a good dozen names listed under Psalm 103 that are seldom heard. These include names like Stephen Jarvis, a sail maker from Devon who wrote a set of psalms; Henri Dumont, Flemish then Paris, 17th C; and Claudin de Sermisy in the French tradition of Luly and Couperin, whose Ps. 103 for vespers Benedic anima mea was first published in Paris in 1535.

Then we find in the Orthodox tradition that Messrs Voznesensky and Ledkovsky came up with introductory psalms, also for vespers in the all-night vigil. These are both arrangements of a popular traditional Russian and Slavonian melody. It will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with the great Rachmaninov All Night Vigil. Voznesensky gives the entry tune to the bass voice:

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 10.57. 1Rachmaninov has a sonorous alto solo sing that tune in the second movement of the Vigil, Благослови душе моя, Господа (Blagoslovi dushe moya, Gospoda; Praise the Lord, O My Soul). Listen to the YouTube clip in the post on Psalm 104 — which psalm begins with the same phrase.

Familiar territory

Closer to home, TiS and PFAS have a couple of unremarkable hymns including one by Tallis, of whom one tends to expect more adventurous scribbles. The latter source makes up for it by offering several other choices including a short Spanish responsorial setting, 103G, which comes from a longer work Sing all You Lands: Bilingual Psalms by Peter Kolar.

It also gives us at 103C a nice Taizé song using that same verse 1, Bless the Lord my soul. The congregation or a small group may continue to repeat the chorus in the background while a solo voice sings the verses. Each verse tune is a variation (and in a slightly different range) so could be sung by different soloists. The ostinato needs to be quiet and peaceful but the overall effect can be very inspiring.Entering Taizé village For South Woden:  Continue reading

Psalm 20

Psalm 20 appears only once in the three years of the Lectionary — and I probably missed it when it came up last year because we were in Berlin again.

After a gracious prayer for safety and prosperity in time of trouble, the psalmist (this song is attributed to David) goes on to warn against relying on chariots, weapons and warfare in achieving victory. And what is the nature of that victory? David just prays for the ability to ‘arise and stand upright’. (v.8) It would be easy to sing this little throw-away line without really noticing its importance.

Psalms for All Seasons again comes up with nice choices. (There’s nothing in TiS). We look briefly at 20A and B before the classics.

Latino dancersSpanish time

For some reason, anything Spanish is likely to exhibit, besides great music and harmonies, engaging rhythmical foundations. PFAS 20A, El nombre de Dios te ampare/May God’s holy name uphold you, is a fine example.

15C clock, Basel museum

Complex time

The harmony by Homero Perera relies on fairly conventional changes; a modest ii-V-I in C for starters, but then slipping in some nice substitutions, Ab-Bb-Eb-C. The rhythm is the winner, alternating between bars of 6/8 and 3/4 (2×3 then 3×2), as we saw recently in a much older Schütz Psalm 33. Simple enough once you get it and not uncommon, but so effective.

The PFAS performance notes are, to my mind, rather poorly placed in fine print in pages at the back of the book. However, once you find them they have this good suggestion:

TimbrelsIt would be helpful to the singers to have some percussion instrument, such as a woodblock, keep the 3/4 pulse, with other percussion instruments, such as shakers and triangle, marking the 6/8 rhythm. (p.1078)

And while we on the page, we note the comment on the next arrangement 20B (responsorial setting to the simple tones of a Byzantine chant) that the refrain and verses would form a nice blessing at a baptism or on other occasions.

But wait! By way of contrast, the Alternate Refrain is an equally promising Afro-American spiritual. Plenty of both riches and variety in those few pages.

Classic time

I recall singing music by the English composer Robert White (1538-74) in a Tallis Scholars Summer School in Sydney a few years ago. The main agenda of that week was the Lamentations of Jeremiah according to Tallis and Victoria. White wrote a similar work. (It appears with Tallis, Palestrina, Ferrabosco and Brumel on the  Gimmel 1997 release Lamenta by the Tallis Scholars.)

This is a rather long-winded way of introducing White’s rather long, demanding setting of Psalm 20, Exaudiat te Dominus.

Ps20, Robert WhiteIt’s written for 8 voices but not the usual double-choir SATB.SATB. The first few pages are carried by a trio of SAB. At verse 5, when the text says ‘rejoice and magnify’, White magnifies the rejoicing to five parts for a while, before changing gear again.

Unusually, the second half of the psalm is presented by two groups not of SATB but SSBB (illustrated) then AATT, with everyone in for the finale of course.

Rich pickings. Innovation maintains interest.