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.
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.
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.
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: