Psalm 57

Psalm 56: the Lord attended by eleven men (above), while angels attack his enemies and the Psalmist is saved by an angel from falling into a pit; a lion nearby. BL Harley603 f1r

Ps 56 (57) in a 12C psalter: angels and enemies, the Psalmist in the cave; a lion (v.4) nearby. BL Harley 603, f31r

As in Psalm 1439 and so many others — David asks for mercy and sings the blues when he hid in a cave from enemies ‘with sharp tongues’ who ‘dug a pit’ for him. As he hides in the cave, David imagines the parallel of divine love as refuge for the soul. If you think you have seen this elsewhere, it’s probably Psalm 142 also written in a cave. Whether this is the same occasion or another we cannot tell. It may have been the occasion (1 Sam. 22-24) when his vicious persecutor Saul came into the cave where David was hiding. David crept up to the unsuspecting king and cut off the corner of his garment, a subtle but powerful message.

An easy refrain by Julie Howard and Vera Lyons, PFAS 57B, draws from verse 1: “I rest in the shadow of your wings”. While pointing out that it may not have been part of the original composition, Everett in TEP uses the inbuilt antiphon in verses 5 and 11:

Be raised over the heavens; be raised over all the earth.

His tune is also simple and accessible but as usual features a more modern harmonisation: slipping between Bb minor and Gb major seventh, it even finishes on the leading note of that second chord just in case you missed the up-beat point.

Verses 7 and 8 are repeated in, or borrowed from, Ps. 108:1, 2:

My heart is firm. I will sing and make melody. Wake up my spirit! Awake lute and harp. I will wake the dawn.

Psalm 122

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Psalm 122 is not only a Song of Ascent (the third) but also one of pilgrimage to the centre of divine love and justice. Psalm 120 told a sorrowful tale of living afar amongst alien people; the next one 121 starts the journey to Jerusalem (“I lift up my eyes to the hills…’); and finally in this psalm the pilgrim arrives. In the Orthodox tradition and no doubt elsewhere, these three are sung together, often during Lent.

A long list of classical compositions ranges from relatively unknowns Arigoni and Bauer through to Vogel and GJ Williams, encompassing more famous names like Blow, Haydn, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Victoria and Vivaldi. Most pieces start with the familiar opening declaration, appropriate for a Song of Ascent:

Laetatus sum/I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

The psalmist continues by imagining him or herself and the people (tribes) of God ascending through the gates of the holy city to give thanks and seek justice. (v. 4-5) Other composes have spied the peaceful intent of this prayer of ascent in verse 6, no doubt applying it, as should we, beyond the physical meaning of the city named:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

Antiphon to Ps. 122 Arundel MS 83, British LibrarySignificantly, the psalmist’s motivation is altruistic:

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

This is a lovely poem with many musical settings, including a short antiphon beautifully adorned in the illustration of the Howard Psalter shown here (British Library reference Arundel MS 83 f80v). The first phrase refers to but is not identical with verse 1 of this psalm:

In domum Domini ibimus/We shall go into the house of the Lord.

The second phrase after the vertical ‘ant’ marker is a response that may refer to the incipit of Psalm 91 (90 in the Latin psalter):

Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi/He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High

Singers were expected to know the text sufficiently that such abbreviated words, indicated by superscript dots or commas, would be sufficient to jog the memory. This jogs my memory of singing Qui habitat à24 by Josquin des Prez. This is a setting of the first 6 verses of that earlier psalm for 24 voices, irreverently known amongst our Chorale members, particularly the irreverent basses, as ‘Who lives at No 24?’

Psalm 47

Journals and web-sites are usually crowded with advertisements, often blinking and distracting our attention from the object of interest. Whether the sponsorship is identified or not, the reader soon learns to recognise the difference. Some of the psalms, like Psalm 47, have an uncomfortable ring of triumphalism or nationalism about them. When the poem calls us to “clap our hands … because God subdues the nations under our feet” (vs. 1, 3) the reader has this same sense that someone is trying to sell something, in this case the royal supremacy line.  Admittedly by the end of the song, all nations are imagined to gather as one.

'Clap your hands' in the Luttrell Psalter c. 1330 Lincolnshire.

‘Clap your hands’ in the Luttrell Psalter c. 1330 Lincolnshire. British Library MS 42130

Australians — and no doubt Americans, French and other children of revolutions — may be wary of such a royalist line. Even though this song can be explained away today as lauding a spiritual rather than temporal sovereignty, our local congregation is not likely spontaneously to rise in applause at that opening invocation.

One explanation might be that this psalm is one of the songs of the Korahites, a group of poets and musicians associated with the court. These artists were funded by the king. They thus tend to advocate the glories and sovereignty of the king and God, rather than those major themes so prevalent elsewhere in the psalter proclaiming the need for love, justice and equity for all. Maybe the preamble should include: ‘Message from our sponsors’.

Ps47 Gabrielli à16Most composers have written settings that focus on one of two phrases: in verse 1 (clap your hands), or 5 (God has gone up with a shout). The lectionary cleverly uses this psalm at Easter to celebrate the ascension of Jesus, providing a more universally recognised application.

The showpiece amongst the classical arrangements is one by Gabrieli published in 1597 for no less than four choirs of four voices, XVI parts in all as shown in the illustration. In all probability it was generally performed by choirs of perhaps seven voices, the other nine parts being carried by various instruments — no hand claps save in the text.

Most of the settings in Psalms for All Seasons similarly invite clapping of hands with, at first sight, varying degrees of pull. 47D, transcribed from the Nigerian Yoruba people — known for the use of the dùndún, an hour-glass shaped drum — is perhaps the most interesting. Both The Emergent Psalter and the New Century Hymnal settle for the simpler “Sing to God” approach.

Psalm 113, 18 Sep ’16 Alt.

Ps113 Harley MS603

Psalm 113 and servants rejoicing, Harley psalter in the British Library, MS 603

Many parables in the New Testament propose an inversion of social climbing rules; the first shall be last, the proud shall be humbled, the outcast preferred, all you need is love. After an introductory song of praise — in this case without invoking the usual evidence of mighty deeds — the writer of Psalm 113 recorded a poetic precursor to this ‘foolish’ value system:

God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, and give the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (vs. 7-9)

Tomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings for this psalm, a motet and a vesper psalm. Both titles (incipits) start with Laudate pueri / Praise ye servants. The title of the motet, for double choir, adds Domine. Victoria’s series of psalms specifically for vespers or evensong includes 113. Various luminaries in early times devised appointed psalmodies in the Roman rite for each of the services of the hours. Between five and more recently two psalms were to be sung in each evening service. In most such schemata, the vespers psalms were drawn from Psalms 109 to 147, with the exception of the longer 118.

However in the Jewish (especially Ashkenazi) tradition, 113 was included in the morning Shacharit (from the Hebrew for dawn) prayer as well as before the Passover meal. So maybe the first shall be last and the last first after all!

There are many enticing classical settings besides these. These vespers psalms and hymns have caught the interest of many great composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff whose vespers in the Eastern Orthodox All-night vigil has been mentioned elsewhere.

New Century Hymnal provides a lightly syncopated refrain uses verse 2: Blessed be the name of God forever. It assumes the verses are sung to one of the many tones suggested on page 620.

Psalm 79, 18 Sep 2016

This song by Asaph voices a communal lament for the defeat of Jerusalem, seeking safety and justice until the people can “give thanks forever from generation to generation”. It’s another “How long?” song, themes taken up by many song writers including Canadians Steve Bell and Linnea Good. The psalter is riven through with songs of the blues and forbearance — at least ten of them, such as Psalms 6, 13 and on through to 119, include this anguish.

When a footnote in one of our psalters (1) cautions that this psalm should be used “with great care”, and that it “may be appropriate … focusing of situations of extreme persecution”, you know you are in for one of those bitter cries for help in time of trouble. This note, rather than putting us off, is quite helpful. There are, and regrettably will ever be it seems, such situations — think of violence in South Sudan, Syria, Burma and so on. So the song could be used to identify with and pray for those who suffer dolorous lives at the hand of aggression or repressive régimes. That source, PFAS, thoughtfully uses the more hopeful Kumbayah (but in a minor key) as a refrain:

Someone’s crying Lord, kum-ba-yah.

A footnote in another of our regular sources (2) has this angle on the psalmist’s crying “How long?”:

In the Bible as a whole, it’s just as likely to be God who is putting the question to us, wondering how long it will be necessary to put up with our antics [then several Biblical references.]

TiS 69Music

Kumbayah is fine. But far away in another galaxy, one Clemens non Papa wrote a nice four-part setting called Domine, ne memineris / Adjuva nos, from the first and ninth verses. Non Papa? How would you like to go down in history as “Not the Pope” just to make sure we knew who you were? The Belgian composer Jacobus Clemens (c. 1515-55), who worked mainly in Bruges and Paris, is known for his psalms in French and particularly Dutch.

In yet another world, the Anglican church has a great tradition of chanting the psalter in a particular style that is a satisfying evolution of ancient Gregorian tradition into more recent polyphony. It uses, as many of us do, verses with pointing markers as clues for fitting the words into a chant. Our practice is marking the last three notes, usually three syllables or words, as illustrated above. The preceding words of the phrase are all sung on the first ‘reciting’ tone.

Anglican chant has two more notes in the second line, so the last five syllables or words are allocated their own notes. There are always four notes then six, making ten in all. Once you crack the code, it’s easy with a little rehearsal to agree on the flow of the words. The example shown below, for Psalm 79 by English organist C. Hylton Stewart (1884-1932), is a little different. It has two lots of ten notes so is a truly antiphonal song; verses are sung alternately, odds then evens, usually by two groups.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.21.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 56

The introduction to Psalm 56 is quite something:

To the leader [music director] according to [to the tune of] The Dove on Far-off Terebinths [a type of tree; perhaps this is a comforting reference to the Valley of Terebinths where David fought Goliath]. Of David. A Miktam [meaning unknown], when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

We learn that this is another song emanating from the anguish David felt during the time of Saul’s persecution and perfidy (see post on Psalm 52). The dove in name of the tune might suggest a yearning for peace. How nice it would be to have these ancient tunes to hand now. There was then no way of writing them down for posterity. Similarly, we know not what a Miktam was.

Yin YangAs in the preceding psalms, David rehearses the dangers and opposition all around, being hounded all day long; but gives thanks for deliverance in a repeated antiphon that is integral to the flow of the psalm (verses 4 and 10-11). He thus blends fear and trust in a sort of yin/yang juxtaposition. In a fascinating phrase, David also gives us imagery of putting one’s tears into God’s bottle for safekeeping.

The firsts PFAS setting 56A uses this dark/light theme in its refrain; the second 56B uses the last verses paraphrased — though the title of this song “God, I am beaten, battered and bruised’ is hardly enticing. Then again, neither are such circumstances, which are all too prevalent around the world today, as in David’s time.

These are simple enough songs: in contrast, a setting by Henry Purcell for up to 4 voices and continuo, entitled Be merciful to me, would test the most agile of singers. Here is a small extract of two of the voices, there being also a figured bass continuo:Ps56 Purcell

Psalm 129

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

The tenth of the Psalms of Ascent (text) regrets the oppression of the people of God. The psalmist recognises that God is the source of goodness but seeks shame on the oppressor. At the distance of some millenia, it’s easy to suggest sniffily that he or she should have been more forgiving of Israel’s enemies. However, the psalm was probably written in the midst of dire threats to the very survival of the nation and the people. Nevertheless, the poet urges their downfall in quite a poetic, if not forgiving, manner, by imagining the enemy as withered grass on the housetops

… which does not fill the hand of the reaper, so that passers by do not say so much as “God prosper you. We wish you well in the name of God” (vs. 7, 8)

This final blessing, Benediximus vobis in nomine Domini, is repeated in the antiphon in the early manuscript of Psalm 129 illustrated. (The last phrase of the antiphon appears to be a shorthand reference to the incipit of the next psalm 130: De profundis / Out of the depths.) The blessing quoted here seems to have been a customary greeting between workers in the fields, as Augustine points out in his commentary on the psalms:

For ye know, brethren, when men pass by others at work, it is customary to address them, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” And this was especially the custom in the Jewish nation. No one passed by and saw any one doing any work in the field, or in the vineyard, or in harvest… without a blessing.

The two sentences in the psalm may have been a type of call and response, as when Ruth met Boaz:

A light burdenJust then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “God be with you.” They answered, “The God bless you.” (Ruth 2:4)

Psalm 129 does not appear in the Lectionary so is not likely to be often sung. If it is, that reapers’ blessing should surely be the focus of the song, as it is in The Emergent Psalter. Sung as a reciprocal blessing of the people by the people it would grace any gathering.

Sweelinck Psaumes coverOtherwise, this is something of a musical orphan that has attracted little compositional interest. However, the mention above of 130 reminds me we recently heard The Song Company perform in the purest tones two psalms by the Dutch composer Sweelinck. (1562-1621) The familiar lines of Pss. 130 ‘Out of the Depths‘ and 24 ‘Lift up your heads‘ took on quite a new character at the hands of Sweelinck and Song Company and in Latin. (This encounter gave added delight since, while these works are found in many versions on YouTube and IMSLP, no score appears in CPDL, which boasts toward ninety other settings of Psalm 130 alone.)

Thus inspired, I include a fragment of a short piece on Psalm 129 emanating also from the Low Countries but a hundred years earlier, by Josquin des Prez:

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez.

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez.