Psalm 136

The immediately remarkable feature of this psalm is the antiphon inserted in each verse of the poem, which begins:

Give thanks to God who is good : whose steadfast love is eternal.

The phrase in the second half (in bold) is added to each verse, presumably in the original text.

Ps136 RoyalMs2

Ps136 in the Psalter of Henry VIII, British Library Royal Ms 2

These repeated antiphons are shown in the 16th century manuscript illustrated, known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. Personal notes in the king’s hand hand appear here and there, although not in this snapshot. Here we see the last verse of the preceding Psalm 135, followed by the words Gloria and Sicut erat, which of course are just cues for the full doxology. Then in red the psalm number 135 in the Vulgate, 136 in our English Bible. Then comes verse 1, with several abbreviations, after a decorated capital C:

Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus / quoniam in aeternum [or here, saeculum] misericordia ejus

Such short statements in each verse continue, the repeated antiphon of the second half of the line above being repeated and further abbreviated to quoniam or just qm (see lower right of the illustration) to save space.

History – with antiphon

These short statements remind the reader of all the major events related in the five books of the Torah: the wonders and sustainment of creation, the history of the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea and the conquest of various kings in taking of Canaan, the promised land. Ironically, in the following Psalm 137, the glory days have passed and they sing the lament of captive exiles, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’.

These days the facts of the story are better known than they are relevant, save as an inspiring if remote myth of divine guidance and protection. Did the Red Sea really roll back at the right moment then roll back, as Miriam sings in Exodus, to consume pursuing horse and rider? In poetry the detail is less important than the message.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that poetry often invokes the “suspension of disbelief”, a phrase he dreamed up in 1817 for when we are happy to go along with the romantic story regardless of credibility or otherwise. Poetry that infuses a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale can entice the reader willingly to suspend logical judgement. He had his own poetry in mind, no doubt:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

The ride is sometimes more fun than the destination. The stories of the psalms are no exception.screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-14-15

The long …

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wins the prize for producing a startlingly grand motet on Psalm 136. Assuming the major congregations or patrons of the day had such resources to hand, he arranged the piece for up to four choirs or smaller groups of voice, brass or other instruments, together with a figured bass continuo. Illustrated here are the last few bars, in 17 staves, of the 200 bars of this piece. Each staff shown here is edited for voice with text underlay but in all probability some would be instrumental. One edition has Cantus 1 taken by trombone.

… and the short

On a more modest scale, several modern psalters provide a short tone (Psalms For All Seasons 136D) or background vamp (The Emergent Psalter) for the first phrase, then a refrain for the antiphon in each verse. They often include John Milton’s rather dated hymn Let us with a gladsome mind; interestingly, PFAS 136B updates and vamps it up a bit with new rhythm, an echo voice part and refrain — Genevan adapted.

New Century cunningly starts with the “Steadfast love …” phrase of the repeating antiphon but adapts it by adding a response that invites the congregation to participate more personally. Rather than continuing “… endures forever”, the refrain concludes ” …  surrounds those who trust in God”.

Psalm 51, 23 October 2015

A note for the locals

This Sunday with Arto at the helm, we turn not to the set psalm (65) but to one of the popular and prominent penitential psalms, 51, often used on Ash Wednesday. This song reveals a contrite David after the prophet Nathan courageously confronted him over his lapse of appropriate behaviour with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 11)

Many verses are familiar by virtue of their frequent use in liturgies and prayers. This, for example, from the first 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, still in use in the rite for morning prayer:

Officiant: O Lord, open thou our lips.
People: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Then there is the hyssop in verse 7. In the Latin it begins: Asperges me. (see the chant extract shown from the Liber Usualis). This is not an admission by David that he has an unusual personality condition, but:ps51-aspergesme-lu

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

The keen reader will find several previous posts on this song, such as this one in 2015. (see also the Index Books 2-4.)

Psalm 65

For those who wish to review the set psalm 65, there is much to be enjoyed. Just home from a ten day yacht delivery from the Whitsundays complete with some ‘challenging’ winds, for example, I was struck by these lines:

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Saviour, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas … who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. (Ps 65:5, 7)

For more, see the post for when we sang Psalm 65 three years ago, 27 October 2013.


However, back to Psalm 51, for which there are dozens of settings. As mentioned previously, there are some lovely motets from years gone by, such as those by Lassus (who wrote four for this psalm or bits of it), Byrd, Praetorius and Victoria. However, singers will probably not be available at short notice to render these songs as they should be.

So we turn to a responsorial setting in Psalms for All Seasons 51G. The first refrain is a simple but pleasant tune that has the advantage that it is easily adaptable as a vehicle for the cantor’s verses. The alternative refrains are also interesting but again, need a little preparation. One is a traditional Urdu song with characteristic tonality and ornamentation. Peaceful moonlight at seaAlternative 2 is South African.

So overall there is plenty of scope and variety for those who enjoy it, from early music to exotic sounds. Therein one frequently finds peace from the raging winds.

Psalm 127, vespers

This psalm of ascent asserts that ‘unless God builds the house, in vain the builders labour.’ And without divine protection over a city, the watchmen are wasting their time. The song is clearly worth consideration by anyone undertaking a new project.

Then there’s a sweet section about the joys of having children, said to be an inspiration behind some of the poetry in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

monteverdi_vespersTomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings of Psalm 127 (126 in the Vulgate) for 4 and 8 voices. One is for odd verses only as a vespers psalm, allowing for a priest or cantor to sing the even verses.

And speaking of vespers there is the great Vesperis in Festis Beata Mariae Vergine, usually just called the 1610 Vespers by Claudio Monteverdi. This is much broader in scope than just one psalm; indeed, the whole work revolves around six psalms. 127 is included in this wide-ranging composition, along with several other vespers psalms like 122, 137 and 147, calling for a choir of six or eight voices. These are all separated by a variety of lighter motets.

Virginal in the Berlin museum of instruments

Virginal in the Berlin museum of instruments

The 1610 Vespers is usually accompanied by harpsichord, basso continuo and such early instruments as are available — theorbo, portative organ, strings and reed or horn. The whole work takes about an hour and a half, last sung by your webmaster many years ago with the then Bromley Singers in London.

This is not one to cobble together with a few keen volunteers on short notice.

PFAS 127B is worth a look. The refrain is antiphonal and, being syncopated, might take a little learning. Verses are sung to a nice tone.

Psalm 54

Ps54 Cormac MS36929

Psalm 54 ‘Deus in nomine’ from a Gallican Psalter (The ‘Psalter of Cormac’) of around 1300 CE. British Library MS 36929 f.61v

In seven short verses, David rehearses the themes encountered in many of the psalms, a cry for divine attention, safety and justice. At the end, reminded of past faithfulness and deliverance, he is moved to give thanks and more — a freewill offering and sacrifice.

Psalm 54 just squeaks into the lectionary in one year as an alternative reading, so there are relatively few modern settings available. Everett’s in TEP, drawing on verses 1 and 4, is perhaps the simplest and most easily sung by a congregation following a cantor.

Two classical medium-length settings entitled Deus in nomine tuo (God in your name, v.1) by Lassus and Hassler in four voices look quite accessible and rewarding for the local choir or quartet. Settings by the Gabrielis (Andrea and his more famous nephew Giovanni, one time student of Lassus) calling for 8 parts each might be a gig too far.

Psalm 102, Penitential 5

Yin YangTwo voices emerge for the reader during this extended lament. A sad David seems to be suffering from a degenerative illness. Yet in the midst of distress and weariness, his Voice 1 can yet find a peaceful and somehow comforting image for his isolation and worry:

I am like an owl of the wilderness, a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake like a lonely bird on a housetop. (vs. 6, 7)

A more optimistic David Voice 2 then asserts the endurance and longevity of the divine presence, compared with the brevity of human life.  The psalm is ‘recorded for generations to come’ so that, first, ‘people yet unborn may praise God’ (v. 18); and secondly, that ‘children shall live secure, their offspring established in your presence.’ (v. 28)

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. BL MS49999

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. The seven penitentials are grouped together in this manuscript. BL MS49999


The opening verse (Domine, exaudi / Hear my prayer, let my cry come to you — see illustration) is popular with composers as a simple and neutral prayer of access. Thomas Tomkins wrote a trio (published 1668) which would please any small group. He also composed an arrangement for verse 13.

This being one of the seven penitential psalms, the fifth in fact, we find major work by early composers like the Italian Giovanni Croce, follower of Gabrieli in the grand style; and Orlando de Lassus, whose Psalmi Davidis Poenitentialis of 1584 is mentioned elsewhere.

Coversheet of Book II of the Lassus Psalms

Cover of Book II of the Lassus Penitential Psalms

For 102, as usual, Lassus has written a fleet of separate small motets, one for each verse. He captures the attention of the listener by entering with five voices in full flight for verse 1, but then rather playfully employs a duet for verse 2, a trio for verse 3, quartet for 4 and back to 5 voices for v. 5. He then proceeds through the rest of the 28 verses changing the number of singers. Verse 18 mentioned above, for example, which starts ‘Scribantur haec / Let this be recorded‘ is sung gently by a duo of tenor voices, almost like a recitative.

Ps102 Lassus amen

By the last verse, with the following Gloria Patri as a separate movement, he is back to five parts. Then the Sicut erat (As it was in the beginning) splits the cantus (treble) into two parts for a powerful 6-part finale, the voices each entering sequentially. Incidentally, in many early manuscripts, this Gloria was not written in full but signified by the last six vowels of saeculorum Amen — E u o u A e.

This technique of Lassus is worth remembering for the small group convener. Depending on how many voices you have, you can always find a mini-motet of one verse or another to suit the occasion and available resources.

Like Psalm 101, this song does not appear in the lectionary, or in NCH. In other sources:

  • The only suggestion made in PFAS is the Taizé chorus ‘O Lord hear my prayer’, which as mentioned above is a quote from v.1 — and several other psalms.
  • Everett‘s syncopated refrain in TEP combines verses 3 and 12: ‘My days pass away like smoke; you endure through the generations’.
  • TiS 63 surprises me by presenting a short, singable paraphrase, admittedly only from Voice 2 in the happy end of things, by Christopher Willcock SJ, with a simple refrain arranged by JS Bach. It also provides an attached litany for the sick and the dying. (102B)

Psalm 101

King David and harpKing David shown here with his harp, assuming he was in fact the poet and songster of this psalm, determines to ‘sing of loyalty and of justice’. (v.1) He adds a powerful proviso. Recognising that he himself is not there yet, he intends to ‘study the way that is blameless’, (v.2) seeking that vague but enticing quality called ‘integrity’, then continuing with a manifesto of the attributes of a good ruler. This early admission of personal inadequacy avoids a tone of boasting. In a broader modern context, singers might well view these aspirations as social goals for increasing justice in the community.

In a way, if Psalm 1 is an introductory call to an upright way, this is a sort of version 1.01 — the next lesson, expanding the call to a good life by adding a few practical dimensions for reformist attention.

The classical composers stayed away from this one in droves, a little surprising given the somewhat grand declarations. Since this is a ‘skip’, not in the Lectionary and thus seldom sung, our usual sources — NCH, TiS and PFAS — also skip or give it cursory treatment. The last psalter mentioned has just one setting with antiphonally spoken verses, the refrain tune being drawn from an old hymn. Everett in TEP uses verse 2 mentioned above.

Psalm 48

This song of the Korahites is another royal moment, with Zion and the holy hill “the very centre of the world”. (2) In modern times, this is generally regarded as a non-geographic metaphor. (See also comments made in Psalm 47 regarding ‘sponsorship’.)

Time and place

As has been noted in relation to other songs wherein the psalmists long for the holy City of God as a particular place in time and history, this predated the advent of the Christian and Islamic religions. So while Zion is often mentioned, this is poetry. There is no caliphate here. The longing for mercy and safety is universal. The poem may be applied to the locus of life, love and justice in creation, or in your own experience and faith.


One can hardly be surprised if a reader is less than thrilled when coming across compositions for this psalm from publications called “The Columbian Harmonist, 1807, words by Isaac Watts, 1719″, and “Transcribed from The American Singing-Book, 1786. A simple song, apparently written for newcomers to a singing-school. Words by Isaac Watts, his paraphrase of Psalm 48.” (CPDL entry) But it’s horses for courses. The music leader is constantly challenged to make something meaningful of ideas that may initially seem too complex or too sparse.

More modern refrains in New Century Hymnal and Psalms For All Seasons (nothing in TiS) commend themselves to us more warmly, not only for simplicity and good music but also because they spotlight a key verse, whether literally geographic or not:

We ponder your steadfast love O God, in the midst of your temple. (v.9)

Psalm 48:9 in a 13C psater, British Library MS50000

Psalm 48:9 in a 13C psalter, British Library MS50000

The illustration, from the Oscott Psalter of around 1270 CE, shows the Latin script of that same verse: Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam in medio templi tui. Note the abbreviation, common in medieval manuscripts, marked by superscript tilde ~. Thus the third word misericordiam (mercy or loving-kindness) appears as mīam, and in as ī. The script in blue in the second column is described as a ‘metrical paraphrase’. This beautiful psalter includes no antiphon.

Everett in TEP chooses the penultimate verse, “Tell the next generation” (13) for his refrain.