Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible:
Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus
Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name
The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise:
Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus
Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.
Perhaps this is why the lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit this psalm several times in coming weeks, with slightly differing verse selections. It recurs on 10 and 31 August, then on 21 September. This provides an opportunity for continuity, using the same style and response for all four appearances of this psalm.
The illustration from the St Alban’s psalter above is in Latin (click on all photos to enlarge). Why the quotes in Latin this week, you ask? There’s a beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 in that language by the towering Roland de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso, c.1530 – 94) who, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music – see previous Crystal Ball post.
Works written for five voices are not everyday fare around South Woden; it is beautiful but demanding music. However, the Psalm Team has assembled a small group of experienced singers to present this centuries-old musical gem for your edification on 10 August.
Regrettably, these motets are rarely heard in Canberra, so that presentation on 10 August will be all the richer – note the date now! (It’s also a commissioning service for new Councillors). A separate post on the subject of this wonderful composer will follow soon.
I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, tossing the Renaissance ball into the ring, we start just with a small quote from the Lassus work as the response. And why not? — let’s sing it in Latin. The translation (above) will appear in the order of service:
Gregorian chant was widely used during mediaeval and renaissance times. In step with the style of the day of Lassus, we shall use one of these chants for the verses, on this occasion Tone VIII which looks like this:
Originating over a thousand years ago and thus before the advent of polyphony, such tones were sung in unison. We observe that ancient practice for the forthcoming sequence of readings of Psalm 105.
Thus we dip into history in a big way – Latin, Lassus and friend Greg from the 16th century. It’s not without precedent even in South Woden; we used this very chant last year to accompany an inspiring work by Hildegard. It’s worth re-reading the post for the psalm of the day here>.
It is also the fourth Sunday this week, so your ever-faithful men’s group await to lead you in this blast from the past. With some difficulty we have resisted the urge to enter stage right in long cloaks and dark cowls.
Seriously, though, the beauty and inspiration of Gregorian chant have been recognised over the centuries. The tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. Contact me if you want to be in it. The Monks of Solesmes are arguably the leaders in research and performance of Gregorian chant as it may have been heard a millennium ago. A quick scan through the Missal published by them does not reveal any particular tone associated with Psalm 105. However, Tone VIII is used for various other sung liturgical elements. Here is an example:
You might note a couple of very minor differences such as where it is set in relation to C. This is not significant as there are many small variations and no-one knows exactly how it was done.
A more common approach was the use of a particular tone during one service for several psalms. The author has attended a couple of Tallis Scholars summer schools, during which the order of service for Compline — the last office of the day usually at 9:00 pm — used Tone VIII for all psalms sung each night. Singing several psalms during the various services morning noon and night, the monks would complete the cycle of singing all 150 psalms in the space of a fortnight.
This has been a rather garrulous post, indeed series of posts centred on Psalm 105; and further reading may be found in the discussion in the Notes for singers page. Without feeling constrained by historical habits, we benefit from an understanding of the roots, the long traditions and the musical creativity and wisdom of our predecessors in singing the psalms.