Psalms 96 to 98, Christmas 2015

IMG_3002A joyful package suitable to a joyful occasion, these three songs for Christmas Eve and Day sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96 begins with the much-sung ‘Sing to God a new song’. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm — or I should say opening phrase; nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses. The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in earth and heavens, and includes repeats of bits of other psalms like 29, 93 and (relevant in this clutch of readings) 98:7-9. It’s also the source of that sweet phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’.

Psalm 97 takes on a more feisty tone, declaring the enmity of false gods and carved images. These days they might be identified as fascination with youth, self-promotion, nationalism, wealth or power. The psalmist calls for The Force to awaken against this dark side (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference; and there will be more star-shattering revelations next post…)

InstrumentsPsalm 98 again urges us to lift up  our voices to sing a new song. This time, we are encouraged to bring along our harp, trumpet and horn. The psalmist broadens the focus to call for vibrant harmony among all nations with creation (we are thankful for small steps taken recently in Paris) and the Creator (more steps needed).


Ps96 illustr HenryVIII Psalter 1540
Ps.96 ‘Cantate Domino’; from the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540, British Library. Click to enlarge.

As mentioned above, there are dozens of ‘new songs’. Bach did a great piece called Singet dem Herrn, a cantata that needs to be taken at a clip for full effect. Here’s a very small sample of some other more demanding pieces listed on the Choral public domain for Psalm 98:

  • Orlando di Lasso SSATB (vv. 1-4)
  • Claudio Monteverdi SSATBB (combined with Psalm 96); and one for 2 soprani
  • Johann Pachelbel SATB.SATB – two choirs please!
  • Michael Praetorius vv.1-3 SSST.ATBB and vv.4-6 SSSAATTBB – whew!
  • Heinrich Schütz, SATB.SATB – another double choir piece in the Venetian style.

There are of course plenty of nice songs within reach of amateur groups. Together in song, characteristically skipping some verses and gender inclusiveness, does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.

Psalms for all seasons and The emergent psalter have other suitable settings.

Merry and blessed Christmas to all readers around the world.

At South Woden (… and more about that character Henry)

  • Fishing back to 2012, we find that we sang the tone from Psalms for all seasons 96H with inclusive words by Helen Wright 1983, and an easier refrain by the Hon. Webmaster.
  • See previous posts for December 2013
  • and 2014 for some other humble but harmonious — and yes, inspiring — songs.
  • We warmly welcome Rev Elizabeth back into our midst
  • No sung psalm at South Woden, balancing family moments and carols with the great virtue of brevity.

And as for Henry VIII

The magnificent old manuscript shown in the photo above, which includes three Canticles, is known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. It opens with a dedicatory letter by Jean Mallard, who wrote and probably illuminated the manuscript, incipit: ‘Regium istud Davidis’, a prefatory reference which likens Henry to King David.

This Psalter was very much a personal reference. The British Library says:

As indicated by the many marginal notes added in the King’s own hand, the volume became Henry VIII’s personal copy of the Psalms.

So it seems that the psalms had high profile in earlier times. The illustration in Psalm 97 folio 118r (our 96) shows angels singing within an ornate golden initial capital of Cantate Domino – ‘Sing unto the Lord’.

2 thoughts on “Psalms 96 to 98, Christmas 2015

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