Psalm 19, 24 Jan 2015

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork (Ps. 19:1)

The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ camp, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western worldviews have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.(1)

SM1 uzh

Standard model (3)

[Aside, which you may skip: I have been reading (yet another) book on particle physics this week.(2) Things like gauge theory and breaking electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy maths and the hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. It’s easy to go with the psalmist … if you’re not a post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.]

Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. It smoothly progresses:

  • from the glories of creation
  • to how this declares God’s presence
  • to the influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’.
  • to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults
  • concluding with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (v.14)

Hans_Leo_HaßlerMusic

The winner for complexity this week probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first 5 verses for 13 parts in three choirs.(4)

Thirteen parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere near the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts (8 choirs of 5 each).(5) But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.

Psalm 19 Genevan

Psalm XIX Genevan psalter

In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter (pictured at left) was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.

All that is a long way from home. The quoting of that final prayer (v.14 above) in the gospel/reggae song By the rivers of Babylon has had us singing that in recent years, using the same tune for the verses. We have also sung this for Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

This week, the proximity of Australia Day has our worthy leader Libby looking for all-Australian compositions as she does so effectively each year at this time. So we sing a hymn version of the psalm in TiS 166 by Richard Connolly (1927-), who was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. I’m on piano, so I’ll have to restrain myself.

Notes: 

  1. Wright, Tom; Finding God in the psalms, SPCK 2014, page 119.
  2. Butterworth, JonSmashing physics: inside the world’s biggest experiment, Headline London UK, 2014.
  3. Diagrams of the standard model abound. This one from the University of Zürich www.physik.uzh.ch.
  4. Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei, Hans Leo Hassler
  5. Neither Tallis nor Victoria piece is a psalm. I have had the rather frightening pleasure of singing both with members of the Tallis Scholars under the direction of Peter Phillips.

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