God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
Light — the light of the world (John 8:12) and light upon the path (Psalm 119:105) — is a theme found in many psalms, in words that have become familiar by virtue of repetition and songs based on such verses.
This psalm offers encouragement, weaving together two threads of thought.
First is that of light, beauty and goodness. The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see beauty all around and commune with that spirit.
Taking advantage this week of Jon’s presence at the helm, we gather a male voice quartet seeking good harmony and stretching beyond our usual weekly diet.
The Taizé round The Lord is my light and other responsorials are enticing. However, we propose to render a home-grown setting that is equally restrained for Lent but a little more challenging for the singers. The antiphon invites those gathered to make that opening declaration their own:
Cantors: God is my light and my salvation
People: Whom shall I fear?
I call this little piece the ‘Half-dim’ antiphon after the opening half-diminished chords — perhaps not very suitable a title when rejoicing in the bright rays of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the verses to the same tune. If the technology works, listen here:
The male voice quartet will also sing Thou knowest Lord by Henry Purcell (1659-95) as the gradual, a prayer of access. The sentence is borrowed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Referring liberally to such psalms as 139, it begins:
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our pray’rs; but spare us, Lord most holy.
Rather quaintly to the modern ear it continues, a precursor to Good Friday, with the prayer: ‘suffer us not … to fall from thee’.
More on Half-dim?
The nick-name Half-dim is due to the recurrence of the half-diminished chord, a minor seventh with lowered fifth (eg. Dm7b5, sometimes Dmin7-5).
This tonality, suitably plaintive and thoughtful for the season, is often found in jazz but crops up everywhere including Brazil, Bach, and beyond. The well-tempered ear will perceive the dulcet tones of the half-dim in such songs as Horace Silver’s lovely Peace (one of the secular songs I borrow to sneak in as incidental music sometimes), Stella by starlight, Calling you, Autumn leaves, and all those Jobim songs like Corcovado and How insensitive (which I do not sneak in).
The list goes on. Sometimes the half-diminished sound does not characterise the whole song but will pop up as a transitional ‘turn-around’ at the end of a phrase, or in place of a standard ii7-V9 change in minor settings.
Bars 1 and 3 of the quartet’s mellifluous sonorities are these ‘min7b5’ chords. They consist of a lower triad of minor third intervals, a diminished chord. Building up the diminished chord the next note up would be the sixth. This note is raised to become the augmented 6th or lowered 7th. So it’s a diminished chord (bottom half, which would be written D0 in shorthand) and a dominant seventh (top half). Cunningly, the rather clunky Dmin7b5 label is therefore abbreviated DΦ, a diminished cut in half.
Handy little chord, since by merely dropping one note (that 7th; see bars 3-4) by a semi-tone and changing the bass note (delayed in bar 4), you progress to the next chord on the circle of fifths, retaining the diminished sound but in a flat ninth tonality. The flat 9th is retained in the chord name in bar 5 but this note (G natural) does not appear in this four-part version. It can be added by adventurous improvisers, together with the absent 5th if desired.
Too much information. No, this will not be in the exam — but do enjoy the male voice quartet’s rendition if you are with us on Sunday.