Psalm 120, Ascents

The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect

This is the first of a group of fifteen psalms from 120 to 134 called the Songs of Ascent.

Most of them are quite short, between 5 and 8 verses; one (132) is longer but is surrounded (131, 133, 134) by poems of just three verses each. Originating perhaps as pilgrim songs, they are sometimes called a gradual and used as a processional or song of approach.

The psalmist paints a picture of himself living afar, amongst alien and truculent tribes. He regrets human tendencies to deceit and to warfare. Without excluding himself from these tendencies he asks for peace, while those around call for war.

Two offerings, quite contrasting, must suffice in our musical meanderings for this song.

TimbrelsSeven beats of the drum

First, we look at an example of the innovation and broad world-view taken by the compilers of Psalms for All Seasons. 120B is a demanding but rewarding song from the Philippines, When my trouble arose. You know your troubles have just arisen when you look at the opening bars to see no time signature, a tutti ostinato, drum beats and notes that don’t seem to add up.

The congregation, acting as a quiet accompaniment, sings a constant rhythmic ‘Go forth — ‘ to an insistent 3+2+2 rhythm. The time signature is not 7/8 however, because there’s a sneaky 3/4 coming up. Fun. This is surely enough to catch the eye of anyone looking for something different and engaging.

A solo voice overlays the verses. It would be quite a trick to sing this in such a way that the words can be fully comprehended, absorbed and cherished by all. A few well-rehearsed lead singers and drummers are needed to hold this restrained but insistent drive, keeping the sevens, giving energy to the soloist but quiet enough not to drown the message.

Full many a flower

Turning to the classical arena, we run down the list of the usual suspects — Lassus, Morales, Palestrina, Tomkins.  All good stuff, but an unusual name at the very bottom of the list catches my eye.

It is one Ivo de Vento, who turns out to have been an active Flemish singer and organist who learned his trade in Italy. Ivo (or Yvo) then moved to Munich, perhaps with, or as a student of, Orlando de Lassus. He died there having reached the ripe age of about 30+ in 1575.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 17.53.
Psalm 120, Ad Dominum, de Vento. Liber Mottetum, 1571, National Library of Denmark

Several points are notable in this illustration:

  • First, by the 16th century the five-line staff is standard. A century earlier it might be on four lines.
  • Those lines are not quite continuous, indicating a mechanised printing process. It is, after all, more than a hundred years since Gutenberg invented his printing press.
  • A rudimentary treble clef sits on the G; earlier manuscripts would show only a C or an F clef. But since there are no bar lines and the C just happens to sit where the C clef sign would normally sit, this may be an additional key C rather than a time signature.
  • Dotted notes have appeared to indicate note values. (The figure 4 is just a page number)
  • Finally, that little squiggle at the very end of the line, a hangover from very early manuscripts, indicates the next note to be sung on the next line. This little cue can be found in many manuscripts of early music, as a valuable hint for those singers who rely on recognising intervals rather than singing the notes in perfect pitch. In this case, it tells the singer that the first note on the next staff of music is sung at the same pitch.

Ivo de Vento? We know little of this musician. Such brief biographies as we have attest to his creative productivity and influence, while noting how little he is remembered or studied. One commentary says:

He was conservative in taste … avowing a ‘Pythagorean’ preference for pure music over madrigalian conceits. []

Red and green for the seasonHow sad that this obscure composer died so young and was so little recognised and remembered. Did he, like Thomas Gray‘s rustic flowers, blush unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air?

Though his name may be last in the list and little known, yet he made sweet harmony and no doubt lifted many souls on their daily path. Gray’s Elegy continues:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[I think I snuck that in purely for that madding crowd. Or was it the noiseless tenor? … now there’s a thought!] No, we can hardly say that Munich, home of the Oktoberfest, was either desert air or far from the madding crowd, even in de Vento’s day. However, the continuity of sincere, unsung lives with preferences for ‘pure music over madrigalian conceits’ — just like the ‘restrained but insistent drive’ of our PFAS 120B from the Philippines — is often much more valued than we imagine.

4 thoughts on “Psalm 120, Ascents

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