The gospels differ slightly in how they report the Beatitudes. Luke says: “Blessed are the poor”, while in Matthew we read:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt.5:3)
Whatever Jesus actually said, it’s quite possible he was quoting this last song in Book 1 of the Psalter:
Blessed are those who consider the poor and needy; God delivers them in time of trouble (Ps.41:1)
Like Psalm 1, it calls for upright living; like Psalm 26, it calls for integrity; and like many others, seeks grace in times of trouble.
Professional musicians will no doubt be familiar with some of the composers we seldom encounter in the psalters. These, for example, all wrote settings in the late Renaissance / early Baroque: Anerio, Calcott, Nares, Schein, Usper. A brief look at two.
Johann Hermann Schein (1586 – 1630) was a German composer, ending his days in Leipzig a century before Bach reigned supreme there at St Thomas. This accomplished composer never lived in Italy yet is now credited with introducing Italian styles such as figured bass (but perhaps not the coiffure) into the Lutheran surrounds of German music. His Psalm 41, Was betrübstu dich meine Seele (verse 6) is written for five voices, employing contrapuntal imitative and homophonic techniques. Sure enough, it includes that Italian basso continuo. An a cappella version exists.
Francesco Usper or Sponga (1561 – 1641) was an Italian composer and organist born in what is now Croatia. Unlike Schein, he moved to Venice about the time of the birth of his German contemporary and stayed there, serving as organist and chaplain. Usper knew and worked with the better known Claudio Monteverdi. His Beatus qui intelligit, for two choirs of four voices, is also accompanied by continuo.
The refrain in NCH uses a phrase from verse 12: “Set me in your presence forever”. This seems to miss some of the key themes of the song, such as the word ‘integrity’ appearing earlier in the same verse. The tune looks innoccuous enough, especially since the composer directs us to sing it in unison. When you play it, however, the pedal open fifth in the lower staff, 3 and 7 of the first D major seventh chord, is arresting. (This echoes the highly effective opening broken chords of Calling you by Bob Telson, the theme of the film Bagdad Café sung hauntingly by both Telson and Jevetta Steele. A must listen.) This arrangement definitely enhances the otherwise plain refrain, although the final cadence to A minor is unconvincing in the progression IΔ-IV2-ii7-v.
Psalms for All Seasons suggests the verses be sung to a vi-ii-V-I tone with a refrain that, rather strangely, uses phrases from the old hymn What a friend we have we in Jesus. This is occasioned no doubt by the fact that the hymn lines — trials and tribulations and “when your friends despise forsake you” — closely mirror lines in the psalm.