Psalm 113, 18 Sep ’16 Alt.

Ps113 Harley MS603
Psalm 113 and servants rejoicing, Harley psalter in the British Library, MS 603

Many parables in the New Testament propose an inversion of social climbing rules; the first shall be last, the proud shall be humbled, the outcast preferred, all you need is love. After an introductory song of praise — in this case without invoking the usual evidence of mighty deeds — the writer of Psalm 113 recorded a poetic precursor to this ‘foolish’ value system:

God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, and give the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (vs. 7-9)

Tomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings for this psalm, a motet and a vesper psalm. Both titles (incipits) start with Laudate pueri / Praise ye servants. The title of the motet, for double choir, adds Domine. Victoria’s series of psalms specifically for vespers or evensong includes 113. Various luminaries in early times devised appointed psalmodies in the Roman rite for each of the services of the hours. Between five and more recently two psalms were to be sung in each evening service. In most such schemata, the vespers psalms were drawn from Psalms 109 to 147, with the exception of the longer 118.

However in the Jewish (especially Ashkenazi) tradition, 113 was included in the morning Shacharit (from the Hebrew for dawn) prayer as well as before the Passover meal. So maybe the first shall be last and the last first after all!

There are many enticing classical settings besides these. These vespers psalms and hymns have caught the interest of many great composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff whose vespers in the Eastern Orthodox All-night vigil has been mentioned elsewhere.

New Century Hymnal provides a lightly syncopated refrain uses verse 2: Blessed be the name of God forever. It assumes the verses are sung to one of the many tones suggested on page 620.

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