Psalm 46, 20 Nov 16

Happy New Year’s eve to all. Well, this is the last Sunday of Year C. Year A and advent start 27 November.

[And for our local SWUC readers, at such times of cosmic transition, including of course the solstice, we are privileged to have Keith at the helm.]

Psalm 46 also comes up at significant calendar moments, this week and every Easter to be precise. A recent blog reviewed the many options for this psalm offered in Psalms for All Seasons. Recalling our leader’s sure touch with such themes, drawing on time spent in remote islands and the Iona Community in particular, PFAS 46D Alternate Refrain I from John Bell and Wild Goose has a head start.

The refrain has two parts, the second being an exact echo of the first one bar later. The technique of echo or imitation has been widely used as a way of harmonising a melody, especially in renaissance contrapuntal motets but elsewhere in many psalm settings. As is the requirement when composing a song that can be sung as a round, the repetition of a harmonic pattern helps. The more complex the chord structure, unless within a short cycle, the more difficult is the task of composing a tune that fits the changes throughout.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) wrote a highly imitative setting for Psalm 46 for three similar voices. The second and third are also delayed by one bar each. In this situation, the composer often has to choose to vary either the imitative melody or the chord structure. Telemann chose to keep the chords simple and repetitive — a constant cycle between tonic, subdominant and dominant with a few relative minors en passant —  leading (IMHO) to a rather lacklustre piece.

Back to Bell and his echo. His first four bars are simple enough, alternating between E and C# minor. Budding composers would have no trouble fitting a repetitive echo melody to that sequence. But try making up a tune to fit this sequence equally well regardless of whether it starts at bar 1 or bar 2:

|     A     |      E      |   F#m7   G#m7  |   AΔ   B7   |     E     |

John Bell has it down to a fine art, cleverly using a simple pentatonic scale in this case. Which came first, the chords or the tune?

Verses are sung to the Alternate Tone I attached to this option. As is our normal practice, the tone either repeats or closely resembles the refrain tune or pattern. The cantor conveniently starts on the same note as the refrain. I don’t know who wrote this tone (© 2011 Faith Alive) but it fits. I like the fact that this entry is now the leading note of an A major 7th (AΔ), reinforcing sympathetic ground in this interesting terrain. An a capella group would have a nice time tuning this major seventh interval.

Ps46 Luttrell Psalter 42130
Deus noster refugium et virtus / God is our refuge and strength’, Psalm 46:1. The Luttrell Psalter c.1340, British Library MS 42130.

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