Psalm 15, 29 Jan 17

A song of ascent

A song of ascent

Psalm 15 (text here>) this week, probably used as an introit or gradual, asks who may dwell in God’s ‘tent’ or ‘holy hill’. The remaining verses provide a checklist of rather challenging qualifiers, from the grand ‘live blameless’ to the nitty-gritty of ‘take no bribes’. The challenge is really encouraging the reader continually to seek to connect with sources of divine presence and goodness.

Those who study structure have noted a degree of symmetry and balance in the group of nine psalms from 15 to 24 inclusive, being chiastic in form or mirrored around the central psalm 19:

  • 15 and 24 are entrance liturgies
  • 16 and 23 are about trust
  • 17 and 22 are laments
  • 18 and 20-21 are about the victory of the king
  • 19, creation and other tales of the Torah

Music

An impressive motet Domine quis habitabit by Thomas Tallis (1505-85), while rather long and calling for five voices, is worth a brief preliminary mention. The score may be found in Tudor Church Music p. 246, or on the web in CPDL.

Psalms for all seasons suggests two responsorial songs. 15B asks that question “Who shall be welcome in your tent?”, and the verses rather repeat the checklist of how to get into the A Team. The next setting 15C is excellent. This is a superb gospel-influenced refrain that we have sung several times:

I’m gonna live so God can use me, anytime anywhere.

The psalm’s call and response structure, widely used in gospel music, supports an approach of engagement, response and identification by all present. The verses may even be sung to a 12-bar blues, discussed in the context of the preceding Psalm 14. This refrain rounds up all those rather random dos and don’ts in the list of qualifiers into a much more positive general inclination for life – be available. The vaguely legalistic approach of the Old Testament is thus broadened and enriched to New Commandment principles; no lists of good and bad behaviour; just be ruled by love. After all, do you really want to sing ‘Don’t lend money for interest’ or ‘take no bribes’ (v.5) over and over, however reverently? Much more freedom, much more challenge, and a much more positive and active message. A touch of faith not works. And the African-American style feel adds a real spark.

Slightly less exuberant but still swinging, Everett’s refrain in The Emergent Psalter also recognises the disadvantages of concentrating on the behaviours list. He chooses just to pose the initial question, leaving us to decide. The simple tune is based on the unusual but satisfying chord sequence of Bm A F#m G, following the fifth degrees of each triad.

Other traditions adopt a more sedate style. Anglicans, for example, will default to a restrained but expressive chant which always, usefully, deploys a well-known form for the convenience or comfort of both singer and listener. This has the advantage of a standard pattern for all psalms essentially of ten chords, four allocated to the first phrase or line and six to the second. It can be embellished melismatically and extended as a double tone, as in the following example by Francis Melville:

ps15-anglican-melvilleVerse 1 would thus be sung to the first section of ten chords as follows:

Who shall abide | in thy | tabernacle? || Who shall dwell | in thy | ho-ly | hill? ||

The harmonisation is actually fairly traditional in that first section, four flats but essentially in Bb minor. Its more adventurous side comes out in the next section, where the chords move along in unexpected modulations. Noting the chiasmus structure mentioned above, this setting by F Melville Esq. is from his arrangement of both Psalms 15 and 24 in sequence, the final verse of 15 modulating nicely via Bb major to the next key of D for 24.

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