Psalm 23, 26 March and 7 May ’17

IMG_1067The Shepherd psalm arises again in another of its frequent appearances.

Following the desolation of Psalm 22 (“Why have you forsaken me?”), the restoration and peace in this the next psalm is a comfort. How sweet is resolution after a time of conflict, oppression or depression. The Psalter does not say ‘No pain, no gain’. This would be inconsistent with the concept of grace. But its songs often reflect on the coexistence of suffering and joy, and the power of divine love to transform one into the other:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. (Ps 23:4)

This poem in many minds may be irrevocably tied to Jessie Irving’s famous tune CRIMOND (TiS 10). However, many other fine choices are available to the enterprising music group, while still respecting the much-loved phrases of this psalm. One excellent choice to sing tranquillamente is a setting in the beautiful Spanish language from Psalms for All Seasons 23I, written in 1975 by Ricardo Villarreal. The people’s refrain is as follows: “El Señor es mi pastor; nada me puede faltar / My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.” This is sung in G minor, the root chord alternating with its dominant seventh D7. The verses, best sung with feeling by a small group (in South Woden in recent years it has often been by male voices) slip into the related major key of Bb, before quite rapidly modulating smoothly back to that G minor again. Neat and effective. (It’s a powerful but not unusual progression, similar to the attractive pattern in Show me which way to go which we encounter with Psalm 32, though the changes come in a different sequence.)

Some other modern settings follow:

  • If building a Spanish theme, Santo santo, an anonymous tune from Argentina which may be found in TiS 723 would nicely supplement this psalm as incidental music.
  • TiS also has a Gelineau setting at No. 11
  • PFAS offers ten other settings including a t wo-part responsorial setting by Marty Haugen at 23G
  • Carolyn Jennings in NCH uses verse 2 in a simple singable melody and harmony for the refrain. Choose your own tone for the verses.
  • Finally, don’t overlook the great Paul Kelly song Meet me in the middle of the air, which draws on Psalm 23 and I Thess.4:17. Lovely song, good harmony.

Tempting classical music for contemplation includes J S Bach‘s canatata BWV112 based on this psalm. One short section, 112e which is verse 5 for example, would grace any worship gathering. Another nice setting for a trio is Der Herr ist meine Hirte, by G P Telemann.

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, Psalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

William Shakespeare, who died around 400 years ago, was around and writing when the Authorised or King James Version was prepared and published (1611, also the year when Tomás Luis Victoria died). Despite some speculation about the words ‘shake’ and ‘spear’ appearing in Psalm 46, there’s no known connection between the writings of Bard and Bible. The purposes and intended audiences of William and David were quite different. How fortunate we are, though, to have two such rich contributions to our heritage, culture and literature.

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