Psalm 90, 29 Oct ’17

‘Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’ (12)

Psalm 90 (89 Vulgate) Gregorian chant

Book IV opens with the only contribution by Moses to the psalter. Psalm 90 displays his grand vision: ‘For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night’. (4) It warms forsaken feelings experienced by Job and the saddened psalmist with hope, promise and light:

How long? Have compassion on your servant. Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so we may rejoice and be glad in all our days (13, 14)

A promise, a prayer, a connection, if not the full state of grace. In times of darkness we can still feel hope, in touch with life and people.


Such grand vision seems to call for a broad historical perspective in the choice of music, whether Gregorian chant such as that shown above from the Liber Usualis, through Orthodox drawing on rich early harmonies, to African-American and the simple tone. Varied offerings from different eras form a dialogue of musical traditions. In the primary modern sources used in this study, several useful refrains are offered. In the classical area there are at least thirty SATB settings for Psalm 90 on the Choral Public Domain site, many employing the well-worn Isaac Watts paraphrase O God our help in ages past. There are also several for larger choirs and groups such as those for six voices by Lassus and Matthieu Le Maistre, both published around 1566.

From the major cultural centre of Byzantium, the Eastern Orthodox Church spread in its various forms, largely through south-east Europe, Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Russia, now rejoicing in some 300 million adherents. How many psalm singers in such lands draw on this rich historical culture? Orthodox music is rich. Think Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s All-night Vigil, the ‘Vespers’. Modern singers and listeners alike still savour this ancient spiritual and musical stream.

Tucked away in Chevetogne in Belgium is a Catholic monastery that devotes considerable effort to bridging the gap between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches caused by divergent calendars, traditions and observances. These many differences have caused competition over centuries, but many shared beliefs and practices remain. The Benedictine monks of Chevetogne have made a contribution to this cause by recording some great songs of the Slavonian and other Orthodox liturgies. A local arrangement of one of their chants, originally a setting for the Beatitudes but here employed for Psalm 90, starts thus:

This tune is best presented by four similar voices. For those without such resources to hand:

  • The old favourite hymn O God our help in ages past, found at Together in Song 47 is an easy solution. However, the text covers only the first six verses, missing much  poetry of value.
  • The antiphons in The Emergent Psalter and New Century, both using the opening verse savouring the eternal nature of God, are fine.
  • For a more personalised and intimate refrain, with pleasing tone harmony for the verses, PFAS 90C calling attention to verse 12 wins by a length: ‘Teach us to know the shortness of our days; may wisdom dwell within our hearts.’

For South Woden readers 

Your Principal Psalm-Peddler is away this weekend. Hence this post is out early to allow you to make arrangements.

Singers may wish to have a go at the Orthodox piece which the men have sung previously some years ago. (Download here>)

Otherwise, I’d go for the PFAS 90C. Draw a copy from our library.

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