Psalm 98 comes up every year without fail at Christmas and other times. So is there anything new to say?
Of course there is. Each reading of the psalm brings a fresh song, comes at a different moment in our lives. Perhaps that’s why it starts in verse 1 with “Sing a new song”.
Why always a new song? What’s wrong with the familiar and well-worn, the traditional? It’s a question that arises for the psalm singer every week. Do you stick to refrains that people know, sing happily and smile; or succumb to new musical or harmonic temptations, accept worried expressions in the interests of exploration and inspiration?
This call to sing a new song is not an isolated offhand comment. The same invitation is made in other psalms, including 33, 96, 144 and 149. Sometimes when turning to what we sang last time, the choice seems stale, or just does not appeal for some reason. Circumstances alter cases, as J M Barrie reminds us in The Admirable Crichton. The poetic nature of the psalms, to say nothing of the changing balance of our lives, asks for a new view each time they are sung.
This particular song celebrates, and imagines the whole creation celebrating, the created divine standards of equity, justice, goodness and love, regardless of the gloom in the 7 o’clock news.
There are dozens of ‘new songs’. Bach did a great piece called Singet dem Herrn, a cantata that needs to be taken at a clip for full effect. Here’s a very small sample of some other more demanding pieces listed on the Choral public domain for Psalm 98:
– Orlando di Lasso SSATB (vv. 1-4)
– Claudio Monteverdi SSATBB (combined with Psalm 96); and one for 2 soprani
– Johann Pachelbel SATB.SATB – two choirs please!
– Michael Praetorius vv.1-3 SSST.ATBB and vv.4-6 SSSAATTBB – whew!
– Heinrich Schütz, SATB.SATB – another double choir piece in the Venetian style.
Responsorial psalms are very much the norm in this context. Many settings cater for this tradition by writing a cantor’s call and a people’s response. Here is the response from a ‘Salmo responsoriale’ by modern Italian composer Paolo Pandolfo (1964-):
There are of course plenty of nice songs within reach of amateur groups. Together in song, characteristically skipping some verses and gender inclusiveness, does at least cover this psalms in song numbers 56 and 57; and the refrain in TiS 166 (‘Sing a new song’) is suitable even though the verses have little to do with the Psalm. Sing the verses to a tone or a paraphrase to the verse tune in TiS.
Psalms for all seasons and The emergent psalter have other suitable settings, and this has frequently been heard at South Woden:
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