Psalm 80 by Asaph is a cry for restoration by the ‘Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’. As strife continues all around, the singer seeks a more peaceable zone, perhaps by the still waters and safe pastures of other familiar psalms. The psalmist invokes the Creator’s strength and justice to intervene and bring safety to the people. A promise of faithful obedience (verse 18) concludes the song before the final repetition in verse 19.
The modern reader might be mystified by the historical references early in the song. Israel and Joseph are familiar enough names, but why do Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh get a mention? (v.2) Leaving the intricacies of tribal history in the north and south kingdoms to the expositors, this can be taken as a prayer that all tribes will be equally blessed. In the modern era which seems to be witnessing a resurgence of racial intolerance and supremacist movements, the psalm could not be more apposite.
The message of the first few verses is pretty plain:
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel … Restore us; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (verses 1, 3)
Asaph trusts that preservation from a raft of trials and tribulations is assured, and that it may be both individual and collective.
It’s often said that the biblical image of shepherd and flock has lost its punch in modern urban life, especially in this wide brown land. Maybe, but coming once across a couple of modern shepherds wending a path through a busy market street in Bruges, complete with band and children’s play castle, the action was instantly recognisable. Even if you had never seen it before, the shepherd’s role was evident.
Looking again at the psalm, verse 3 quoted above appears again verbatim in verse 7. After a change of imagery to the vineyard, that same line returns in the final verse 19. This is clear internal evidence that the poet had a responsorial plan in mind from the beginning. So it’s easy to pick a line to use as a sung response.
Besides several SATB classical settings, there are two rather more demanding ones by Purcell and Mendelssohn.
- The former is in English but in eight parts. Purcell has not conceived the setting as two SATB choirs like much of the music of the Venice school of the 17th century, of which more later. Sometimes Purcell has the singers in close harmony, almost homophonic. At other times he playfully weaves selected parts around individually. At other points, two halves act as high then low voice choir almost antiphonally.
- Mendelssohn‘s work is for TTBB, so may be well within the reach of even some smaller choirs and groups. However, the original envisages continuo accompaniment and it would lose something without that.
- There are several other SATBs on the web, including the rich Slavonian Orthodox ‘Cherubic Hymn’, a Latin gradual for Advent Qui sedes Domine from the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom by Dmitri Bortniansky(1751-1825)
Modern settings are equally rich and varied. The choice of an antiphon is easy with verses 3, 7 and 19 forming that recurring prayer of supplication:
Restore us O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved.
Psalms for All Seasons uses this verse in the responsorial setting 80A. This antiphon may be taken as usual as a single response: it also lends itself to division between groups of voices in call and reply. Separate phrases could be allocated to good effect to small groups, solo voices and the congregation:
PFAS also provides a tone for the singing of the verses. However, a scanned version of the words can be written and sung to the tune of the response — a common practice at South Woden:
Hear Shepherd of Israel, leading your flock / shine from on high upon Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin
Rather surprisingly, the refrain in New Century Hymnal ignores the internal antiphon, preferring the second half of verse 2: “Stir up your might and come to save us”. Everett uses it in his nice lightly syncopated refrain in TEP.
After introducing the idea of antiphon within antiphon, we must refer to the St Mark’s 11th century church in Venice. The early choirmasters at St Mark’s in the 16th century took warmly to the idea of double choir works, writing in 8 parts or more. Masters like Willaert and Schütz, encouraged by the independent nature of Venice as the second most important city in Italy, as well as by the presence of two organs and two choir lofts, were innovative and free in their exploration of the form and wrote many rich masses and anthems in that style.
Under Giovanni Gabrieli the performance forces, according to A history of Western music, grew to “unheard-of proportions”.
The choirs may sing alternate repeated phrases, sometimes overlapping, sometimes echoing, sometimes developing to a new theme, sometimes coming together at a dramatic moment or an important part of the text.