Psalm 96, 97, 98; 25 Dec 20

[Note: no sung psalm at South Woden, balancing family moments and carols with the great virtue of brevity.]

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A joyful package suitable to a joyful occasion, these three songs for Christmas Eve and Day sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96 begins with the much-sung ‘Sing to God a new song’. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm — or I should say opening phrase; nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses. The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in earth and heavens, and includes repeats of bits of other psalms like 29, 93 and (relevant in this clutch of readings) 98:7-9. It’s also the source of that sweet phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’.

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Ps.96 ‘Cantate Domino’, from the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540, folio 118r. British Library. Click to enlarge.

The magnificent old manuscript shown in the image at right is known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. It opens with a dedicatory letter by Jean Mallard, who wrote and probably illuminated the manuscript. It begins: ‘Regium istud Davidis’, a prefatory and perhaps fawning nod which likens Henry to King David.

This Psalter was very much a personal reference. The British Library says:

As indicated by the many marginal notes added in the King’s own hand, the volume became Henry VIII’s personal copy of the Psalms.

So it seems that the psalms had high profile in earlier times. The illustration in Psalm 97 (our 96) shows angels singing within an ornate golden initial capital of Cantate Domino – ‘Sing unto the Lord’.

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 and fresh hope each time they are sung.

Psalm 97 takes on a more feisty tone, declaring the enmity of false gods and carved images. These days, they might be identified as fascination with youth, self-promotion, nationalism, wealth or power. The psalmist calls for The Force to awaken against this dark side. As the penultimate verse would have it: ‘Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the truehearted.’ (More>)

Psalm 98 again urges us to lift up  our voices to sing a new song.

O sing to the Lord a new song, who has done marvellous things. … Sing praises to God with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. (1-5)

This time, we are encouraged to bring along our harp, trumpet and horn. The psalmist broadens the focus to call for vibrant harmony among all nations with creation and the Creator.

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Psalm 98 celebrates. It imagines the whole creation celebrating divine standards of equity, justice, goodness and love, regardless of the gloom in the 7 o’clock news. This delightful poem has the created world singing and clapping along, anticipating this rule of justice.

This strong theme enters in verse 2, in which divine righteousness is on display. Mercy and faithfulness follow, and the song concludes with a resounding promise: ‘God shall judge rightly, and the peoples with equity’. (9) The theme continues in the next psalm, 99. (More on Ps. 98>)

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As mentioned above, there are dozens of ‘new songs’ from years ago. Bach did a great piece called Singet dem Herrn, a cantata that needs to be taken at a clip for full effect. Being by Papa Bach, of course, there are many good versions on the web. The one above is selected due to the choir’s visit to the Adelaide Festival for 150 Psalms earlier in 2020. The Netherlands Bach Society also do a fine version. [Your webmaster has sung the piece several times with equal fervour — if not with such accuracy and good looks. Can’t have it all.]

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. [Trivia question: did you know Schütz had a daughter called Euphrosyne? She thought this non-trivial.]
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More simply, a duet based on 1551 Genevan in the Scottish psalter.

There are of course plenty of nice songs within reach of amateur groups. Together in song, characteristically omitting some RCL verses and gender inclusiveness, does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in favoured responsorial style. Psalms for all seasons and The emergent psalter have other suitable settings.

An antiphon inviting us to: “Sing a new song to God, who has done marvellous things” (Ps. 98:1) has been heard reasonably often at South Woden.

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Merry and blessed Christmas to all readers around the world.

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