Psalm 1, 19 Sep 21

Justice begins at home

Psalm 1, together with Psalm 2 which follows, form a sort of introduction to the Psalter. The clear call here is the importance of each person seeking to follow an upright life in good company. A warning to the dissolute (which never includes us of course) tells us that, like charity, justice begins at home.

Psalm 2 broadens the viewfinder from the personal to nations and humanity.

Encouraging us to study divine ways and principles, this psalm is typical of the fluid poetry, even more beautiful when sung, of the whole Psalter:

Blessed are they who do not walk in step with the wicked … They meditate in the law day and night. They are like a trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season with leaves that do not wither.

Psalm 1:1-3

While people are free to choose their own adventure, the psalms suggest that the path taken should avoid the marshes and look for the high moral ground.

Psalm 1, Beatus vir, in the Bedford psalter MS 42131, British Library. The image shows Samuel anointing David.

Being first in the Psalter, this psalm attracted special attention for illuminated and historiated initial capitals in old manuscript psalters. This illustration shows the initial upper case capital B from the opening phrase in Latin, Beatus vir (Blessed is the one) in the Bedford Hours.


So what musical delights shall we offer this Sunday? Several options are listed in the main page on Psalm 1. However, at Woden Valley Uniting we shall take a different path and look to earliest times.

Turning back to the first psalm suggests we might turn back to a very early musical tradition, that of the antiphonal chant. The psalm tones and Gregorian chant were mainstays of sung prayers and liturgies for a millennium prior to the Reformation. In Western Christianity the Roman rite was pretty much the only game in town, or at least in monastery and cathedral. This style, inherited from early Jewish practice, still strongly influences modern singing.

Typically, phrases, lines or verses might be sung alternately by priest and choir. Or two choirs — Renaissance choral settings were sometimes written for either odd or even verses, cantor or second choir taking the alternate verses:

Introit and opening bars of Psalmos de visperas 8 (vesper Psalm 111 Vulgate) by T L de Victoria. This setting for SSAT includes odd verses only. Another setting by Victoria for SATB included just even verses. This psalm happens to begin with the same two words as Psalm 1 – Beatus vir.

The whole psalm would generally be sandwiched between a short choral piece before and afterwards called the antiphon.

The words of Psalm 1:1 by David flow down margin and along the foot of this historiated capital B in a manuscript from about 1220, in the Swiss digitised collection, Zürich.

Protestant worship may have moved away from this sedate style for good reasons, including evolving tastes and preferences in secular music. However, we still retain the call and response idea so suited to poems in couplets.

While in lockdown and participating in isolated ones and twos, the atmospherics of such traditional worship — cantor’s intonations, reverberation from stone walls slowly fading, harmonies of a good choir, muted organ pipes, unified responses of congregation — these cannot be reproduced in anything but imagination and memory.

However, a long glance back to roots can be informative and enjoyable. So it is that we attempt to kindle these echoes of the past, bringing them to life even as we sing in our separate locations.

Note the introit line Beatus vir qui timet Dominum at the beginning of the vesper psalm example above. This chanted introit is not just any old notes but part of one of the eight standard psalm tones (actually nine including the Peregrinus but that was used sparingly). These provided fundamental melodic lines for both chants and elaborated motets. (More on tones>) So let us use that.

Psalm tone 2, from the Liber Usualis, which was the user’s guide to Gregorian chant. Square notation on four line staff in F clef. The actual pitch could float and was not tied to the modern key.

As the cantors lead with the first phrase in each verse, singers at home take the role of the choir, responding with the second line in unison. A simple antiphon will be presented before and after the psalm.

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