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.

Music

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  Continue reading

Psalm 99, 22 Oct ’17

Image: Wikimedia commons

‘O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity.’ (v. 4)

At last, Psalm 99! This is worth waiting for. The verse quoted above with its key words of ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ is one of the most vital and important statements in the Psalter. It says that justice and equity are pillars of creation, a fundamental element of the blueprint. This unobtrusive gem of a verse is just waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade. An apparently modest but meaningful verse is tucked away in the middle of the shouting and show. What is it that the people are actually proclaiming between the earth shaking and the pillar of cloud? Not “Lift up your heads ye gates”, or “Bow low ye princes of the earth”, or “Glory glory”, but that God is holy, just and righteous (3), leading to the cited explication: “Justice, equity!” (4)

Unlike rulers of earthly nations, who not infrequently display nepotism, favouritism, vengeance, inconsistency or just plain selfish evil in their ruling, here the psalmist imagines a set of standards for human equality for rich and poor, for high-born and low, for female and male. Implicit in the creation of the universe and humankind was an intention for equity … ‘created equal’. Inequities and iniquities come from human weakness and selfishness, not from any flaws in the divine goodness that is somewhere within us all. Note the word ‘established’. Created, devised, part of the plan.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

The long-winded Anglo-Saxon law code – issued by King Cnut, influenced by the Bible, discussed at Psalm 118 – is a foundation of English law. Here in the psalms is another cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, an essential element of creation that is not hidden in heavy books of law nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.

Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities painfully evident in the world around us. But the psalm reveals that justice and equity were in the plan from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. We have a responsibility to both. The implication is that we are not fighting a losing battle, that spiritual support and delight are not far away. Isaac Everett comments:

Equity didn’t exist in the days of Moses and Aaron, nor in the days of Samuel, nor does it exist in our world today. There are still rich and poor, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed. Where other psalmists would pray for an end to such things, however, this psalmist boldly declares that they’ve already ended, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. I love it.1

For Professor Tom Wright, the ‘cosmic drama’ of Psalms 93 to 99 thus includes:

‘… the human dramas of actual injustice that produce the longing that the cosmic promises might come true in smaller human situations.’2

Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real.

Music

Most settings celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verses. Admirable enough but, surprisingly to this author, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 on justice to create the ringing response that it deserves. Even the reliable PFAS suggests that we ‘trembling bow in worship’; while in the redoubtable CPDL online at the date of publication, here is the only offering, an early work by Heinrich Schütz:

All rather faint. When this song offers that gem of verse 4, surely it must be the centrepiece? Isaac Everett, whose comments have been quoted above, is on the money with his antiphon in The Emergent Psalter.  He uses the now-glowing verse quoted at the outsetHis tune and chords roll nicely around B minor then D major and related progressions; but as usual for him, verses are spoken.3

Informed by the encouragement in many psalms to ‘sing a new song’, and in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the South Woden Uniting Church to be celebrated on 22 October 2017 at Pearce in the Australian Capital Territory, a new setting has been written for the occasion. (View score>)

Truly, this verse codifies a theme that should often be heard in our gatherings, a reference song in any tune in our hearts, an example for the rulers of nations.

Notes; Continue reading

Psalm 106

‘Happy are those who act with justice, who do what is right.’ (3)

Psalm 106 drawing to a close the powerful Book IV of the Psalter is related to the previous song. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. A warning against selfishness accompanies a plea for divine guidance and grace. As a good leader, Moses “stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath.” However, provocation made Moses angry and he acted in haste:

By the waters of Meribah they angered God and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (33)

Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. Verse 3 quoted above is a reminder of the insistence on the centrality of justice that runs throughout the Psalter. In the frustratingly faltering pursuit of social justice today, here also are lessons for the worker about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure. (See also Psalm 81)

Incipit to Psalm 106 by Thomas Tomkins; B and TII entries only.

As to the music, in the early 1600s Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings, including 106 for four male voices. This would be a satisfying sing and edifying contribution, probably as incidental music since it presents verse 4 alone.

In more modern sources:

  • The refrain in PFAS 106B invites us to sing: “Cast every idol from its throne”. This might be a good song if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not always appeal as timely.

  • The response in TEP is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period generally available in weekly gatherings.

  • NCH has a simple refrain but no sung verses. Use a tone.

  • PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. First, it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony if enough singers are available.

Psalm 19

‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)

Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)

The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1

He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.

So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)

These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.

The winner for complexity probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.

Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts.2 But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.

Psalm 19 Genevan

In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.

An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:

  • Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.

  • Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.

  • PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:

  • A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 78, 1 Oct ’17

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow.

God … appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children (5, 6)

Then (12-16) come reminders of the wonderful escape through the Red Sea, the guiding pillar of cloud and fire, and the water from the rock. Imagery is a powerful aspect in the psalms. Scientists have offered various explanations on the Red Sea’s behaviour under Moses’ rod, such as local wind conditions altering the tides in the shallows so that sandbanks were revealed. The psalmist sniffs at that and, whether realistically or impressionistically, writes with bold hand:

God split open the sea and let them pass through; the waters stood up like walls. (18)

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

The image of water gushing from rock in a desert land certainly captures the attention of dwellers in the great dry south land. The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist. However, stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable.

I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (2-4)

The associated Exodus 17 reading gives the full unedifying detail of Moses and the rock, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’. It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of woolly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a walking stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, when you are parched in the desert it’s hard to focus on the good times, the miracle of the plagues and the Passover, the sea parting and the fall of the pursuing horse and rider. This is not intended to encourage blind faith or recklessness. We are responsible for ourselves after all, bearing our own and one another’s burdens.1 A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw faith and guidance from absorbed biblical values.

As to these ‘dark sayings’ (‘hard sentences’ in the BCP), previous posts (September 2014 and November 2014) have commented on tales like the the folly of the Berlin Wall. Few sections of this wall are still extant, most having been reinstated years after being unceremoniously pulled down. Meanwhile, however, walls are still seen by some as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.

This song arises twice in the Lectionary within weeks, but that only every three years. Here are some suggested refrains, mainly drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:

  • Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)

  • We shall listen (TiS 41). [At SWUC, assured of an interesting and encouraging time together under Roger’s capable leadership, the full gathering will sing this song antiphonally.]

  • God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)

  • Forget not the works (NCH)

  • Linnea Good proposes this response: “Stay awake with me, listen carefully.”

Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the Psalter, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing.

1   Galatians 2 and Philippians 2

Crystal Ball; Oct ’17 and Advent.

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

This ‘sticky’ post is intended for South Woden readers.

Scroll down for an important notice at the end of this post.

The year has flown and the Crystal Ball tells me that October is nearly here, which means Year B is coming down the track. So, subject to the choices of worship leaders, what is in store?

  • 1 Oct. We start with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, and TiS41. As we did on 10 Sep, all sing as a congregational antiphonal; the two sides sing alternating lines.
  • 8 Oct. Psalm 19 (‘Let the words of my mouth‘) comes up. TiS 7 is nice with a double tone. But habit prevails; we return to By the rivers of Babylon. Two verse cantors required.
  • 15 Oct. Psalm 106. A soloist leads us in PFAS 106A.
  • 22 OctPsalm 99:4 ‘O mighty God, lover of justice; it was you who created equity’  is the ‘long pole in the tent’ celebrating justice in the Psalter. It’s also the SWUC 50th anniversary. Party! Everett’s refrain in TEP is a good one but, since there are no verse tunes, we follow a local composition on that key verse 4.
  • 29 Oct. Hopefully a male voice quartet for an Orthodox Slavonian chant for Psalm 90.
  • 5 Nov. Would like to reprise the Psalm 107 setting in PFAS 107C (also in TEP) for three parts. It’s fun.
  • 12 Nov. Psalm 78. Maybe TiS 636, or revisit TiS 41 from 1 Oct.
  • 19 Nov. PFAS 123A suggested. Webmaster is away this week; leader required
  • 26 Nov. Old 100th, perhaps in TiS. Some of the SATB setting by Josquin des Prez if singers are available.
  • 3 Dec. Advent begins with Psalm 80. PFAS 80A would fill the bill.
  • 10 Dec. Go direct to Psalm 85 and the SWUC Communion chant, adapted.

Singers are needed on many occasions in October; we will recruit singers for Nov/Dec a little later. Rehearsals are @5:00pm on the Saturday before, as usual. Besides a chorus for refrains, we need:

  • Cantors for verses on 8, 15, 22 Oct. (REGISTER BELOW PLEASE)
  • All on deck for Anniversary 22 Oct.
  • Male voice group 22 and 29 Oct.

Psalm 104, 17 Sep 17

‘You make springs gush forth in valleys, they flow between hills.’ (10)

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. The author’s feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (2-4)

Kanga on the Keys with Joyful Joey? A creation full of wonders.

The song continues relishing the diversity and complexity of creatures and the environment. As in several other psalms (145 for example) divine love also sustains and provides for this diverse living planet. In these days of global warming, extinction of many species and desertification, this picture can be lost in the fear. However, the psalms long for times when divine love working through people can regenerate and fulfil the intention of the blueprint.

The poet is certain that our world is wonderful and enduring: “You have set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never move.” (5) Psalm 102 counters that all things shall pass,1 however this poor little verse had the dubious honour of being one of those the church cited to condemn evidence of heliocentricity. For more on Copernicus, see Psalm 86; and beware literal doctrines.2

The settings in TEP, PFAS and the NCH are all suitable. The refrain from TiS 65 perfectly suits the theme of caring for our environment to  be taken up this week by our leader, Keith. Versification will be modified to the lectionary selection rather than that in the book. We shall also sing the verses to a different, home-grown tone — with a little swing added.

The hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff mentioned under Psalm 103 is also relevant here as it shares similar text.

And just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.

1Psalm 102:26.

2Refer also to Psalm 93:1