Psalm 68, 28 May 17

IMG_3012In the ‘bookends’ at beginning and end of this long psalm, the psalmist calls for the great kingdoms of the earth, their flags proudly flying in the national capitals of the world, to recognise the divine supremacy of ‘the rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens’ and invites us to lift songs of thanks and praise. Between these bookends of praise for divine power and ubiquity comes a recitation of providence and caring for people over the centuries:

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in a holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in, and leads out the prisoners to prosperity. (vv. 5 and 6)

Such verses are followed by others emphasising care for the needy, homeless and destitute. (v.10)  As Jesus, that quintessential observer of human nature observed, regrettably the poor are always with us. (Mark 14:7) So how does a government, or political or religious group that aspires to govern, honour that call and at the same time deny the homeless, refugee and persecuted; withdraw education and basic rights of freedom to women and girls; or weaken the social safety-net and leave these things to market forces? As discussed in Psalm 2, 119 and others, the aim is to recognise and rule by ethical standards outlined in ‘theWord’. An outcome is suggested in the final verse:

Ascribe power to God … who gives power to the people. (vv. 34-5)

Music

An easy option is a cantor singing the verses to a tone, answered by a people’s refrain:Ps68 Antiphon Tune 1Jun14

Sing to God O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God who rides the ancient skies above. (vv 32-33)

The tune is a simple ascending and descending major scale that may be sung as a round against a simple repetitive harmonic pattern. The congregation sings two parts, part 2 starting at bar 2, while children can repeat just the first phrase in a simpler and more easily learned part.

As usual, there are good alternatives in the other sources, such as PFAS 68B, which is repeated from Everett’s TEP with a tone added for chanted verses.

 

Psalm 66, 21 May 17

This psalm is a cry of joy for divine guidance and deliverance.

Come and hear, you who fear our maker, as I tell how God rescued my soul. I cried to God and was answered; God’s praise is ever on my lips (vv. 8, 9)

The psalmist feels that he has been pulled through the briar bush backwards, expressing that experience somewhat more elegantly as being ‘tried as silver is tried’, rescued, refined. In another image we have encountered previously, he feels downtrodden and ‘went through fire and water‘ (v. 12) – two of the elemental foundations of our existence as seen by Aristotle. After that ordeal, God led him to ‘a spacious place’. This is an enticing phrase – we relish somehow the idea of entering a spacious place. Architects live and breathe this idea, not because they are architects but because people feel comfortable and open in such a space. Other translations say ‘a place of refreshment’.

And for an off-the-wall take on Psalm 66 from Australian theologian Ben Myers in his #psalmtweet summaries of the Bible:

The water lifted itself up in a heap and gave a bow, and all Your people marched across on dry land.

Music

Music to suit this poem could be from a thousand angles. One source suggests songs as widely spread and as loosely related as ‘O little town of Bethlehem‘ and ‘All hail the power‘. Many sources of sung responses for this week’s psalm refer to the idea appearing especially in the last lines of the Lectionary selection verse 12, that of restoration after trials:

We went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a spacious place (NRSV) – or ‘a place of refreshment’ (Everett)

The first half of the psalm is in the form of a communal thanksgiving, while the second half moves to a more personal note. The full psalm is too long for us to enjoy fully the value of this juxtaposition. One writer summarises the theme of our psalm for this week as:

Make a joyful noise, God’s brought us through some rough stuff.

In slightly less exuberant tone, if not substance, Psalms for all seasons number 66A antiphon goes like this:

E              D               E
 Cry out to God in joy all the earth
 Give glory to the name of the Lord

Simplicity has its own power, and this is manifested in this response by overlaying a simple tune over alternating chords. The tune for the verses expands on this slightly.

FIRE_01

Far more cogently, Isaac Everett as usual in The Emergent Psalter has fresh ideas. He firstly invites us to sing one of his characteristically syncopated swings about the fire and water experience – an attractive option. Then another off-the-wall idea with Buffy the vampire slayer’s Walk through the fire.  (Tempting: but innovation and recency appeal more that its emphasis on burning.)

Psalm 31, 14 May 17

Palms at Percy IsThis psalm, combining many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity, appeared in the Lectionary just last month. It was discussed in a post for Palm Sunday, a summary of which follows.

This is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay. Enduring all opposition, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words quoted by the dying Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” accounting for this reading in Holy Week and Easter.

As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

Psalm 116, 30 Apr 17

Here is one of those confusing points of discontinuity between the numbering of the Latin Vulgate Psalter and the modern western translations. 114 and 115 were combined into what is now 116 in our Psalter. This explains why settings ovr the years are listed as quoting from Psalms 114 and 115.  The incipit Credidi of Victoria’s setting of Psalm 116, for example, is Psalm 115:1 in the Vulgate, “Credidi, propter quod locutus sum; ego autem humiliatus sum nimis / I believed, and therefore will I speak; but I was sore troubled.” This is a nice four-part arrangement of odd verses only and thus identifiable as a vespers psalm. This verse now appears in the English Bible as Psalm 116:10, not even an odd verse. Cope.

ShadowLike Psalm 30 and others, Psalm 116 is a paean of thanks for deliverance from the power of darkness and, in particular in this psalm depending on the translation, the hold, anguish or entangling cords of the grave. So the psalmist resolves to walk in the divine presence in the land of the living (v.9) – a fine suggestion. The second half of the psalm is an act of dedication, so strongly felt that the psalmist’s declarations of trust and invocation are to be made ‘in the presence of all God’s people’, which we shall do in singing this psalm.

Such numbering disparities appear in the lists of other classical arrangements, whether having the same incipit Credidi, like those of Lassus and Monteverdi, or other titles listed as selections of Psalm 114 or 115. Besides this tempting piece from Victoria.

Paschal de l’Estocart (about 1538 – 1587) a French Renaissance composer from Noyon, who was considered to be quite an innovator, wrote a set of all 150 psalm settings including this one, J’aime mon Dieu, (Delixi quoniam which is Vulgate 114:1) from 1583. The melody is in the tenor, falsobordone style. The transcription bears the sub-heading: “Mis en musique pour quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit parties par Paschal de l’Estocart, de Noyon en Picardie.” His Psalm CXVI is for five voices.

Modern sources also call on different verses for the antiphon. As usual, the choice of medium will be influenced by the preferred message:

  • The five entries in PFAS, two being responsorial, are marked by simplicity, perhaps too much if measured purely on the musical scale, which of course is not the main game. So 116D offers eight notes for eight words: “I love the Lord who heard my cry.” (v. 1) An alternate refrain is alike in brevity: “I will walk in the presence of God“, quoting verse 9. Verses are sung to a tone.
  • The next choice, 116E, uses that alternate refrain of 116D with a melody (again simple) for verses added.
  • NCH uses the final phrase of verse 1, “I will call on God as long as I live”, in a refrain with a little more interest — some swing, the chords alternating between Bb and Ab, and an echo voice.
  • Everett’s refrain in TEP is predictably more syncopated. He goes for verse 8, focused on deliverance and guidance.
  • TiS 71 avoids the prosaic by providing a double tone for the verses, and two refrains. These are drawn from verses 9 quoted above, and 12: “How can I repay?
  • And finally, a home-grown chant features the verses sung on a single note. The verses have been paraphrased to sit more comfortably in this double-tone type of arrangement. Two cantors may sing a half of each verse antiphonally. No ornamentation is shown here but may be used in moderation in accordance with the cantors’ inspiration, or perhaps to subtly reinforce the chords changes moving around underneath. Superficial simplicity:ps116-hg

Psalm 16, 23 Apr 17

Like the twenty-third, this is a psalm of trust and protection in divine presence, the source of goodness and guidance. David describes God as his portion and cup, evoking familiar imagery in themes that connect well with daily life. Less familiar but interesting are some other phrases that might easily pass unnoticed in a quick reading.

First, in verse 6: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in (or enclose) pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” Most of us in the developed world can rejoice in having been dealt good cards — a well-favoured estate, physical and otherwise, as inherited by the psalmist. We seldom think of our situation as defined by boundary lines, but limits are implicit in our inherited circumstances. What we do with them is up to us.

Secondly, in the next verse, we find a point of contact with many meditative and mindfulness observances practised in many cultures around the world: it is by listening reflectively to our own hearts that we may often find divine guidance. There are several other ideas floating around; for example the apostle Peter quoted the later verses of the psalm in Acts 2, declaring that David was foretelling Christ and the resurrection. David concludes the song by affirming: “You show me the path of life. … there are pleasures for evermore.

Music

Of the four settings in Psalms for All Seasons, three follow our preferred format of a refrain with sung verses. All of these three emphasise the theme of refuge and protection:

  • 16B has a slightly longer refrain and verses set to a lively tune
  • 16C introduces a simple refrain by Christian Strover (© 1973) with an equally simple but effective chord line of Gm-EbΔ-Dm7-Gm.
  • 16D uses the same refrain as 16C but verses are sung to a tone.
  • 16D Alt (a new tune which departs from the protection theme, and might therefore have been better listed separately as 16E) also follows that familiar pattern of verses sung to a simple tone, with a refrain quoting verse 9. This could be sung as call and response if desired:

Cantor: My heart is glad and my spirit rejoices
People: My body shall rest in hope.

The Emergent Psalter also uses this verse 9 quoted above in an easy refrain; find your own verse treatment as usual in this source. The New Century refrain, this time by Carolyn Jennings, quotes the final phrase: “In your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” A home-grown setting by the author also uses these closing phrases.

There are a couple of songs in the ether that are highly suitable for male voices. A good example is Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by Orlando di Lasso (1532 – 1594). It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.

 

Psalm 118, Easter 16 Apr 17

All this was written long ‘BCE’, of course. But the idea is carried forward to the New Testament, with Jesus revealed as the stone in the first letter of Peter, appropriately enough as the apostle who was named ‘stone’: “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word … But now you are God’s people … now you have received mercy.” (I Pet. 2:7-10)

Freiburg-im-BreisgauVisitors to ancient cities like York enjoy discovering quaint and remote features: the Shambles; archaeological remains of successive eras under the cathedral; hidden misericordiae within, saints and gargoyles without. The Shambles provides just a hint of the chaotic life in early times; narrow alleys, stalls, clamour, smells and all sorts of behaviour, seen and unseen. Fairness and justice were features of common law but may have felt a little out-of-place here.

Justice

These overhanging buildings, now nicely renovated and refreshed, are only about 500 years old. Concepts of justice were built into English common law long before then. The Magna Carta of 1215 is a famous example. Well before that, biblical precepts were being absorbed into official and secular mores by early rulers.

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

In the 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) wrote them into draft proclamations by King Cnut. The British Library notes: “The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents.”

God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York, and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations. The psalms tell us that the concepts of justice and equity emanate from the just Creator spirit at the beginning of time.

Building blocks

So here are some of the biblical building blocks of justice in the modern rule of law. They are fundamentally strong in this country despite some glaring blind spots. On the whole, however, despite centuries of law-making around the world, justice is still rough, equity lacking. And as for equality, the struggle must go on. Buyers of The Big Issue, an Australian charity magazine, may have seen a special edition devoted to the growing gap between rich and poor. Will such truths ever convince societies and governments? That corner-stone appears in verse 19. The stone that was rejected became the chief cornerstone of a new world of faith, a new system of justice and life. There is not always a keystone at the top of arches but it’s common enough. However arranged, a key block is the chief cornerstone in holding a structure together.

The Easter story opens a new chapter of this search for justice and justification. We hear every year from Psalm 118 that Jesus was the building block, despised, rejected but destined to be the basis of a whole new world and a whole new way. This way recognises and compensates for our essential inability to keep the scales of justice and equity in true balance. Here is how that enduring and powerful text looked in the 1540 Henry VIII Psalter:

Psalm 118:22 (modern numbering), Henry VIII Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 A XVI

This detail is included it not only for its intrinsic value but also to note that the Latin ‘caput anguli’ suggests it’s not the ‘chief’ in terms of size or weight, but the head at the top of the arch or corner of walls, holding it all together.

Music'Laudate Dominum'; detail from a motet by Lassus

There are dozens of classical settings of this psalm, including some classical pieces by Renaissance and later composers. Lassus wrote one called Dominus mihi adjutor, starting with text from verse 6. There’s one for 16 voices, four quartets, by German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) that runs to 50 pages in one modern transcription. All parts are shown on each page so there are but four bars per page; those pages would flick by quite fast but it’s still a major work. Praetorius (whose family name was originally Schultze, of rather less superior airs) was a German Lutheran. So, in a way, was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther wrote a lot of words — poems, sermons and ideas — but also several songs, including the well-known Ein feste burg, ‘A mighty fortress’, based on (you guessed it) a psalm, in this case 48. So he was quite capable of running up a good harmony. Perhaps he spied verse 17 of this psalm from a hundred paces and was moved to write the short and sweet four-part motet, Non moriar sed vivam. No doubt the text fitted his mission perfectly:

I shall not die but live, and tell the works of the Lord.

Plaque on the rebuilt Damenhof where Luther advocated the centrality of justification by faith.

A building in Augsburg bears a plaque recording the fact that therein, Luther defended himself before the Papal investigation of 1518. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as we know (well, he was a bit rough on the Pope) and he went into hiding.

By way of contrast, in style if not underlying message, The Building Block by Paul Stookey mentioned above has long been a favourite. A cantor sings paraphrased verses, the people responding with joy, vigour and, of course, good harmony parts.

As a reading for Easter, there are a swag of settings in Psalms for all seasons to choose from. An old favourite tune suggested therein is ‘This is the day‘. It’s quite repetitive, but this suggests a possible antiphonal approach, one group serving a phrase (con brio of course) and another group volleying it back.

NCH presents one of Carolyn Jennings simple and effective refrains: “The righteous shall enter the gate of God.” Verses may be sung to a double tone.