Psalm 27, 21 Feb 2016

Light on snow
Maybe no snow here, but dark paths can be forbidding anywhere.

God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

Light the light of the world (John 8:12) and light upon the path (Psalm 119:105) — is a theme found in many psalms, in words that have become familiar by virtue of repetition and songs based on such verses.

This psalm offers encouragement, weaving together two threads of thought.

First is that of light, beauty and goodness. The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see  beauty all around and commune with that spirit.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.Second is the idea of refuge — protection, salvation and shelter. Light merging with security.


Taking advantage this week of Jon’s presence at the helm, we gather a male voice quartet seeking good harmony and stretching beyond our usual weekly diet.

The Taizé round The Lord is my light and other responsorials are enticing. However, we propose to render a home-grown setting that is equally restrained for Lent but a little more challenging for the singers. The antiphon invites those gathered to make that opening declaration their own:

Cantors: God is my light and my salvation
People: Whom shall I fear?

Ps27 Hdims

I call this little piece the ‘Half-dim’ antiphon after the opening half-diminished chords — perhaps not very suitable a title when rejoicing in the bright rays of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the verses to the same tune. If the technology works, listen here:


The male voice quartet will also sing Thou knowest Lord by Henry Purcell (1659-95) as the gradual, a prayer of access. The sentence is borrowed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Referring liberally to such psalms as 139, it begins:

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our pray’rs; but spare us, Lord most holy.

Rather quaintly to the modern ear it continues, a precursor to Good Friday, with the prayer: ‘suffer us not … to fall from thee’.

Acknowledgement. Images in this post by Libby O’Loghlin, CC BY-NC-SA

More on Half-dim?  Continue reading “Psalm 27, 21 Feb 2016”

Cloud-capp’d towers

You won’t find that little phrase in the psalms: but poetic imagery is there in spades. Part of the fascination of the psalter is the special place in our lives of poetry set to music. As noted previously, the synergy of music and word is somehow magical — a classic case of the sum being greater than the parts.

A second attraction is that through the ages they have been widely accepted across cultures and different faiths as a broadly inspirational heritage.

Anoher Bard

That can be said of the works of William Shakespeare, of course, from whom the title phrase is culled:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.  — The Tempest, act iv, sc. 1.

Towers and palaces


This text was used in 1951 by Ralph Vaughn-Williams in his Three Shakespearian Songs. This one comes to our attention, if you have read this far, through the late Andrew Sayers, artist and former curator and director in galleries. This piece was chosen (by him) for inclusion in his memorial service this Sunday afternoon 6 December 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, of which he was the inaugural director (more …). The Oriana Chorale directed by Peter Young will offer this lovely piece for the occasion.

Interestingly, this text has been excised from the middle of a longer ramble late in The Tempest, about visions and spirits dissolving and resolving with the trajectory of the tale. Context is important. Drop these lines with music into a time of commemoration or reflection and the moment assumes a new more universal and powerful atmosphere.

In this case, the song may be more existential than inspirational: but we can do with more moments of feeling the unity of humankind. Sometimes it’s in times of sadness, but remembrance is also thankful for our ‘little life rounded by a sleep’; for the power of poetry with music; for artistry, imagination and grace. These are the reasons why we sing the psalms. Here’s one of many versions on YouTube of this poignant reflection:

Benedictus (Zechariah), 6 Dec 2015

The lectionary in some seasons substitutes a canticle or other reading for the psalm. We can hardly feel short-changed: we sing most of the psalms over the three-year (weekly) cycle, compared with less than 10% of the rest of the Bible. Anne Richardson, of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, writes:

All three of the non-Psalm options in Advent of Year C are in the format of one of the groups of Psalms referred to as the individual thanksgiving Psalms or Songs of Praise.

Accusation or anunciation
The annunciation, 16th C carving, Toulouse

So this week, the second Sunday in Advent, we find the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah in the psalm spot. The Latin name comes, as usual, from the first few words of the text:

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel / Blessed be the Lord God of Israel


Psalms for all seasons suggests two chant-style settings.

  • The first (page 1013) is pure simplicity — two notes, two chords throughout, in Gregorian tradition but even less adorned — which has its own beauty.
  • And the second is like unto it (quiz; where did this little phrase come from?) but with more of a flourish.
  • Additionally, a third option, again similar but with variations, is a home-grown setting to the SW Communion Chant.

However, this week at South Woden we are privileged to be treated to a session in which Len and Sue will report their experience at a recent modern theology conference in the USA. We will sing not this canticle but the other NT reading from Philippians. Sue has chosen a tune by Father Frank Anderson MSC, with verses by a cantor and a chorus:

I thank my God each time I think of you
And when I pray for you, I pray with joy (Phil. 1:3,4)

All singers welcome, meeting a little early on Sunday.

Next Week

Another canticle, this time the First Song of Isaiah. We return to a lovely song by John Bell to which we have moulded the words to make a great children’s song, complete with uke and Hallelujah for evermore! Our good friend Jonathan Barker leads us.

Psalm 16, 15 Nov 2015

Most weeks I look up the lectionary and, lacking a reliable (let alone encyclopaedic) memory, the first thing I do is look back in this blog history or my Psalm Library to see what goodies I have in the cupboard from last time. There I find a couple of settings of Psalm 16 and things that I wrote about last year, including making reference to that positive but slightly tantalising little verse in the middle;

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage (v.6)

Orland_di_LassusThere are a couple of songs in the Library highly suitable for male voices: for instance, Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by one of my faves Orlando di Lasso (1532 – 1594). Phwoar! It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.

Then there’s a little number from PFAS (16D alt) with some nice harmonies and thereby also enticing.

So I get all excited and wonder if I can get the boys together in time….  Then I realise that some of my gentlemen harmonists will be flat out rehearsing for:

The Resonants’ 25th anniversary concert

Saturday 14th at 4:30 – 7pm at the Belconnen Arts Centre (more>>)

If that looks like a plug and tastes like a plug … Well why not? The Reso’s are a lovely small choir founded and directed this quarter century by a lovely small musician in our midst. We locals are in for a treat. Anyway, this means we’ll take the PFAS option. All singers welcomed, from anywhere in the community. Singers, contact me psalmsinthesouth[at]

Back on track

But back to the topic. It’s a bad habit. We really should look at the psalm text first and connect with its overt and subliminal vibes. The music follows.

This reveals something about Psalms in the South. Your humble web-master and cantor is decidedly no theologian, commentator, analyst or even pillar of faith. We love the poetry, the way the psalms are predictive of New Testament events and precepts, and the range of ideas covered including such just-out-of-reach prizes as equity and justice. Sure they are poetry and therefore need imagination and interpretation; it’s hard to find a female perspective in the psalms, and they will keep talking about Zion. But they offer solace and encouragement for a decadent world.

But at core, it’s music that draws us like moths to the candle. How convenient that, emerging from little textual comments and the mists of antiquity and practices of faith, comes this firm belief that psalms are songs. David and his harp, simple folk tunes applied to storytelling from the heart, Gregorian chant, and then the high art of Renaissance polyphony that so often works its majestic way into these pages.

Words music togetherSomehow the lines take on a new depth and nuance when sung: ‘Words, music together beautiful’ as the Chinese calligraphy on our wall says.

The psalter in song is a treasure trove waiting to be explored and expressed.

So there goes another week and all we talked about was music. See you next time.

The Magnificat, 21 Dec 14

This lovely Song of Mary, found in Luke 1:46b-55, is called Magnificat since that is the first word of the text in the Latin:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?You can feel the thrill springing up in her heart — to be the mother of the promised one!

The subject of this outpouring of joy is not just personal, although that surely would be enough for several songs.

She quickly broadens the focus to recognise divine benevolence to all the faithful, bringing mercy, justice and equality:

God’s mercy is for believers from generation to generation. God has shown strength by deeds, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. (vv. 50-52 alt.)

Each newbornIt is a lovely song, reminiscent of the Song of Hannah, mother of Samuel. Mary’s thoughts and examples range across both the personal and the community, with many ideas threaded into the central theme of Mary’s awe at this surprise honour.


Over the last few years our ladies and girls have sung versions of this song to inspiring effect, the Canticle of turning in 2012 and then Holy is your name (PFAS p. 1020 — see the post last year for discussion of other music options).

All women and girls are welcome to share this experience again, meeting on Saturday for the first sampling of an arrangement in Psalms for all seasons.

You may wish to add your comments on this reading.