The Psalms

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That small collection of poetry called the Psalms, 150 of them, has long been a favourite amongst poets and musicians in both sacred and secular settings.

Most of the psalms were probably written or evolved as songs, passed down the years by listening and singing in synagogue, church, mosque, market place, monastery or even palace.

Over the centuries in many faiths, a strong tradition of singing the psalms has continued as a golden thread linking poetry, music and the human spirit. For there is something inspiring and thought-provoking about hearing or singing these often strange-sounding verses when set to music. The author’s reticence to propound on any religious matter has been overcome by some widely accepted factors:

  1.  The psalms are songs; music liberates the text in our imaginations and aspirations
  2.  The psalms belong to no particular theological persuasion; inherited from Hebrew tradition, they are recognised and sung in all three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  3. The psalms have inspired, and continue to aspire, composers from many cultural traditions to write works sung and appreciated in both sacred and secular contexts.

The psalms are essentially poetic and deserve to be sung.

The 150 psalms are broken into five books starting with 1, 42, 73, 90 and 107. From ancient times, scholars have tried to group them with varying credibility, The most common surviving labels are:

  • The Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143)
  • Songs of Ascents (120 to 134), sometimes called a gradual
  • Those by David (3–41, 51–71)
  • Songs of Asaph (50, 73–83)
  • Psalms by the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88)
King David playing the harp, British Library MS Add 15282 c. 14th C.

About half were said to be written by or attributed to King David. David is also recognised as the Prophet Da’ud and psalm author in Islamic writings [- more here>;  and here>.] According to tradition, he accompanied the song with the lute or some sort of simple stringed instrument perhaps like a cithara.

The antiphonal tradition works for us; in response to the text of the psalm or a group of verses, the people engage, acknowledge and affirm by singing a simple refrain, usually drawn from one of the key verses. Theologian Ben Myers, summarising the psalms recently, tweeted:

The invention of antiphony: when my heart broke in two, l taught both parts to sing.

We use both responsorial (people respond to verses by the cantor or choir) and antiphonal (cantors or choir groups call and respond to each other, eg alternate verses). Both monophonic and polyphonic chant and song are used, the latter more regularly, according to the style and era of the piece.Shadow

Gloomy? Some psalms are decidedly dark. Lamentation prior to a sense of relief and thankfulness is a common pattern. Psalm 14, for example tells us about widespread foolishness, corruption and evil — as if we don’t know. And a separate page is devoted to The Penitential Psalms.

It’s easy to duck these psalms and look for a happier alternative. That of course misses the point of historical and expressionistic poetry of lament. A blog title on Faith and TheologyThe psalms and the blues: a little help from James Baldwin, (25 Sep 2014) caught my jazz-oriented sensibilities. Author Ben Myers gives valuable advice:

If we think the happy psalms are merely happy and the sad psalms are merely sad, then we’ll also assume that the psalms of vengeance are merely immoral and vindictive, or that psalms of conquest are mere glorifications of military violence – without seeing the whole tragic history that gives rise to such outrageously tenacious expressions of faith. Perhaps we’d have a better ear for the psalms if we remembered that they are the precursors not so much of Victorian hymnody as of the spirituals and the blues. One catches the true spirit of the psalter in the old African American song:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Glory hallelujah!

A note on numbering

Some music, particularly early settings from pre-Reformation, medieval and Renaissance sources, cite psalms that have different numbers today. The psalm numbers used in the modern Bible come from the Hebrew translations, shown as H below. In earlier years and today in some traditions, the numbers followed a Latin version called the Vulgate (V).  The numbers in some areas differ slightly:

1. Psalms 1-8 (V) = Psalms 1-8 (H) 
2. Psalm 9 (V) = Psalms 9, 10 (H)
3. Psalms 10-112 (V) = Psalms 11-113 (H)
4. Psalm 113 (V) = Psalms 114, 115 (H)
5. Psalms 114, 115 (V) = Psalm 116 (H)
6. Psalms 116-145 (V) = Psalms 117-146 (H)
7. Psalms 146, 147 (V) = Psalm 147 (H)
8. Psalms 148-150 (V) = Psalms 148-150 (H)

Psalter in the British Library, MS 578; in parallel Greek, Latin and Arabic versions.
Psalter in the British Library, MS 5786; in parallel Greek, Latin and Arabic versions. Before 1153 CE