Psalm 1: Justice begins at home

Justice begins at home

Psalm 1 is a sort of introduction to the Psalter. The clear call is the importance of seeking to follow an upright life. The inevitable warning to the dissolute, which never includes us of course, tells us that, like charity, justice begins at home. 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.

Encouraging us to study God’s ways including the psalms, this fluid poetry is the typical of the fluid poetry, even more beautiful when sung, of the 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
Psalm 1, Beatus vir, in the Bedford psalter MS 42131 British Library.

This psalm, being first up in the book, attracted special attention for illuminated and historiated initial capitals in the old manuscript psalters, such as the initial upper case capital B from the opening phrase in Latin, Beatus vir (Blessed is the one) in the Bedford Hours.1 The image shows Samuel anointing David.

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As a popular and meaningful song, the text in various languages has been set to music by prolific masters such as Schütz, Sweelinck and Tallis. Rachmaninov uses it in his wonderful All-Night Vigil, Op.37. Another setting rejoices under the rather unpromising title of: “The man is blest that hath not lent, by Uriah Davenport“. His rather plaintive setting for Psalm 1 appeared in London in 1755 in ‘The Psalm-Singer’s Pocket Companion’. You have a copy always on your person, no doubt?

Turning to more recent music:

  • In general, the Spanish settings in Psalms for All Seasons with their syncopated rhythms and good chords always catch my attention. Feliz la gente (PFAS 1E) seems no exception; however, responsorial arrangements, which this one is not, are preferred for congregational engagement and contribution.
  • PFAS 1B is of that form, but may be just too anodyne (save that it’s a round) for the serious musician.
  • Judy Hunnicutt’s refrain in NCH is similarly quite simple (two chords), training the spotlight on verse 2 and presaging the towering Psalm 119: My delight is in the law of God
  • Everett’s approach in TEP is typically ‘outside’, in the musical sense, using modern voicings and rhythms. It’s essentially in G major but with key signature of C major; first note is A, first chord is B minor. Enjoy! He likes to use YHWH or Yahweh instead of God or the gender-specific ‘Lord’.
  • TiS has a nice setting in a Thai melody.

This first sample of music from the chosen sources (see Introduction) is fairly typical of what’s to come. PFAS has many choices and presents lovely options to suit most tastes and occasions. NCH is reliably singable and inclusive. Everett thinks and swings. TiS may hit the spot with something exotic – but not so often.

1 Bedford Hours, British Library MS 42131, f.73r