Psalm 122: Pilgrimage to peace

‘Peace be within your walls, and quietness within your towers.’ (7)

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey
A place of peace and justice. Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Psalm 122 is not only a Song of Ascent (the third) but also one of pilgrimage to the centre of divine love and justice. Psalm 120 told a sorrowful tale of living afar amongst alien people; the next one 121 starts the journey to Jerusalem (“I lift up my eyes to the hills…’); and finally in this psalm the pilgrim arrives. In the Orthodox tradition and no doubt elsewhere, these three are sung together, often during Lent.

The psalmist is delighted to arrive in ‘the house of God’, not just a church but a holy place, a city of peace (Jerusalem), a space of unity (3), justice (5),peace (6) and quietness (7) — all much needed in the world today. Significantly, the psalmist’s motivation is altruistic:

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

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A long list of classical compositions ranges from relatively unknowns Arigoni and Bauer through to Vogel and GJ Williams, encompassing more famous names like Blow, Haydn, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Victoria and Vivaldi. Most pieces start with the familiar opening declaration, appropriate for a Song of Ascent:

Laetatus sum/I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

The psalmist continues by imagining him or herself and the people (tribes) of God ascending through the gates of the holy city to give thanks and seek justice. (v. 4-5) Other composers have spied the peaceful intent of this prayer of ascent in verse 6, no doubt applying it, as should we, beyond the physical meaning of the city named:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

Antiphon to Ps. 122 Arundel MS 83, British Library
Antiphon at Psalm 122 in the Howard Psalter, British Library Arundel MS 83 f80v

This is a lovely poem with many musical settings, including a short antiphon beautifully adorned in the illustration of the Howard Psalter shown here. The first phrase refers to but is not identical with verse 1 of this psalm:

In domum Domini ibimus/We shall go into the house of the Lord.

The second phrase after the vertical ‘ant’ marker is a response that may refer to the incipit of Psalm 91 (90 in the Latin psalter):

Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi/He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High

Singers were expected to know the text sufficiently that such abbreviated words, indicated by superscript dots or commas, would be sufficient to jog the memory. This jogs my memory of singing Qui habitat à24 by Josquin des Prez. This is a setting of the first 6 verses of that earlier psalm for 24 voices, irreverently known amongst our chorale members, particularly the irreverent basses, as ‘Who lives at No 24?’

Moving on to the present-day selections:

  • TiS 78. First in the modern music section we find an interesting piece in the ‘Red Book’ Together in Song by Abbé René Reboud. The refrain is arranged for SATB, with verses sung by either the male or female voices singing different melodies. These parts and melodies are not complex but would take a little learning.
  • PFAS. The refrain in 122D eases the burden of learning by having a cantor sing a phrase at a time for the people to follow. It draws on verse 1 but those wishing to emphasise the peace theme could use the alternative refrain, Dona nobis pacem, a simple round in D. The next song, 122E Let us go rejoicing, could also be made responsorial by having people sing the last line which is common to all verses. 122F paraphrases the text into three verses with refrain.
  • NCH. Somewhat unusually, the refrain in NCH passes over the peace theme in verse 6 and uses the second phrase, “May they prosper who love you”. Taken thus on its own, the refrain loses the context and acquires a slightly self-serving ring about it.
  • TEP. Isaac Everett, perhaps recognising this possibility, has chosen verse 9 from this same passage at the end of the song which constitutes a prayer for Jerusalem. His paraphrase subtly shifts the emphasis towards extending justice to others.