‘Unless God builds the house, in vain the builders labour.‘ (1)
Psalm 127 is a short song of ascent and, unusually, a song of Solomon — or according to some sources a song by David for his son Solomon. Its good advice seems at first glance to be a few unrelated apothegms about building, sleeping soundly, and the joys of children. Join the dots as you wish.
Its opening verse quoted above, and then the warning that city watchmen without divine protection are wasting their time, are reminders not to pursue on your own bright ideas entirely alone.
Without reference to biblical principles, spiritual inspiration and maybe a little commonsense, often to be found in friends and colleagues around us, the danger of self-absorption arises.
This is worth consideration by anyone undertaking a new project, or just continuing the long fight against injustice. And according to verse 2, do get a good night’s sleep!
Then there’s a sweet section about the joys of having children, seen as a ‘heritage’ and a ‘gift’. (3) This text is said to be an inspiration behind some of the poetry in Kahlil Gibran’s ‘On children’ fromThe Prophet.
As mentioned last week, review of the public domain or a search for the Latin title, in this case Nisi dominus, turns up all sorts of interesting music. 32 items are listed in cpdl.org, and that does not include the Vivaldi Nisi dominus mentioned below. Here are a few of the big names.
Claudio Monteverdi had three tilts at this psalm with settings for 3 and 6 voices, plus a grand work for double choir for his resounding Vespro della Beata Vergine. Extending to 90 minutes in performance, this ambitious work employs voices accompanied by various instruments, a true delight for the early music vocalist, whether chorister or soloist.
This towering work is commonly known as the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, which reminds us that the pinnacle work of renowned late Renaissance Spanish composer Tomás Luis Victoria, the Officium defunctorum (a royal requiem) was published just five years earlier in 1605. [It was the Record Society’s LP of the Officum that captured this author in pre-teen years as slave to early a cappella music.] These two works may well mark the transition from Renaissance to Baroque era.
Victoria also wrote three settings for Psalm 127 (for 3, 4 and 8 voices), including this one for vespers in which the choir sings odd verses only (‘versos impares’):
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741, a near contemporary of J S Bach) was another prolific and much admired composer. His Nisi dominus is an interesting work since it has nine short motets using various phrases drawn from verses throughout the psalm, the first movement quoting the eponymous verse 1. An unconfirmed story, one that is indeed tempting, tells that work may have been written for an ensemble of female musicians at the Ospedale della Pietà, a refuge for abandoned children.
The mention of Vivaldi might well conjure up in your musical memory banks the bustle of busy violins in The four seasons falling over each other to pack as many notes as possible into every beat and every bar. Fear not. When he comes to verses 2 in his fourth movement –
Cum dederit dilectis suis somnum / For he gave to the beloved of his rest
Vivaldi adopts a mood to fit the text, a classic feature of Renaissance and Baroque composition. He calls on recognised snoozy references of the era — the strings are to use mutes, the slow siciliana style rolls along calmly, and musicologists point to some meaningful features like progressive chromatic tones which you may hear in the next clip. Anyway, the result is most delightful.
And it seems that the Italian town of Modena produces more tasty delights than just balsamic vinegar. Here is their Scuola Euphonia Modena consort in a beautiful setting producing beautiful music for Psalm 127:
Text: Cum dederit: He shall give sleep to his beloved; behold the inheritance of the Lord are children: the reward, the fruit of the womb. (Douay-Rheims Bible).
In modern sources, PFAS 127B would be a great sing — good words, rhythm and chord changes. Requires a bit of practice. The Emergent Psalter, as usual, offers an innovative and catchy close second — and, just for interest, it begins on the seventh of a Cmin7 chord.
And speaking of good chords, New Century‘s refrain is also short and sweet with the chord progression of Eb – Fø/Eb – Fdim – Eb. There’s nothing in TiS .