God gave creation a law that shall not pass away.’ (6)
This popular psalm is in the middle of the final group of half a dozen songs of praise which bring the Psalter to a climax. In broadly imaginative evocation of all elements of the whole universe uniting together in praise of the creator, its poetic flights are a hallmark of the psalms.
Psalm 148 echoes Psalms 96 to 98, also set readings for Christmas, and is incorporated into the canticle of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego whose story in the book of Daniel, incidentally, is also a source of the phrase ‘feet of clay’. The poet is intent on sweeping up the whole creation; the word ‘all’ is sprinkled liberally throughout:
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! (Ps 148:9-11)
Such powerful words ring throughout this psalm, a resounding song of praise. The opening verses look upward into the fantastic heavens and all that rushes around in it. Yoda in mind the psalmist had not. However, cruising around way back in the 14th century Yoda was, and evidently a French illustrator the moment captured. The British Library, who have this image somewhere safe salted away, have this to say:
The jewel in our Star Wars crown is the very Yoda-like creature [shown here], which can be found in a book of canon law now known as the Smithfield Decretals. Written probably in Toulouse, the manuscript arrived in London in the early part of the 14th century, where numerous marginal illuminations were added. When we first meet Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back, his age is given as 900 years, meaning that he would have been about 260 at the time of the illumination of the Smithfield Decretals. It is therefore entirely possible (if not probable) that this is a portrait drawn from life. (more…)
In more serious vein, the psalm soars in two imaginative flights of a half-dozen verses each. At the end of each dream comes the moral of the story.
- First is a tour of creation. The moral appended is the quote at the outset, pointing to the fact that a law, revealed elsewhere in the Psalter as a rule of love and justice, was wound into the design.
- Second is everything that enjoys life and beauty within that vast creation, concluding with young men and maidens, old and young together in a picture of equity. After this second flight, the added ‘moral’ is that strength is ordained for the ‘loyal servants, the faithful, the children of Israel’. Just in case we are tempted to dismiss this as literal geography, the psalmist presciently adds the rider: ‘people who are near God’, those who sign up to the rule of the divinely-sourced law.
Well, enough frivolity and back to the music. Reviewing this classical scene, one finds an Orthodox psalm setting in the Russian style by Atanas Badev (1860 – 1908). Few will be familiar with this composer but it turns out this ethnic Macedonian was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. Wikipedia advises he was:
… the composer of The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (first published in Leipzig in 1898), one of the most significant works of this genre from the end of the 19th century.
This work is not to be confused with an earlier Liturgy with the same title by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, nor a later one around 1910 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The first Badev piece from this work is a surprise. One might anticipate the rich multi-part dark minor chords of the All Night Vigil, the ‘Rach-stack’, sometimes with that gorgeous but usually unattainable low B flat at the bottom of the stack. Instead, it’s nice but in a major key and lightly contrapuntal, more Western baroque than Eastern. We will label and pigeon-hole our music.
The extensive treatment of the Penitential Psalms, including a major work published in 1565 by Lassus with a short motet for each verse, has been mentioned elsewhere. To round off his two books of these seven psalms, Lassus then added an eighth a cappella song of praise to end on the upbeat. This is a combination of Psalms 148 and 150. Like the others in this major work his setting for 148, Laudate Dominum de coelis, includes separate pieces for up to six voices. If on the lookout for good music that is within the reach of the small choir, look within these settings for Part 3 which is usually written for three voices. In this case, singing of ‘young men and maidens’, it is verse 11 of the modern text:
Interesting recordings abound. Psalm 148 together with 150 was added as an additional note of praise at the end of the major work on the Penitentials by Lassus, Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales.
Beautiful as it is, that opus is quite long. However, I was rather taken by a short setting by Schola cantorum Labacensis, apparently arranged and directed Slovenian organist and teacher Tone Potočnik in Ljubljana. His specialty is Gregorian chant but this short piece has an aura bestowed by some added minimal modern harmonies behind the ostensibly unison chant:
Turning to more modern music, Psalms for All Season boasts no less than eleven choices, several of which are responsorial. Even a few singers holding parts would enjoy interpreting PFAS 148H, a setting by George Thalben-Ball (1896 – 1987) with nice chord progressions. Thalben-Ball was originally from Sydney but quickly established himself as concert pianist, organists, conductor and composer in England. We often hear that musicians are good at sight-reading or improvising but not both [hangs head]. Sir George, like Papa Bach, Bill Evans and in fact many others, was one of those who could sight-read easily, as well as improvise and transpose at the drop of a hat.
TiS has no responsive settings but includes two paraphrases, the familiar tune AUSTRIA by Haydn (93) and a nice refrain by John Bell (94). Many other good songs are listed online in Singing from the Lectionary.
Here also is a simple home-grown refrain to be sung as a round:
The mention in verse 8 of ‘fire and hail’ (hot and cold on the heels of those monsters of the deep) conjures up the James Taylor 1969 song about loss (in fact, by a friend’s suicide). A nice song, but not one for these psalms:
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, you’ve got to help me make a stand … / Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. / I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.