Psalm 27: Light and refuge

‘Show me your way; lead me on a level path’ (11)

Ps. 27, 13th c. French manuscript, Getty Museum

The illustration from an early French manuscript shows David being anointed by Samuel. The Latin version of the first verse quoted at the outset reads:

“Psalmus D[avi]d, priusqua[m] liniretur (before he was anointed). Domin[us] illuminatio mea et salus mea quem timebo?”

This psalm offers encouragement in difficult times, weaving together two commanding threads. First is the imagery of light, beauty and goodness. Calling to mind references to the ‘light of the world’ (John 8:12) and ‘light upon my path’ (Ps. 119:105), it is a theme found in many psalms: “God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? God is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?” (1)

The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see beauty all around and commune with that spirit of love. (4)

Second is the idea of refuge — protection, salvation and shelter. This attribute of heavenly care is also mentioned frequently in the Psalter. Here, David feels that his enemies surround him; his answer is to sing. (6) The psalmist thus merges illumination, guidance and clarity together with security and forgiveness.

🎵

Considering that this poem is set only twice in three years of the Lectionary cycle, it has been unusually popular with musicians. Perhaps the potency of the blend of those two themes is the key. Verse 1 quoted above is clearly suitable as an antiphonal response, and many of our sources base a refrain on some variation of this idea.

Looking first at modern settings, one blog suggests over 20 songs. A partial summary of some good choices follows.

  • The Taizé round The Lord is my light is appropriate in this context. A gathering used to singing these sweet songs will relish two tunes blended together as well as the two entry points for each theme, making effectively four parts. The sound will be effective either unaccompanied or with a light backing of guitar, flute or such instruments.
  • PFAS offers no less than ten settings, including this Taizé round. A discussion of the whole list is tempting; but since responsorial settings are preferred, suffice to note that all (27A from Taizé, B, E, F and H) rejoice in that first verse, highlighting either the ‘light and salvation’ or the ‘strength and courage’ topics, or both.
  • Everett in TEP also uses the second of these two themes.
  • A different approach, using as response a verse from Isaiah: “Do not be afraid I am with you”, will be found in TiS 16, a beautiful paraphrase and setting of the verses by Christopher Willcock. Enchantment springs in part from his imaginative and unusual harmony changes, moving between Eb and EΔ tonalities accompanied by related chords, and all supporting a lilting tune.
  • The home-grown setting shown below is equally restrained but a little more challenging for singers.

This little piece is locally known as the ‘Half-dim’ antiphon acknowledging several half-diminished chords (minor seventh flat five, subject of longer discussion in a February 2016 post) — perhaps an unfortunate title when rejoicing in the bright rays of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the paraphrased verses to the same tune. Listen:

Turning briefly to the classical scene, remarkable in the listing online are not only the plethora and variety of settings for Psalm 27, but also the occurrence of little-known composers. Ever heard of Supply Belcher, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Sigismundo d’India or Orazio Tarditi? More familiar and exciting names are there too, like Charpentier, Lassus and Sweelinck. But they write demanding music for five or more voices, often with basso continuo.

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