Psalm 34: Seek peace

‘Seek peace and pursue it’ (14)

This is another acrostic poem probably, as seen in verse 11, for educational purposes: “Come children and listen to me; I will teach you the way of God.” David draws on a particular occasion when he avoided disaster (see 1 Samuel 21) to encourage praise and trust in a more general sense: “Many are the troubles … but God will deliver”. (19) So he urges exaltation (3) and invites listeners:

Taste and see that God is good; happy are those who trust. (8)

Taste and see… Psalm 34 sometimes also appears in the Lectionary for All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Day, which of course follows but is not related in the Psalter in any way to Hallowe’en and its pumpkins.

The song refers frequently to divine care, guidance and protection for ‘the righteous’, those who seek (and sometimes even achieve!) justice, love and equity. The mood is far from passive satisfaction. Who among you loves life? (11) Then, says David, ‘… do good, seek peace, pursue it!

🎵

Together in Song 22 is a ready choice, although the solo verses will benefit from a reasonably experienced cantor.

Here is an example of a simple locally-composed refrain that can be refitted with words according to the text. The refrain shown below was composed and sung for different occasions (eg Ps 98 ‘Sing a new song’).

Most settings in handy psalmodies home in on verse 8, quoted earlier; ‘Taste and see that God is good.’ However when celebrating All Saints Day there will naturally be a preference for a refrain referring however indirectly to saints.

This we find in the New Century Hymnal which provides two antiphons by Jane Marshall, one for the Proper and one for All Saints. Her refrains are simple and singable: the former with good modern harmonies, F Eb Bb- Db∆ Eb F; the latter combines the sense of thanks from early verses with the acknowledgment of people in all ages who have found and offered succour:

Happy are those who find refuge in God.

This is again from verse 8 but the second half. It is surrounded by references to people who seek and serve divine standards in personal and societal life – the saints.

Turning briefly to the early music and classical scene, the psalm has been used as text for many musical settings, including several specifically written as a Gradual or psalm antiphons for All Saints Day observances. The entry in the tenor voice for one such, by William Byrd, is shown below:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ps34-timetewmbyrdincipit.png
Timete Dominum, O fear the Lord; tenor incipit from Psalm 34:9 and 10 by William Byrd, for five voices SSATB. First published 1605 in Gradualia I no. 30

Byrd also wrote a separate motet using different verses (12 – 16) for more general use. In this motet the sopranos introduce the theme, to be joined sequentially by the other four vocies:

Soprano entry in Psalm 34 Quis est homo for five voices by William Byrd

Several other excellent settings of this psalm by early composers can be found online, and many more can’t. Tomás Victoria’s motet concerns itself with verse 1 aloone, and that’s in Latin — Benedicam Dominum. So while there are some nice versions sung by various groups available, the lack of words in no way detracts from the beauty of this performance buy a recorder consort:

If you want a vocal session, try the quite similar composition by Victoria’s contemporary, Giovanni Croce (1557-1609), sung beautifully in Berlin by Sirventes, a group of women. Several composers chose the promissory theme of verses 10-11, often used as a gradual for All Saints:

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