Psalm 42: As the deer pants

‘God grants love at day: at night, a song is with me.’ (8)

Australians, at least those who live or travel anywhere near the open dry spaces of this continent, know what thirst is all about. Indigenous plants and animals evolved to survive through hot summers and droughts. Aboriginal people were expert at finding water in dry creek beds, trees and grasses.

Sooner or later in a long dry spell thirst will catch up with expert and novice alike. Elijah in the Old Testament story this week (1 Kings 19) must have felt it, as alone and fearful he fled from persecution far into the wilderness (that Jezebel must have been a real piece of work). Elijah finally came to the end of his tether, sat down under a broom tree — and even that was a ‘solitary’ broom tree — and wished for death. That’s what the psalmist has in mind at verse 1:

As the deer longs for following streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Cathedral walk in the Bungle Bungles

Then follows the famous episode of the still small voice following earthquake, wind and fire. It is matched in the psalm by deep calling to deep in the thunder of cataracts; but after a day of God so demonstrating steadfast love:

… at night the song is with me (v.8)

Internal evidence suggests that this psalm was originally part of or associated with the previous Psalm 41. However, the Lectionary reading in Year C flows smoothly onwards to Psalm 43, where we come across another familiar verse:

Send out our light and your truth, let them lead me; and let them bring me to the holy hill and to your dwelling (v.3)

Music

Psalm 42, especially the thirsty deers, seemed to capture the imagination of composers over the years. Mendelssohn and Luther did their own translations of the poem, and many settings exist.

One of the earlier pieces (apart from early Gregorian chants in the Roman liturgy or counterparts in the Mozarbic and Gallic liturgies) crops up in a mass written by 15th century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. He calls this verse into service for times of bereavement, when surely the soul thirsts for comfort. This section is sparse, being for ‘superius and countertenor’ voices. It could be adapted, of course, but it’s not very suitable as the centrepiece for the singing of the psalm in the modern service. It’s also in Latin:

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

A setting connected with the psalm by JS Bach however, ‘Freu dich sehr‘, another work demonstrating effective use of the hemiola, is available in a translation:

Psalm 42 tune from Bach’s Freu dich sehr
A Monteverdi part-book page

Incidentally, Elijah’s despairing cry is repeated in the incipit of a popular madrigal by Monteverdi from his Fourth Book of Madrigals for five voices of 1603, ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’ (‘Yes, I’d like to die’).

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That’s where the parallel stops, though, as this is actually an erotic love song. It was recycled during the Counter-Reformation by re-texting with a religious message about the love of God. People would have recognised the tune and got the reference straight away. (Image; canto part book by Monteverdi, British Library)

Baobab prison tree

A tone and refrain from the New Century Hymnal recognises the fusion of Psalms 42 and 43 in the Lectionary and presents a pleasant and easy option.

Several other good choices in various languages including Spanish and Korean appear in Psalms For All Seasons. Most are again captivated by that deer.

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