Psalm 46: Be still and know

‘Our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (1)

Verse 1 here does not cite justice directly but is undoubtedly encouragement in the ongoing struggle against inequity and injustice. So, inviting us not to fear, to feel at peace in tumult (‘the nations are in uproar’ (6) — ain’t that the truth?), this short song is graced with some quite memorable lines, the one quoted above, and:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God (v.4)
Be still then, and know that I am God (v.10)


This poem is attributed to the Korahites. An Australian group taking the name of The Sons of Korah make a meal of Psalm 46 by writing three separate songs with but a few verses for each. These may be found on the 2014 album ‘Refuge‘.

The song boasts its own inbuilt antiphon, repeated in verse 7 and 11: “The God of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” That is frequently a key theme and the refrain in the antiphonal arrangements.

Psalms for All Seasons generously offers seven in all, including two hymns, displaying excellent variety of style to suit many tastes:

  • 46A is to a Scottish hymn tune better known as a Christmas carol regarding a midnight clear.
  • 46B Dios es nuestro amparo is Spanish, with verses and refrain all in characteristic rhythm and three-chord harmony in E minor. It does have one little touch very common in Spanish songs of getting from the tonic minor to the sub-dominant minor via a transitional major on the tonic; i-I7-iv. However, it only happens once; and being on the whole less adventurous than much Latino music, particularly that with South American influences, it could lapse into the soporific.
  • 46D, the next one of interest, is a repeat of an Isaac Everett setting from The Emergent Psalter. As such, it’s definitely worth a close look. PFAS adds an additional tone to sing the verses, verse 7 and 11 being sung as the refrain (music here). Everett’s sensitivity for creating an interesting and unique backing leads him to use E minor and E diminished as alternating chords throughout. It’s quite short so is not in danger of lapsing into the soporific, especially with a rocking bass line and that unusual diminished chord that implies an A7 flat 9 on a syncopated E pedal.
  • 46D Alternate Refrain 1 is also attractive, coming from the Wild Goose stable and John Bell. He creates a simple two-part tune using verse 10 quoted above with a second echo voice. Many such songs just use a couple of chords so that the two parts jive: not so  in this case, with clever chord progression joining both. The associated tone follows the flow and feel of Bell’s refrain tune.
  • Finally, 46E uses a translation from the Book of Common Prayer, with the music of Ein Feste Burg by Martin Luther adapted to a chant. (See also Psalm 45) The text is fitted to the notes as underlay, rather than a separate text with pointing. This music is also in the exact form of a double Anglican chant with ten notes to each verse, four for the first phrase and then six for the second. More will be said on this topic in the forthcoming post on Psalm 79.

For those interested, a few more words on PFAS 46D above. First, Bell and his echo: his first four bars are simple enough, alternating between E and C# minor. Budding composers would have no trouble fitting a repetitive echo melody to that sequence. But try making up a tune to fit this sequence equally well regardless of whether it starts at bar 1 or bar 2:

| A | E | F#m7 G#m7 | AΔ B7 | E |

John Bell has it down to a fine art, cleverly using a simple pentatonic scale in this case. Which came first, the chords or the tune?

Secondly, as for the 46D Alternate I, the refrain has two parts, the second being an exact echo of the first one bar later. The technique of echo or imitation has been widely used as a way of harmonising a melody, especially in renaissance contrapuntal motets but elsewhere in many psalm settings.

As is the requirement when composing a song that can be sung as a round, the repetition of a harmonic pattern is important. The more complex the chord structure, unless within a short cycle, the more difficult is the task of composing a repeating tune that fits the changes throughout. Verses are sung to the Alternate Tone I attached to this option. As is our normal practice, the tone either repeats or closely resembles the refrain tune or pattern. The cantor conveniently starts on the same note as the refrain. I don’t know who wrote this tone but it fits.1 This entry is now the leading note of an A major 7th (AΔ), reinforcing sympathetic ground in this interesting terrain. Any a capella group would enjoy tuning this major seventh interval.

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