‘God will judge the earth with righteousness and the people with truth.’ (13)
A fine old manuscript in the British Library is known as the Psalter of Henry VIII opens with a dedicatory letter by Jean Mallard, who wrote and probably illuminated the manuscript. It begins: ‘Regium istud Davidis’, a prefatory reference which likens Henry to King David. This Psalter, which includes three Canticles, was very much a personal reference. The British Library says:
As indicated by the many marginal notes added in the King’s own hand, the volume became Henry VIII’s personal copy of the Psalms.
So it seems that the psalms had high profile in earlier times. And since Henry was also a respected musician and singer, he may also have sung his psalms.
The words ‘sing’ or ‘song’ appear in about half of the 150 psalms, evidence enough that these are poems to be sung. Psalm 96 begins with that oft-repeated call to sing a new song. Like Psalm 98, it calls for joyful thanks and praise:
O sing to God a new song; sing, all the earth. Sing to God and bless the name; tell of this salvation from day-to-day… (1, 2)
The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in a universal sense, to include the earth, seas, heavens and all living creatures and peoples. Some verses are repeated from other psalms such as 29, 93 and (relevant in this clutch of readings) 98:7-9. It’s also the source of that sweet phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’.
For an important occasion like Christmas a new song is perfect. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm, or at least the opening phrases. Nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses starting with Cantate Domino.
- Bach conceived a great piece called Singet dem Herrn (BWV225), a lovely sing that needs to be taken at a lively clip for full effect
- Claudio Monteverdi, Orlando di Lassus, Heinrich Schütz and Jan Sweelinck produced some similarly demanding works.
- However, there are also several other nice songs within reach of amateur groups. A trio by Lassus would be a strong contender:
- PFAS alone has eight. One of them (96G) even stretches the text to: “Sing to the Lord no threadbare song, no time-worn toothless hymn, no sentimental platitude, no empty pious whim.” OK, we get the message.
- The straight-ahead three-chord harmonies of the third setting PFAS No 96C roll along sweetly, suggesting an easy first choice. The refrain reminds us of that universal vibrant response sparked across the whole creation:
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let all that is in them sing to God (11)
- TiS, while characteristically ignoring some set verses (and gender inclusiveness), does at least cover the group of three psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.
- NCH has another simple refrain but with a hidden surprise. The tune by Jane Marshall, 1994, is nice enough. No chord symbols are added but on closer inspection of the harmonisation, an unusual twist can be seen. The chords all behave themselves with due modesty, clustering mildly around the root Eb major, the sub-dominant and related minors. Then at the end, Jane sends us an unexpected rising swell to lift us to a final III chord, G major. Good one.
- And while we are riding the wave, Everett in TEP provides his usual innovation with a two-part canon. He draws on verses 7-8 but, as he says: “mimicking the rise and fall of the seas mentioned in verse 11”.
In many churches, Psalm 96 is read on Christmas Eve, for example at midnight mass, while the next two psalms are listed for the great day itself. The ancient psalmists would assume that you will bring your own lyre, timbrel or sackbut.
Here is Sweelinck’s take: