Psalm 119E, 19 Feb 17

Note: An introduction to Psalm 119 was posted last week.

Ps119h

A setting of Ps. 119 He by Heinrich Schütz, 1671. BL Zweig MS 84

He, ח

This fifth section (33-40) reads like a plea from a faltering student for assistance in following a path that is definitely right but steep or poorly defined. The psalmist seeks divine tuition in the way of right statutes, understanding of the law, and the path to justice. He  asks that his heart and eyes may be turned towards divine standards, away from the unjust and worthless pursuits.

  • Everett in TEP homes in on those crucial ingredients of insight and integrity in verse 34, understanding values and right ways in a complex and slippery ethical environment. He paraphrases this verse to fit in with the common tune that is called in to service throughout all sections of this long psalm. The wording is perhaps rather quaint but it is memorable and it works: “Elevate my understanding. Ever in my heart keep watch.
  • PFAS 119J provides an easy but effective refrain based on a ii-IV (or V11)-I which pertains to both the previous section, Daleth, and this one. Verses may be sung to the tone provided or, as usual, one of the cantor’s choice.
  • South Woden has used a simple home-grown refrain with words paraphrased to fit the same melody. For Aleph the refrain dwelt on verse 5; in this section He, verse 33 is in the spotlight:

ps119e-cantors-docSeveral SATB settings of this section or excerpts are listed in the classical arena — by Atwood, Boyce (with alto soloist) and Rogier to name a few. Five-part settings are available from William Byrd, and also Orlando di Lasso whose incipit follows:ps119e-lassus

Crystal Ball Feb-March 2017

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

Notes: (this will be a sticky post until next CB mid-March)

  • This series of Crystal Ball posts offers planning information for members of South Woden. Other followers around the world may skip this post — or think of us prayerfully.
  • Thanks to enthusiastic director Helen S and all singers who contributed so willingly and tunefully to music for the 50th Anniversary of South Woden UC, 12 February 2017.
  • South Woden warmly welcomes Gary and Mary-Anne Holdsworth who take up residence and ministry this week.

On 12 Feb we sang the first section Aleph of that longest psalm, no 119. Here are some suggestions for the weeks ahead (noting of course that Rev. Gary and other worship leaders may well choose different approaches to the psalm):

17 Feb. Induction service at Weston Creek for Rev. Gary Holdsworth. Brian, Bette and Brendan lead Psalm 118 with Paul Stookey’s The Building Block.

19 Feb. For Psalm 119e, we reprise the home-grown refrain for 119a sung so beautifully at the 50th Anniversary, refitting the tune with text from verse 33: Teach me the way of your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.

26 Feb. I lean towards The New Century Hymnal and a short refrain for Psalm 2 by Carolyn Jennings (1994): “Happy are all who take refuge in God.”  Alternatives will be published in a post early that week. Male voices may convene for the last Sunday?

5 Mar. Gwenda leads us in a service that each year is proximate to and therefore celebrates International Women’s Day. In the past, we have recognised the day with women and girls singing songs by composers from Hildegard of Bingen to Sinead. On this occasion in 2017, instead of the psalm, Helen presents a Shaker song, Simple Gifts.

12 Mar. And now for something different: can you handle some Beatles? Psalm 121 says: I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. (v.1) So why not sing Help by Lennon and McCartney? An excellent alternative is PFAS 121D with sumptuous chord changes.

19 Mar. Two lively options for Psalm 95 are available in ‘the red book’ (Webmaster is absent this week):

  • TiS 52 is “Let us sing to the God of salvation”
  • TiS 53 is the Calypso Carol.

26 Mar. Psalm 23 without CRIMOND? Continue the tradition of male voices convening for the last Sunday and present the lilting Spanish song El señor es  mi pastor (My shepherd is the Lord), PFAS 23I.IMG_2346.JPG

2 Apr. Sinead’s chorus Out of the depths, with paraphrased verses to fit the song, will serve us well for Psalm 130. A volunteer cantor has kindly offered.

And then …

LEADERS are required for the months of April and May 2017 while the author is far from Canberra. Please consider acting as convener for a month at a time.

A full list of suggested songs will be published shortly on a forthcoming Crystal Ball. Resources can be provided on request.

Psalm 119A, 12 Feb 17

Aleph א

In words reminiscent of Psalm 1, the first section begins by inviting us to walk in God’s ways.

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in God’s way. (v.1)

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, five-line staff, F clef on vellum. Rice University.

The preceding post discussed, perhaps inconclusively, what the divine way and the word of God might mean. It also listed some antiphons written for the whole of Psalm 119 rather than individual sections.

A good dozen classical settings are listed against this first section Aleph or just the first verse, a few for SATB but most for 5, 6 or more voices. The Latin incipit of this first verse quoted and illustrated above goes :

Beati immaculati in via

A search reveals several other motets, some listed against Psalm 119, others as separate compositions but clearly using the same text. Tomas Luis di Victoria used this text for his sole composition on this long psalm. On http://www.uma.es/ it is listed in his works as a ‘manuscript’ rather than one of his vespers psalms; and a note says it may not be by Victoria anyway. Another such (illustrated below) is a setting for seven voices by a leading Lutheran composer from Thuringia in Germany, Johann Walter (1496-1570, about 50 years before Victoria).Ps119a JohWalter

In more modern settings:

  • Everett introduces the first of his series of additive antiphons in TEP. These are built on two sets of couplets with repeating tunes. This first couplet is backed by alternating D minor and C chords for the first line. The same tune continues for line two for ease of learning, but musical depth is added by changing the backing chords to Bb and A minor.
  • Meanwhile in PFAS, the single song allocated to Aleph is a nice refrain and metrical verses by Lucien Deiss (1921-2007) a French liturgist and composer of many chants.
  • The setting in TiS dips in to sample several sections in a mixed salad.
  • Keeping what may well be the best wine to last, the refrain in New Century Hymnal is short and sweet: “Teach me O God the way of your statutes.” This quote is actually from verse 33, and is one of those generic refrains that is used in NCH and other psalters (see PFAS 119B to E) for all Lectionary selections whenever they arise.

Psalm 119

Note: This post re-introduces the longest psalm, sections of which arise in the next two weeks. Subsequent posts will look more closely at sections as they appear in the Lectionary, starting with Aleph then He on the following Sunday.

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Psalm 119 has at its heart the ‘law’, or the premises principles, and promises of God. At 176 verses, this is longest psalm — and the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is made up of a succession of 8-verse sections, 22 of them, each labelled acrostically with a Hebrew letter. The song is seldom sung in its entirety, save in the Orthodox tradition where it appears on the Saturday of Holy Week. Seven of these sections appear on a total of nine occasions during the three-year Lectionary cycle, sometimes two consecutively.

This extended lesson on divine law explores how it might influence the life of the follower: from the opening lines, inviting the reader or listener to follow the ways and decrees of God; through the great centrepiece of verse 105 declaring this “Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”; to the last verse 176 suggesting that in remembering the commandments, sheep who have gone astray may be returned to the fold.

This all sounds good — but exactly what is that ‘way’? The psalm constantly refers in each verse, depending on the translation, to decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, judgements and commandments. Immediately following David’s era, the several tribal Abrahamic descendants would naturally have read this as references to the writings in the Torah, be they commandments or narrative elaborations. Later descendants may have turned to the Bible as a whole or sections of the Qur’an. Today however, an integrated view (and the word ‘integrity’ will be found elsewhere in the Psalter and these deliberations) of scriptural concepts is an asset in deciding just what constitutes ‘God’s way’, whether taken metaphorically or theologically. Just as Renaissance writers like Erasmus savoured classical philosophies and updated them by adding a healthy dash of humanism, the modern reader is inevitably influenced by graceful New Commandment principles. This is an attractive approach, at least as a common-sense check.

Each octet may inspire an appropriate musical response according to text and context. However, even if the readings are taken separately their source from that great central psalm, each section linked thematically by the importance of Godly principles, can still be acknowledged by a common refrain. Here are some of the refrains which are applied to the whole psalm or several sections.

  • PFAS 119B provides verses for four of the Lectionary selections set to an old hymn ST CRISPIN. But there are fifteen settings in PFAS. 119F similarly takes a sprinkling of verses, spoken not sung, with the refrain: “Order my steps in your word”; while those that follow (119G to M) assume the full section of the week is read. Plenty of flexibility.
  • TiS applies verse 105 (the ‘light and lamp’ mentioned above) to a pleasing refrain, while the sprinkling of verses taken from the whole psalm are sung to a double tone.
  • NCH limits the readings to RCL sections, offering a nice, short and simple refrain for all by Elaine Kirkland, 1994.
  • Everett has clearly pondered this situation. His solution in TEP is to integrate the separate sections by providing a refrain system throughout, two alternating tunes in fact. Verses are drawn from the section of the week. These refrains can be added together at the end to form a hymn in their own right — well thought out and effective.

Another person who pondered this dilemma was Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1748, a few years ahead of the life of JS Bach.) Watts was a nonconformist English theologian and logician who was also a prolific and popular writer of hymn lyrics. His solution to this smorgasbord of delights in Psalm 119 was to pull the verses apart and reassemble them thematically in a new order of sections or ‘Parts’, as he called them. Part 1 for example included verses 5, 29, 33, 35-37, 133 and 176. He also took the liberty of updating the paraphrased psalms as though the original writers had knowledge of New Testament scriptures. As mentioned above, this seems sensible for interpretation by the modern reader, but goes a step too far for faithful translation. Many composers such as Thomas Clark grasped this alternative arrangement and wrote settings for these parts, although these days the overly liberal translations and dated language argue against their use.

Amongst the classical composers of years gone by, it is interesting that Lassus wrote at least ten settings of various selected verses from Psalm 119, while but one is attributed to Tomas Luis de Victoria, and then doubtfully. Robert White also wrote four or five settings including one for the last half-dozen verses, with incipit as follows:

Appropinquet deprecatio mea / Let my complaint come before thee

Ps119 169 White incipit

Psalm 119:169, Robert White, 16th C.

Psalm 112, 5 Feb 17

Light rises in darkness

Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.

During a yacht delivery through the Barrier Reef a while ago, an overnight anchored in a remote cove was a welcome break. A refreshing sleep rocked by the movements of the boat in wind, wave and tide was a perfect precursor to a pre-dawn start. With anchor a-weigh, still dripping salt water and sand, the early light of dawn crept over the outcrops of the uninhabited island that was our silent but comforting host for the night. In such a tale, light and darkness are equally appreciated, necessary and used to advantage. No moral values either negative or positive are attributed.

When metaphorical dimensions arise in literature, darkness usually comes off worst by a country mile. Light is good, dark is evil. So it appears in Psalm 112 at first glance: but the implied moral values are by no means black and white. Light is valued in verse 4 but darkness is not necessarily bad, just limiting. There’s a time to sleep, and a time to pull up anchor. Illumination, as in Psalm 119:105, seems here to be a lamp to the feet and a light to the path of those who seek goodness, day or night. Translations differ. The New International Version is attractive:

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.

The paraphrase used as antiphon for a setting of Psalm 112 in Together in Song 69 is: “Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.” Strongly in its favour is the direct link to justice, a word wielding much more force in a modern context than the jargon of ‘righteousness’. The music for the opening phrase of the response rises step by step, like the sun rising from behind those dark outcrops, preparing for the final call later in the psalm to a life of justice and faith. The verses may be sung freely to the tone in the hymn book, perhaps with guitar accompaniment. A nice variation is to use the tune of the refrain as a tone, varying the pointing as desired.

Using the first line of verse 1, the refrains in both NCH and TEP say: “Happy are those who fear God”. (See remarks on ‘fear’ in the comments on the previous psalm, 111.) PFAS 112B skips fear and selects the second idea, that ‘those who delight in the law of God’ are happy. And while referring back to 111, the comment made there regarding Victoria’s vesper psalms could be repeated verbatim for this psalm, save for the title Beatus vir qui timet Dominum.Ps112 introit Victoria

Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he hath great delight in his commandments. (v.1, BCP)

Psalm 15, 29 Jan 17

A song of ascent

A song of ascent

Psalm 15 (text here>) this week, probably used as an introit or gradual, asks who may dwell in God’s ‘tent’ or ‘holy hill’. The remaining verses provide a checklist of rather challenging qualifiers, from the grand ‘live blameless’ to the nitty-gritty of ‘take no bribes’. The challenge is really encouraging the reader continually to seek to connect with sources of divine presence and goodness.

Those who study structure have noted a degree of symmetry and balance in the group of nine psalms from 15 to 24 inclusive, being chiastic in form or mirrored around the central psalm 19:

  • 15 and 24 are entrance liturgies
  • 16 and 23 are about trust
  • 17 and 22 are laments
  • 18 and 20-21 are about the victory of the king
  • 19, creation and other tales of the Torah

Music

An impressive motet Domine quis habitabit by Thomas Tallis (1505-85), while rather long and calling for five voices, is worth a brief preliminary mention. The score may be found in Tudor Church Music p. 246, or on the web in CPDL.

Psalms for all seasons suggests two responsorial songs. 15B asks that question “Who shall be welcome in your tent?”, and the verses rather repeat the checklist of how to get into the A Team. The next setting 15C is excellent. This is a superb gospel-influenced refrain that we have sung several times:

I’m gonna live so God can use me, anytime anywhere.

The psalm’s call and response structure, widely used in gospel music, supports an approach of engagement, response and identification by all present. The verses may even be sung to a 12-bar blues, discussed in the context of the preceding Psalm 14. This refrain rounds up all those rather random dos and don’ts in the list of qualifiers into a much more positive general inclination for life – be available. The vaguely legalistic approach of the Old Testament is thus broadened and enriched to New Commandment principles; no lists of good and bad behaviour; just be ruled by love. After all, do you really want to sing ‘Don’t lend money for interest’ or ‘take no bribes’ (v.5) over and over, however reverently? Much more freedom, much more challenge, and a much more positive and active message. A touch of faith not works. And the African-American style feel adds a real spark.

Slightly less exuberant but still swinging, Everett’s refrain in The Emergent Psalter also recognises the disadvantages of concentrating on the behaviours list. He chooses just to pose the initial question, leaving us to decide. The simple tune is based on the unusual but satisfying chord sequence of Bm A F#m G, following the fifth degrees of each triad.

Other traditions adopt a more sedate style. Anglicans, for example, will default to a restrained but expressive chant which always, usefully, deploys a well-known form for the convenience or comfort of both singer and listener. This has the advantage of a standard pattern for all psalms essentially of ten chords, four allocated to the first phrase or line and six to the second. It can be embellished melismatically and extended as a double tone, as in the following example by Francis Melville:

ps15-anglican-melvilleVerse 1 would thus be sung to the first section of ten chords as follows:

Who shall abide | in thy | tabernacle? || Who shall dwell | in thy | ho-ly | hill? ||

The harmonisation is actually fairly traditional in that first section, four flats but essentially in Bb minor. Its more adventurous side comes out in the next section, where the chords move along in unexpected modulations. Noting the chiasmus structure mentioned above, this setting by F Melville Esq. is from his arrangement of both Psalms 15 and 24 in sequence, the final verse of 15 modulating nicely via Bb major to the next key of D for 24.

Psalm 27, 22 Jan 2017

This psalm offers encouragement in difficult times, weaving together two contrasting but 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’ (Psalm 119:105), it is a theme found in many psalms. Many readers will be familiar with the opening verse:

“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?”

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. (v.4)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

Image: E O’Loghlin, rowinggirl.com

Second is the idea of refuge — protection, salvation and shelter from danger or persecution. This second theme of heavenly care in adversity is also mentioned frequently elsewhere in the Psalter, perhaps even more often than light — maybe there was more adversity than light in those days. Here, David feels that his enemies surround him; his answer is to sing. (v.6) The psalmist thus merges illumination, guidance and clarity together with security and forgiveness.

Music

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 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 unaccompanied or with a light backing of guitar, flute or such instruments.
  • Psalms for All Seasons 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 Together in Song no 16, a paraphrase of the verses with a beautiful setting 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.

Ps27 HdimsThis 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.

Psalmus David, priusquam liniretur. Dominus illuminatio mea et salus mea: quem timebo?

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

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 and often basso continuo. Dream on.

The illustration (click to enlarge) 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?”