Psalm 116, 18 Jun 17

Nutty Numbers …

Here is one of those confusing points of discontinuity between the numbering of the Latin Vulgate Psalter and the modern western translations. 114 and 115 were combined into what is now 116 in our Psalter.

Tomas-Luis-Victoria-300x300This explains why some Ps 116 settings over the years are listed as quoting from Psalms 114 and 115. The incipit Credidi in a setting by the Spanish composer Victoria, for example, appears as Psalm 115:1 in the Vulgate:

Credidi, propter quod locutus sum; ego autem humiliatus sum nimis / I believed, and therefore will I speak; but I was sore troubled.”

This is a nice four-part arrangement of odd verses only, and thus identifiable as a vespers psalm, amongst other uses. This verse now appears in the English Bible as Psalm 116:10, not even an odd verse. Cope.

ShadowLike Psalm 30 and others, Psalm 116 is a paean of thanks for deliverance from the power of darkness and, in particular in this psalm depending on the translation, the hold, anguish or entangling cords of the grave. So the psalmist resolves to walk in the divine presence in the land of the living (v.9) – a fine suggestion. The second half of the psalm is an act of dedication, so strongly felt that the psalmist’s declarations of trust and invocation are to be made ‘in the presence of all God’s people’.

Besides this tempting piece from Victoria, those by Lassus and Monteverdi are identified with the same incipit Credidi. Such numbering disparities appear in the lists of other classical arrangements.

… but Nice Notes

Lestocart

Pascal L’Estocart; looked pretty much like Victoria?

Paschal de l’Estocart (about 1538 – 1587) a French Renaissance composer from Noyon, who was considered to be quite an innovator, wrote a set of all 150 psalm settings including this one, J’aime mon Dieu, (Delixi quoniam which is Vulgate 114:1) from 1583. The melody is in the tenor, falsobordone style. The transcription bears the sub-heading: “Mis en musique pour quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit parties par Paschal de l’Estocart, de Noyon en Picardie.” His Psalm CXVI is for five voices.

Modern sources also call on different verses for the antiphon. As usual, the choice of medium will be influenced by the message:

  • The five entries in PFAS, two being responsorial, are marked by simplicity, perhaps too much if measured purely on the musical scale — which of course is not the main game. So 116D offers eight notes for eight words: “I love the Lord who heard my cry.” (v. 1) An alternate refrain is alike in brevity: “I will walk in the presence of God“, quoting verse 9. Verses are sung to a tone.
  • The next choice, 116E, uses that alternate refrain of 116D with a melody (again simple) for verses added.
  • NCH uses the final phrase of verse 1, “I will call on God as long as I live“, in a refrain with a little more interest — a swing feel, the chords alternating between Bb and Ab, and an echo voice.
  • Everett’s refrain in TEP is predictably more syncopated. He goes for verse 8, focused on deliverance and guidance. (He notes that it was sung “over a heavy trip hop beat”, whatever that is.)
  • TiS 71 avoids the prosaic by providing a double tone for the verses, and two refrains. These are drawn from verses 9 quoted above, and 12: “How can I repay?
  • And finally, a home-grown chant uses verse 1. It features the verses sung on a single note, against a falling bass line and some relatively unusual chords in the world of psalm settings. Verses have been paraphrased to sit more comfortably in this double-tone type of arrangement. Two cantors may sing a half of each verse antiphonally. No ornamentation is shown here but may be used in moderation in accordance with the cantors’ inspiration, or perhaps to subtly reinforce the chords changes moving around underneath. ‘Superficial simplicity’:ps116-hg

Such a wide choice allows for a refrain and style suitable to most occasions, whatever the dominant themes.

The alternate reading in the Lectionary is Psalm 100. For one example of what has been done at South Woden in the past, please see the blog for 23 Nov 14.

Psalm 8, 11 Jun 17

‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings‘, according to Psalm 8, come not precocious wisdom and truth – as is the modern common usage of this phrase – but strength, or a bulwark ordained in heaven. The modern rather flippant saying recognises that children pick up and repeat what they hear, and sometimes that repetition is perceived as uncannily accurate or truthful. By 1906, Kipling has one of his characters Kadmiel laughingly declare: “Out of the mouths of babes do we learn.” (1)

Here, however, the psalmist offers a much more weighty idea; the inner child recognises the wonder of creation; while the very existence of each new child speaks of the power and wonder of human life. Then comes another expression of amazement, albeit one that implicitly acknowledges the reality of ‘feet of clay’. In the grand system of the universe and its myriad stars, as the psalmists sings:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than divine, and crowned them with glory and honour. (verses 4 and 5)

In the cosmology of Psalm 8, as in many others, humankind is a jewel of creation, somewhat less than perfect, yet ‘adorned with glory and honour’ (v.5). Significantly, the creation is placed under our care (v. 6), a responsibility that is not absolved by the loss of the Garden of Eden, however one interprets that tale. As Prof. Tom Wright says:

The four winds and more, traditional names

La rose des Vents Provençeaux; traditional names of the winds from all points of the compass in Provence; from a plaque in Orange, France.

Though the psalmists were aware as anyone of the darkness within the human heart, Psalm 8 can still gloriously remind us of the human vocation. (2)

The fact that civilisations over the centuries have named natural phenomena from the constellations to the winds, building tales and myths around them, indicates our empathy and sense of symbiosis in a universal search for the Dreamtime.  Ben Myers’ short summary tweet on Psalm 8 is worth repeating here:

The stars are a minor achievement (Your finger-painting). Humanity is Your masterwork; the stars gaze down admiringly.

Music

This is the first psalm in the psalter in which an integral antiphon appears in the text, in the form of an opening and closing doxology that has little to do with the content of the song itself:

O God our sovereign, how great is your Name in all the earth. (verses 1 and 9)

Familiar composers including Hassler, Schütz, Gabrieli, Lassus, Purcell and Ravenscroft all line up with interesting classical settings; incentives for such great people must surely have been the fact that the psalm is a popular poem, manageable length, with good content for the composer. In more accessible and modern style:

  • The Everett refrain for this psalm in TEP provides a good and easy choice. He notes in his comments that a goodwill message left on the moon in the 1969 landing included this psalm.
  • PFAS 8E by Alfred V Fedak is another (3)
  • A nice Linnea Good chorus called The Height of Heaven fits very well also, with an antiphonal tone that follows a similar attractive chord pattern. Since both lyrics (loosely related to the original text of the psalm but nonetheless inspiring and appropriate) and music were composed by women, it sounds particularly well sung by women and girls.

NotesContinue reading

Psalm 104, 4 June 17

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. His or her feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (Ps. 104:2-4)

The settings in The emergent psalter, Psalms for All Seasons and the New Century Hymnal are all suitable. No 65 from TiS may also suit but the versification may have to be modified to the lectionary rather than the selection in the book.

Apart from the rather staid selection shown at the head of this post — which will not feature in our top ten — a classic hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff must be mentioned (see illustration). This is part of the All-Night Vigil, commonly known as the ‘Rach Vespers’. South Woden has enjoyed a simplified arrangement of this beautiful composition, in both English and Russian, sung by a male voice trio.

Hurdy-gurdyAnd just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.

Psalm 68, 28 May 17

IMG_3012In the ‘bookends’ at beginning and end of this long psalm, the psalmist calls for the great kingdoms of the earth, their flags proudly flying in the national capitals of the world, to recognise the divine supremacy of ‘the rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens’ and invites us to lift songs of thanks and praise. Between these bookends of praise for divine power and ubiquity comes a recitation of providence and caring for people over the centuries:

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in a holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in, and leads out the prisoners to prosperity. (vv. 5 and 6)

Such verses are followed by others emphasising care for the needy, homeless and destitute. (v.10)  As Jesus, that quintessential observer of human nature observed, regrettably the poor are always with us. (Mark 14:7) So how does a government, or political or religious group that aspires to govern, honour that call and at the same time deny the homeless, refugee and persecuted; withdraw education and basic rights of freedom to women and girls; or weaken the social safety-net and leave these things to market forces? As discussed in Psalm 2, 119 and others, the aim is to recognise and rule by ethical standards outlined in ‘theWord’. An outcome is suggested in the final verse:

Ascribe power to God … who gives power to the people. (vv. 34-5)

Music

An easy option is a cantor singing the verses to a tone, answered by a people’s refrain:Ps68 Antiphon Tune 1Jun14

Sing to God O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God who rides the ancient skies above. (vv 32-33)

The tune is a simple ascending and descending major scale that may be sung as a round against a simple repetitive harmonic pattern. The congregation sings two parts, part 2 starting at bar 2, while children can repeat just the first phrase in a simpler and more easily learned part.

As usual, there are good alternatives in the other sources, such as PFAS 68B, which is repeated from Everett’s TEP with a tone added for chanted verses.

 

Psalm 66, 21 May 17

This psalm is a cry of joy for divine guidance and deliverance.

Come and hear, you who fear our maker, as I tell how God rescued my soul. I cried to God and was answered; God’s praise is ever on my lips (vv. 8, 9)

The psalmist feels that he has been pulled through the briar bush backwards, expressing that experience somewhat more elegantly as being ‘tried as silver is tried’, rescued, refined. In another image we have encountered previously, he feels downtrodden and ‘went through fire and water‘ (v. 12) – two of the elemental foundations of our existence as seen by Aristotle. After that ordeal, God led him to ‘a spacious place’. This is an enticing phrase – we relish somehow the idea of entering a spacious place. Architects live and breathe this idea, not because they are architects but because people feel comfortable and open in such a space. Other translations say ‘a place of refreshment’.

And for an off-the-wall take on Psalm 66 from Australian theologian Ben Myers in his #psalmtweet summaries of the Bible:

The water lifted itself up in a heap and gave a bow, and all Your people marched across on dry land.

Music

Music to suit this poem could be from a thousand angles. One source suggests songs as widely spread and as loosely related as ‘O little town of Bethlehem‘ and ‘All hail the power‘. Many sources of sung responses for this week’s psalm refer to the idea appearing especially in the last lines of the Lectionary selection verse 12, that of restoration after trials:

We went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a spacious place (NRSV) – or ‘a place of refreshment’ (Everett)

The first half of the psalm is in the form of a communal thanksgiving, while the second half moves to a more personal note. The full psalm is too long for us to enjoy fully the value of this juxtaposition. One writer summarises the theme of our psalm for this week as:

Make a joyful noise, God’s brought us through some rough stuff.

In slightly less exuberant tone, if not substance, Psalms for all seasons number 66A antiphon goes like this:

E              D               E
 Cry out to God in joy all the earth
 Give glory to the name of the Lord

Simplicity has its own power, and this is manifested in this response by overlaying a simple tune over alternating chords. The tune for the verses expands on this slightly.

FIRE_01

Far more cogently, Isaac Everett as usual in The Emergent Psalter has fresh ideas. He firstly invites us to sing one of his characteristically syncopated swings about the fire and water experience – an attractive option. Then another off-the-wall idea with Buffy the vampire slayer’s Walk through the fire.  (Tempting: but innovation and recency appeal more that its emphasis on burning.)

Psalm 31, 14 May 17

Palms at Percy IsThis psalm, combining many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity, appeared in the Lectionary just last month. It was discussed in a post for Palm Sunday, a summary of which follows.

This is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay. Enduring all opposition, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words quoted by the dying Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” accounting for this reading in Holy Week and Easter.

As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.