Psalm 19

‘The statutes of God are just and rejoice the heart’ (6)

Psalm 19 declares the glory of the divine as seen in the creation. It smoothly progresses to how this declares the presence and influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’, to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults. It concludes with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (14)

The very first verse challenges our spiritual framework: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ team, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western world-views have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.1

He refers primarily to the age of materialism and science. Things like gauge theory and the breaking of electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy mathematics and hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. Yet in poetry and spirit, a scientific mind can still find it easy, on a clear night under the stars, to go with the psalmist’s opening declaration about the heavens — provided you are no post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.

So Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. Then, we read more phrases that resonate in our experience and memories. Anyone who has sung Handel’s The Messiah will certainly recognise ‘Their sound is gone out’ and have the tune of that chorus in mind (an exciting sing — even if it sometimes feels a little like practising your scales and arpeggios.) From verse 7 on we are reminded by this ‘Psalm of David’ how valuable in the search for an upright yet humble life is the divine guidance in the word, which is More to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. (10)

These references to God’s law and commands might be taken as a nod to the ten commandments. However, in the light of all the subsequent guidance and New Testament teaching on love, that’s like harking back to the technology of the phonograph or to black and white silent movies. The spiritual framework has moved from a few rules on tablets of stone to a river of gracious wisdom.

The winner for complexity probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first five verses for 13 parts in three choirs entitled Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei.

Thirteen voice parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere as ambitious as the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts.2 But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.

Psalm 19 Genevan

In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.

An all-Australian version of the psalm, albeit in hymn format, is found in TiS 166, Sing a new song, by Richard Connolly (1927-). Connolly was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. In our regular sources:

  • Songs no. 7 and 8 in TiS refer to this psalm, although neither covers the full lectionary reading.

  • Isaac Everett draws on verse 1 in an easy, singable refrain. As usual, he assumes the verses will be spoken rather than sung to a background vamp.

  • PFAS presents a whole six options; 19C is responsorial, introducing the viewpoint that creation and the word ‘show the way to the kingdom of light’. The 19E refrain emphasises the concluding prayer (verse 14) quoted at the beginning of this section. It is also a reminder that:

  • A good reggae version of ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ picks up another much-quoted verse (the last): ‘Let the words of my mouth…’ Children will enjoy this little chorus and perhaps even remember it. This song sits equally well with Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 78, 1 Oct ’17

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow.

God … appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children (5, 6)

Then (12-16) come reminders of the wonderful escape through the Red Sea, the guiding pillar of cloud and fire, and the water from the rock. Imagery is a powerful aspect in the psalms. Scientists have offered various explanations on the Red Sea’s behaviour under Moses’ rod, such as local wind conditions altering the tides in the shallows so that sandbanks were revealed. The psalmist sniffs at that and, whether realistically or impressionistically, writes with bold hand:

God split open the sea and let them pass through; the waters stood up like walls. (18)

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

The image of water gushing from rock in a desert land certainly captures the attention of dwellers in the great dry south land. The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist. However, stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable.

I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (2-4)

The associated Exodus 17 reading gives the full unedifying detail of Moses and the rock, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’. It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of woolly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a walking stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, when you are parched in the desert it’s hard to focus on the good times, the miracle of the plagues and the Passover, the sea parting and the fall of the pursuing horse and rider. This is not intended to encourage blind faith or recklessness. We are responsible for ourselves after all, bearing our own and one another’s burdens.1 A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw faith and guidance from absorbed biblical values.

As to these ‘dark sayings’ (‘hard sentences’ in the BCP), previous posts (September 2014 and November 2014) have commented on tales like the the folly of the Berlin Wall. Few sections of this wall are still extant, most having been reinstated years after being unceremoniously pulled down. Meanwhile, however, walls are still seen by some as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.

This song arises twice in the Lectionary within weeks, but that only every three years. Here are some suggested refrains, mainly drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:

  • Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)

  • We shall listen (TiS 41). [At SWUC, assured of an interesting and encouraging time together under Roger’s capable leadership, the full gathering will sing this song antiphonally.]

  • God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)

  • Forget not the works (NCH)

  • Linnea Good proposes this response: “Stay awake with me, listen carefully.”

Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the Psalter, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing.

1   Galatians 2 and Philippians 2

Crystal Ball; Oct ’17 and Advent.

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

This ‘sticky’ post is intended for South Woden readers.

Scroll down for an important notice at the end of this post.

The year has flown and the Crystal Ball tells me that October is nearly here, which means Year B is coming down the track. So, subject to the choices of worship leaders, what is in store?

  • 1 Oct. We start with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, and TiS41. As we did on 10 Sep, all sing as a congregational antiphonal; the two sides sing alternating lines.
  • 8 Oct. Psalm 19 (‘Let the words of my mouth‘) comes up. TiS 7 is nice with a double tone. But habit prevails; we return to By the rivers of Babylon. Two verse cantors required.
  • 15 Oct. Psalm 106. A soloist leads us in PFAS 106A.
  • 22 OctPsalm 99:4 ‘O mighty God, lover of justice; it was you who created equity’  is the ‘long pole in the tent’ celebrating justice in the Psalter. It’s also the SWUC 50th anniversary. Party! Everett’s refrain in TEP is a good one but, since there are no verse tunes, we follow a local composition on that key verse 4.
  • 29 OctPsalm 90. The old favourite hymn O God our help in ages past, found at Together in Song 47 is an easy solution. The male voice quartet version of an Orthodox Slavonian chant is held over to next week.
  • 5 Nov. See above – an Orthodox chant. Could also to reprise the Psalm 107 setting in PFAS 107C (also in TEP) for three parts. It’s fun.
  • 12 Nov. Psalm 78. Maybe TiS 636, or revisit TiS 41 from 1 Oct.
  • 19 Nov. PFAS 123A suggested. Webmaster is away this week; leader required
  • 26 Nov. Old 100th, perhaps in TiS. Some of the SATB setting by Josquin des Prez if singers are available.
  • 3 Dec. Advent begins with Psalm 80. PFAS 80A would fill the bill.
  • 10 Dec. Go direct to Psalm 85 and the SWUC Communion chant, adapted.

Singers are needed on many occasions in October; we will recruit singers for Nov/Dec a little later. Rehearsals are @5:00pm on the Saturday before, as usual. Besides a chorus for refrains, we need:

  • Cantors for verses on 8, 15, 22 Oct. (REGISTER BELOW PLEASE)
  • All on deck for Anniversary 22 Oct.
  • Male voice group 22 and 29 Oct.

Psalm 104, 17 Sep 17

‘You make springs gush forth in valleys, they flow between hills.’ (10)

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. The author’s feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honour 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. (2-4)

Kanga on the Keys with Joyful Joey? A creation full of wonders.

The song continues relishing the diversity and complexity of creatures and the environment. As in several other psalms (145 for example) divine love also sustains and provides for this diverse living planet. In these days of global warming, extinction of many species and desertification, this picture can be lost in the fear. However, the psalms long for times when divine love working through people can regenerate and fulfil the intention of the blueprint.

The poet is certain that our world is wonderful and enduring: “You have set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never move.” (5) Psalm 102 counters that all things shall pass,1 however this poor little verse had the dubious honour of being one of those the church cited to condemn evidence of heliocentricity. For more on Copernicus, see Psalm 86; and beware literal doctrines.2

The settings in TEP, PFAS and the NCH are all suitable. The refrain from TiS 65 perfectly suits the theme of caring for our environment to  be taken up this week by our leader, Keith. Versification will be modified to the lectionary selection rather than that in the book. We shall also sing the verses to a different, home-grown tone — with a little swing added.

The hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff mentioned under Psalm 103 is also relevant here as it shares similar text.

And 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.

1Psalm 102:26.

2Refer also to Psalm 93:1

Psalm 149, 10 Sep 17

‘God takes pleasure in people.’ (4)

Cantate Domino, from Psalm 149 in the an 8th century Psalter. Latin uncial script with Old English gloss between lines. British Library MS Vespasian A1

This is the penultimate psalm in the book, short and bitter-sweet. Four verses of praise, singing and dancing, including the important statement of love quoted above; four verses of wreaking vengeance on enemies; and in the middle, it appears, a good lie down!

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds. (5)

An odd little verse, and indeed it struck Isaac Everett to the point that he chose this for his responsive refrain. He wonders whether it implies that the people routinely slept in the Temple, that praise at home as well as in the Temple is fine, or perhaps just relishing being in bed.1

Despite its central location, the bed verse is not the key to the song and its use as the refrain seems a little idiosyncratic. Scanning for meaningful and respectful ways to praise in song, verse 1 is a better bet:

Sing to God a new song; sing praise in the congregation of the faithful.

A little further on there’s a nice statement of why psalm tragics do this:

… sing praise making melody with timbrel and lyre; for God takes pleasure in people and adorns the poor with victory. (3, 4)

The second half of the psalm is less comfortable. ‘Wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people … inflicting judgment.’ (7) Is not this just the sort of cry we, well, decry when it leads to the extremist religious violence that seems increasingly to dominate the news? Remember that the historical reference is to the Exodus and the early opposed establishment of Israel, which was a fight for survival.

Today, in the light of the New Testament modifier to love your enemies, the reader regards it metaphorically. Most commentators see it now as a fight against evil. Any enthusiasm for holy war against other people sounds bizarre. For as we just saw, God takes pleasure in people. (And by the way, what a marvellous difference it makes taking the ‘his’ out of that phrase from the RSV.)

A cautionary note on this passage in PFAS says: ‘It is, then, a psalm to handle with great care.’ However, the note continues that the psalm is instructive about the nature of faithful obedience in a world of injustice.2 The psalm again encourages the fight for justice and equity, for ‘God loves people’ as we do, and ‘adorns the poor’, as we should. Tom Wright has this insight relating to both 148 and 149:

To put it in modern shorthand, you find the political message within the ‘creational’ message. Once you summon the whole of creation to praise the maker, you can begin to see clearly where the fault lines lie within the world of human power.3

Bach wrote two impressive works on this psalm, both entitled Singet dem Herrn. BWV190 is an lengthy cantata written for New Year’s Day in Leipzig in 1724. BWV 225 is scored for double choir. Both are demanding works for amateur singers.

The Everett refrain has already been mentioned. PFAS has a nice responsive setting (149B) with a contemporary sound even though the music was written back in the 18th century.

TiS 95 has a good setting by reliably valued Sydney-born composer Christopher Willcock SJ. The response is simple, and the stacked triads of the tone (the simple tune for the verses) is enticing. It only presents half the lectionary, however, and ducks that confronting second section discussed above.

If you really want to sing of vengeance upon the forces opposing a rule of love, try a solo by Catalan composer and contemporary of Bach, Francisco Valls. Best with its original figured bass, the sharper edges are modestly veiled in Latin:

1 TEP page 275

2 Psalms for All Seasons, page 989 footnote.

3 Wright, N T, Finding God in the Psalms, page 150-1

Vespers, 26 Aug 17

Vespers psalm settings by Victoria, Lassus and Rachmaninov have been mentioned several times on this blog – see for example Psalms 103, 104, 112, 116 and 127. Canberra area readers will be interested in an opportunity to hear some of the wonderful Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil (‘Vespers’) this Saturday.

Extracts from the Vespers will be performed in the extraordinary acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop at 3 pm on Saturday 26 April 2017.

The Oriana Chorale presents haunting music of darkness and light in a program of music composers of northern European descent, curated by Music Director Peter Young. The woman with the alabaster box is one of two works by Arvo Pärt, famous for his shimmering and hypnotic choral effects.

Also included are works by three of the most interesting choral composers of today, Ola Gjeilo, Erik Esenvalds and Paul Mealor (the composer of a new piece for Prince William’s wedding).  Jazz fans will also be interested to hear evocative saxophone improvisations by prominent local musician and teacher John Mackey.

While several of the vespers psalms are omitted on this occasion, the wonderful first psalm will open the Rachmaninov sector. The concert will provide an excellent and enjoyable idea of the sonority of the Orthodox tradition, ranging from meditative moments to the explosive last movement:

South Wodens may remember that some time ago a male-voice trio presented a much-trimmed version of Rachmaninov’s Psalm 103:

Psalm 133, 20 Aug 17

How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony. That’s it, folks; the message of this psalm in a nutshell — or as an immigrant friend used to say unawares: “… in a nutcase.” Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. There are a couple of images thrown in to help us savour the psalmist’s case — and they are typical of the psalms, images that stir your imagination, make you think:

  • Fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the collars of Aaron’s robe. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes just don’t count against the value of a holy blessing.

  • The dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights upon the villages and streets of everyday dwellings in the foothills.

The scene gets more complex if, like Jesus, you open the question of who is kin, who is your brother or sister? (Matthew 12:49-50) Do you have to be Tutsi, Jewish, Sunni, Russian, Protestant … ? However we define the tribe and non-discrimination, we have a long way to go in establishing habits of equity. In the original historical setting, the references to the hills of Hermon in the north and Zion in the south (verse 3) suggest this is a prayer for national unity. Fine, but nationalism unchecked is also a danger to peace. The psalms taken together suggest that it is only in seeking the rule of divine principles, love and justice that we start to see others in a clear light.

Psalm 133 in the Vespasian Psalter; British Library, Cotton MS Vesp A1.

A beautiful old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the British Library from the 8th Century, shown above, records the psalms in Latin in an insular uncial script (capital letters) in common use around 700 CE. Easily seen, the initial capital begins the word Ecce, ‘Behold’. The text line in dark red gives the psalm number (132 in the Vulgate system) and the descriptor ‘Song of ascents’ (canticum graduum). This text then follows:

Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. (V.1, BCP)

The British Library description goes on to reveal in matter-of-fact tone some quite impressive information:

The text is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.

A close examination reveals some smaller writing in a brown ink between the lines. BL continues:

An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text.

This manuscript reaches right back to earliest steps on the path taken by the psalms in reaching out to readers and singers across the world. What paths did the psalms trace in finding their way into hundreds of other languages and cultures? This universality of life experience inspires the search for cultural sampling in our music. An interesting mix of styles can be found for Psalm 133, ranging from a William Byrd’s Ecce quam bonum to Samuel Wesley’s Behold how good it is, for male voices in three parts. Many of them present just verse 1. (Together in Song skips Psalm 132 to 135 altogether.) However, in the interests of variety and a good sing, a fine modern choice for this psalm might be a Spanish setting in PFAS 133D:

¡Miren qué buono, qué buono es! / Oh, look in wonder how good it is!