Psalm 105, 30 Jul 17

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible: Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus / Give glory to God, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise: Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus / Declare God’s deeds among the peoples. A psalm singer in the temple or perhaps by a campfire in early times would have known that his audience would conjure up a host of stories and images relating to the era, the plagues, the Passover and the escape from Egypt. By telling and repeating, singing the familiar tunes and lyrics, people learned their history, culture, lessons from tales of the past and, osmotically perhaps, values. The song goes on to enumerate these tales but even so, one of the morals of the story is all the more striking: leaders must arise who are right for the time.

Perhaps this repetitive approach is why the lectionary provides the opportunity to revisit this psalm three times, with slightly differing verse selections, in the space of a little over a month. The music leader can achieve continuity by using the same style and response for all three appearances of this psalm.

A beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 by Lassus has been mentioned previously. Lassus, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music. The full work may be beyond the resources of small churches but extracts can be useful for a thematic refrain:

Verses associated with this refrain might best be sung to a traditional psalm tome. These tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. A quick scan through the Missal published by Monks of Solesmes does not reveal any particular tone associated with Psalm 105. However, Tone VIII is used for various other sung liturgical elements.

A common approach was the use of a particular tone during one service for several psalms. The author has attended a couple of Tallis Scholars summer schools, during which the order of service for Compline — the last office of the day usually at 9:00 pm — used Tone VIII for all psalms sung each night. Singing several psalms morning, noon and night, the monks would complete the cycle of singing all 150 psalms in the space of a fortnight.

As to more modern sources:

  • PFAS suggests a refrain comprised entirely of the word Alleluia repeated several times.
  • TEP’s refrain does something similar, preceding that celebration with an invitation to sing praise.
  • Still on a joyful theme but less exuberantly, NCH uses verse 3, ‘Let the hearts of those who seek God rejoice’, set to a refrain whose 5/4 time renders it more unusual.
  • Some years ago at South Woden the Lassus quintet mentioned above was a source of great joy. This year, a home-grown refrain and verses in gospel style will be used on all three occurrences of Psalm 105.

Psalm 139, 23 July 2017

What you see and what you think you see are not always the same thing. Is this an image of smoke-rings, a bicycle or a piece of post-modern art? Have you ever thought you knew someone well only to find out they have a very different side to them from that which you have known? This may be true of ourselves too. We don’t always analyse our own character and behaviour as objectively as we might. This, according to Psalm 139, is why we need to submit ourselves to the spotlight of loving but frank scrutiny:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (verses 23, 24)

Fine, but it’s not as simple as that, is it? It’s not as though you have a direct line or interactive web-site to fill in a survey form, get instant feedback. Steve Bell’s bluegrass version of Psalm 13 is entirely relevant here. It was all about that frustrating silence from the heavens. How long do we have to wait to get some sort of answer, comfort, guidance or voice on our doubts and dilemmas, let alone a personal report card? “How long, O God, will you turn your face from me?”

Who is God anyway?

Lurking behind these apparently conflicting poetic ideas is the question of how personal is your God. Is YHWH a powerful but vague force out there somewhere, a spirit moving upon the face of the waters sweeping silently in grand scale across the vast universe, unconcerned by a Western preoccupation with individualism yet benevolent toward the aggregate fate of a flawed humanity? Or an intimate and individual God whose eye instantly notices the fall of the sparrow, numbers the hairs of your head, and knows when you sit or stand? And somewhere in the middle is that still small voice of calm.

Depends on your viewpoint?Maybe like the bike in the water, our perspective will change with the light and times? Only you can answer that but the god’s-eye view, it would seem from the psalms, is crystal clear and all of the above, yesterday, today, forever. We trust that reflecting on the psalms from week to week —  How long? in Psalm 13, You see me in Psalm 139 and many other songs — will somehow clarify the picture.

As to the bike it’s real, visible through the cold waters of Lake Luzern from the long 15th century wooden foot-bridge over the lake. Just as the image is confused and masked by the waters, so we cannot know its story. Did age and infirmity or a nasty slide on gravel justify this watery grave? Was it thrown in anger, vengeance, or frivolous or drunken caper? The Psalms tell us that Divine omniscience has all this covered — but is often silent: waiting, busy on another line but your call is important, distant, leaving it to us to sort, time not yet come? Do we need to know? In any event, somehow music will soothe, enrich and catalyse the whole process.

IMG_2316 TanglesComplexity of situations, relationships or internal feelings can sometimes create such a tangled web that we are ensnared and immobilised. It would be easier if someone would just sweep in and ditch the unimportant things, whatever they are, and say: “Well, clearly, this is what you should be doing!”

In such times, Psalm 139 has much to say, acknowledging from the outset our essential transparency:

O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (verses 1-3)

Attitude and Altitude

The spotlight of divine wisdom, if we can find the switch, helps us see through the tangles of our own or others’ making. How that can happen is a personal matter that no set of rules, certainly not a psalm blog, can describe or prescribe. Attempting to align our frame of reference, our moral compass or our ethical sensibilities with divine wisdom, the creative spirit of verses 13 to 16 quoted below, is surely a good start.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8, 9)

Easier said than done, of course, but hope springs eternal. This is not formally a ‘psalm of ascent’ but that broad sweeping idea of dreaming on a higher plane is certainly present in stirring language typical of psalm poetry. Lectionary readings sometimes straddle but miss this:

Where can I go from your spirit? … If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (verses 8-10)

… and Alternative Angles

What is not missed out, however, is the imagery of intimacy — pre-natal transparency, ultrasound plus. It’s at once captivating and unsettling:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret … (vv. 13-15)

Incredible, even allowing for doubts about the original textual meaning and interpretation from various sources.  The concluding lines draw on this transparency and seek that ‘righteousness’ that’s at the heart of Psalm 1 and also here:Sacred music, BnF

Search me, O God, and know my heart … lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23, 24)

Music

PFAS 139C also uses that same verse 1 with an easy tune for the refrain. Everett however focuses on the ‘wonderfully made’ line in verse 14 in a refrain that is at once, typically, more interesting and slightly more challenging.

There is a nice setting of this psalm by Michael Card.  The response, repeating a couple of bars of the tune after each verse, is:

Ps139 RefrainThe lower line is a plain pedal note on g that can be sung in harmony if the upper note is too high. If singing to a tone, another suitable response is a very short, transparent refrain from the New century hymnal by Jane Marshall.

Final image: from 6-part music in Recueil de plusieurs messes, Psaumes, motets, Te Deum & c.a.  MS dated 1630-1682, Bibliotèque Nationale de France

Psalm 65

Thanksgiving, following a rich summer and autumn harvest, is quite an event in some countries. It is not observed as a holiday in this country down under. However, often in our autumnal season, April and May, a harvest festival of some sort graces church or home in appreciation of the richness of our world.  Psalm 65, set for this Sunday amongst the alternate set of readings, is full of this sense of happiness at the fruitfulness of creation despite the fact that it falls in the middle of the southern winter.

Katherine Gorge

After a prayer for forgiveness, the song goes on to remark upon the wonders of our world – fertile lands softened with good rains, mountains, roaring seas, amazing dawns.

Then, delight at what is going on within that scene – the river of God is full of water, flocks thrive, grains grow, the year is crowned with bounty, paths (or, rather quaintly in some versions ‘your wagon-tracks’) overflow with plenty.

Several of our sources pick up this theme.

  • PFAS likes those paths that overflow with plenty.
  • NCH chooses verse 5, (“God is the hope of all the ends of the earth”) for its refrain.
  • An easy but tuneful little antiphon from The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett uses the final verse: “The fields are clothed with grain; the hills are bursting with song.” [This is the choice for SWUC this Sunday]

Psalm 119, 16 July 2017

Candleholder from Abbé FontenayYour word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.

There is much to be said about this centre-piece psalm of the Bible. A fair bit has already been said — just look at the many previous posts:

This coming week’s section Nun starts at verse 105, which is that famous verse quoted above, sitting at the middle of the Bible and used for many years as the touch-stone of the Scripture Union.

Everett’s angle in TEP, ‘Mindful of your truth inside me, meditate with every breath‘ bears thinking about carefully.

Psalm 45, 9 July 2017

Psalm 45 is the closest we get to a love song in the Psalter. The poem by the sons of Korah is addressed first to the king, probably Solomon, then in a second voice to the bride. (v. 10) Hebrews 1 quotes a clutch of psalms, including in relation to Jesus verse 6 of Ps 45: Your throne endures forever.

Being more in the style of an official paean, it may not reach the poetical and romantic heights of the Song of Solomon. However, the formal reminders of the importance of truth and loyalty are lightened by some sweet lines:

All your garments are fragrant with myrrh, aloes and cassia, and the music of strings from the ivory palaces makes you glad (v. 8)

Ps45 simple CC

Everett in The Emergent Psalter picks up these nice lines for his antiphon. Others —  such as the very simple home-grown refrain illustrated, and the fragment of Martin Luther’s Ein Feste Burg in Psalms for All Seasons 45B— focus on divine goodness.

The alternate refrain in PFAS 45B is by John Bell. Creative as always, he stretches his interpretation widely and borrows and bends a phrase from the Song of Solomon 8:6 in his refrain:

Take O take me as I am; summon out what I shall be; set your seal upon my heart and live in me.

The alternative reading includes Psalm 145; see an earlier post for July 2014.

Psalm 13, 2 July 2017

A watched pot, so the saying goes, never boils.  How frustrating is that seemingly interminable waiting — for news, for decisions, for guidance or for inspiration. This Sunday we hear a simple but urgent lament in Psalm 13, in which the key question is ‘How long?’ How long will that internal anxious silence last before an inkling of an answer, some source of relief, comfort or bounty emerges – and these are all ideas that jostle into the six short verses of this lament.

How long have you forgotten me O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me? (v. 1)

In three short sections, it moves in the rather classic sequence from lament to petition, and finally a vow to trust and rejoice in divine love.

Music

Plenty of good modern choices are to hand:

  • The Taizé refrain O Lord hear my prayer is actually a paraphrase of words from Psalm 102, but is cleverly suggested in PFAS for this psalm as PFAS 13E.
  • In NCH, a simple refrain setting by David Hurd, 1994, looks on first appearances to be unremarkable. He uses verse 3, Consider and answer me O God. However, on playing the refrain through, the innovative chord sequence suddenly attracts a second glance: Em FΔ G7 CΔ F C D9 E.
  • A paraphrase and tune by Canadian singer song-writer Steve Bell is something of a favourite. The people’s refrain is, you guessed it: O Lord how long?

Balance

This last song has a bluegrass feel about it, at least the way Bell sings it. This country touch and the blues have both been featured in this web-pages for some years — they have a habit of hanging around in the memory. Rays of flickering rhythm streaming into shadowy arches more accustomed to a cappella and monastery tones of Anglican, Orthodox or Gregorian chants.

So many styles are on offer, so why not sample them all? Song selection here continues to seek a meaningful medium for the message of the psalm. It’s also informed by the need for a balance between familiarity and freedom, inheritance and innovation.

“Something old, something new, often borrowed, sometimes blue”.

Note: The alternate Lectionary reading is Psalm 89, discussed in a post for July 2015.

Psalm 86, Solstice

There’s no hint of it in the text of Psalm 86 but the Lectionary occasionally (Year A) trots this song out at around the time of the solstice. For those in ‘the South’, this is the winter solstice, shortest day in the southern hemisphere calendar. [Readers in the northern hemisphere might have to find a point of entry more relevant to the height of summer.] Down under, the lament resonates since David is here at a low point again, “poor and in misery”. But as usual, in such a slump he calls on divine support. (vs 4-7)

The Solstice itself has no particular significance in the Christian year. No, not true: we did borrow it in the days of the old Julian (and northern hemisphere) calendar for the pivotal festival of Christmas. However, the metaphor of reaching the nadir of cold times, be they astronomical, physical, social, emotional or spiritual, is obvious. Psalm 86 somehow reflects these circumstances, providing comfort and inspiration. With this in mind, in the following home-grown song (an SATB arrangement is available) the tune, in both verse chants and refrain, falls gradually to a low point before rising in hope. An obvious device, no doubt, yet undeniably in harmony with the liturgical concept.

People of every race and any century have long pondered on the cycles of heaven and earth, sometimes seeing spiritual significance, sometimes just in awe. In the early 16th century and a long way from the Greenwich Observatory, a Polish medic, cleric and astronomer named Copernicus hesitated for years before finally being pushed into publishing irrefutable evidence that the ancient Greek and Egyptian observers including Ptolemy (who lived not long after Jesus) were wrong in one major premise. The earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe and creation. It actually rotated in orbit around the sun, not the other way around. Galileo agreed.

Final bars of the nine-part ‘Incline thine ear’ by Lassus

The established church opposed them, under pain of excommunication and worse. Some were actually burned at the stake for espousing such views. Galileo recanted, Copernicus kept his head down. The church fathers were stuck in the Ptolemaic system based on some very dubious and over-literal readings of biblical texts – including psalms such as 19 and 93 saying the earth shall not be moved –  for fear that science would undermine belief in the inherited wisdom and authority of the church.

When Copernicus was finally convinced to publish, just before he died mid-16th century, Rome sniffily placed his book on a banned list. It stayed there for more than a century. Regrettably then as now, targeted or random, extreme interpretations in any faith are hard to reform and can lead to foolish attacks on innocent, thoughtful people.

Music

For the ambitious there are many larger classical settings, such as a Morales 1541 motet in three parts, Inclina Domine aurem tuam.  An even more demanding piece for nine voices [illustrated] under the same incipit was published by Orlando di Lasso (1530 – 1594) in 1604, in what turned out to be a very productive early decade for fine music.

Apparently is it possible to conduct from an assembly of many challenging parts. Not a bar line in sight.

This structure, two small choirs or quartet and quintet groups of soloists with or without accompaniment, was not uncommon. The author had the pleasure of hearing a Vecchi mass for 9 voices and early instruments, including psalm settings, performed near Den Haag by Musica Antica recently.

All musicians were reading from the original published music, not at all an easy task to the modern musician. It was conducted by Kate Clark, an Australian baroque musician, professor and lawyer resident in Amsterdam.

Period instruments, violi da gamba and bass viol

Modern music

Psalm 86 is frequently absent in hymn books like TiS. However, TiS 725, the Taizé song In our darkness, is suitable in this context, under the Southern Cross at least.

The psalters, naturally, have settings. PFAS 86B is a responsorial setting whose words paraphrase the theme of the psalm, rather than a particular verse: “Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.” A simplified version of the same refrain may be found at 91D a few pages on.

Everett in TEP homes in on one of the few verses in the collection that mentions a female role-player:

Give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your handmaiden (16)

We are not sure whether this is David referring to his mother as the handmaiden, or it is indeed a prayer by the woman author herself.

Alternate Psalm

The alternate set of readings includes Psalm 69. See previous posts such as that on 4 Sep 2016> Coincidentally, a featured refrain therein offers northern hemisphere readers a tune that rises, rather than falls, to match the summer solstice pattern.