Psalm 40, 15 Jan 2017

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year as well as this one in Epiphany in Year A, is a rich and captivating poem, said to be by David. It begins with patience, awe, thanks and song:

God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. God put a new song in my mouth. (vs 2,3)

The poem continues with the image of a parent stooping to hear and comfort a child. It then evolves like a harbinger of Mary’s song the Magnificat, before concluding with a prayer, repeated in Psalm 70 and elsewhere, for continued blessing.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

An earlier post (August 2016>) waxes eloquent (quacks on, perhaps?) about some interesting antiphonal music found in an early manuscript, the Howard Psalter from the early 1300s. Have a look at that if interested; but meanwhile the following list updates, expands (and yes, corrects) the originally sketchy treatment in that post of some of the modern settings.

  • A snappy tune in Psalms for All Seasons 40C, longish but easy and repetitive, uses the opening verses: “I will wait upon the Lord”. Paraphrased verses are set to an equally nice tune.
  • The first of the three songs in PFAS, the responsorial setting 40A, uses verses 7 and 8: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will”. Verses may be sung to the tone supplied.
  • Marty Haugen’s pleasant refrain in New Century also chooses verse 8: “I delight to do your will”
  • Together in Song No. 23 chooses verse 11, (“Do not with-hold your mercy”) and features a double tone, four phrases and bars each versicle, quite suitable for small SATB group. (Change ‘Lord’ to ‘God’ throughout for gender neutrality.)
  • Everett in The Emergent Psalter goes for the final verse 17, illustrated and quoted above. Note that Lectionary readings stop at verse 10 (in March) or 11 (Epiphany). Pointing out how much they make of two chords, he also urges consideration of the chorus of U2’s song “40”. Watch: https://youtu.be/1XzHlySYR_Y

Psalm 29, 8 Jan 2017

The voice shakes the wilderness and strips the forest

The voice of God is a constant and powerful theme in this psalm — thundering over the mighty waters, shaking the wilderness, breaking cedars or flashing forth in flames. The psalmist (said to be David) assures us that through all the elemental turbulence of life, the divine spirit reigns supreme.

A familiar voice from someone well-known but out of sight is often easy to recognise and identify. There is no need to analyse the pattern of frequencies, the combination of harmonics, or the different degrees of resonance. The subconscious sifts. The psalms, poetic and mystical though they may be, are full of voices. The fact that we do not always immediately identify them suggests lack of familiarity. However, it’s also of course because of that poetical and mystical nature. Take the voice of divine influence. In the business of daily life we seldom pull up short and say: ‘That’s a heavenly voice speaking.’ Psalm 29 says the voice of God is to be found in many ways:

  • over the waters
  • full of majesty
  • breaks the cedars of Lebanon
  • flashes forth flames of fire
  • shakes the wilderness
  • causes the oaks to whirl
  • strips the forest bare

John Greenleaf Whittier‘s prayer was: “Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!” All this suggests the need to be attuned to the environment, natural, social and cultural, not just the flow of our internal thoughts. Then, the psalmist seeks more than just hearing. The final verse of Psalm 29 is a prayer:

May God give strength to the people! May God bless them with peace!

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Music

This concluding prayer for peace suggests a familiar and beautifully harmonised Taizé chant as the antiphon: “Dona nobis pacem cordium, give to us peace in our hearts”. Sing it twice as a refrain. The text of this psalm falls into place easily using the same chords and basic tune of Jacques Berthier’s nice little melody. This is very effective presented  by a soloist acting as story-teller.

Everett in TEP also homes in on this very relevant prayer for the modern world, in a  lilting refrain over one of his typically inventive chord progressions.

A more lively song in PFAS 29B, by Lorenzo Florian 1985, is one of those attractive Spanish tunes with good plain harmony, including a few surprise chords, and a little swing. (Is everything Spanish so much fun to sing and play?) Definitely worth a try if you have any Spanish heritage represented in your group. A more conservative (and less inclusive) double tone and refrain (Willcock) is to be found in TiS 17 for the plain vanilla treatment if preferred.

Although Brahms wrote a nice motet drawing on Psalms 22 and 29, he calls for a double choir. Few easier classical settings recommend themselves to a small group of singers. Remember you can always grow your own.

Psalm 95

Note: Psalm 95 appears infrequently in the Lectionary (Lent and November in Year A). This post updates the rather scant coverage of a 2014 post.

This psalm rewards the reader with new dimensions upon each reading. The first half starts with a song, indeed a shout, of praise and thanks to the creator of a fantastic world; and not just any old song but:

let us come before God with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout with psalms (v. 3)

Writing a psalm that urges us to sing psalms seems a bit like blowing your own trumpet; but we assume many of these songs were familiar as part of the culture of the children of Israel from the days of the exile in Egypt.

Wilderness

So the song dips back in time to remind the reader of those trying days in the wilderness that form the backdrop to Lent, after Pharaoh let the people go – into freedom from slavery, sure, but also into the wilds, deserts and privations. When read in Lent, the preceding Old Testament reading is from Exodus 17, the people complaining of their wilderness thirst. Similarly, Australia’s heartlands can be both impressive and fearsome. The psalmist goes on to remind us that trials and hardships pass; do not to take the short view, for in the long run we shall find peace. The song is an encouragement not just to be thankful but also to be humble and not to ‘harden our hearts’.

Praetorius

Books of psalms, Michael Praetorius

Music

In modern sources:

  • A simple refrain from The Emergent Psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice: “Come let us sing, let us shout for joy”.
  • The refrain at TiS 95 by Michael Perry may also suit, though the verses leave something to be desired. In both cases, the verses, modified or paraphrased if preferred, could well be spoken or sung to a simple tone.

Two refrains in PFAS also cry out for attention:

  • The first, 95C (Come let us sing), is a chant in the form of an unusually long double tone. This would suit more traditional tastes very nicely. While the harmonies are not adventurous, it can be sung in SATB to rich effect.
  • Over the page, PFAS 95E (O that today) is a lilting tune in E minor by Andrew Moore, with a choice of two tones for the verses. A couple of features make this refrain attractive. First, it flows up and down nicely to finish on the tonic major. Next, both bass note and chord sequence follow a loose stepping pattern down then up, in either a single or double-step (thirds) fashion. This means little when written thus but the musical effect is pleasing. You have to be there.

For the more adventurous, a swag of classical setting of 95 may be found in the public domain, including a smaller but still impressive swag of tunes from a shoe-maker, Thomas Clark (1775 – 1859). Clark, who according to his obituary “received but a scanty education, but was an incessant reader”, was also an incessant composer. You get the picture when, while scanning page upon page of titles by this director of music in Canterbury, the eye falls on A Twelfth set of Psalm Tunes. Being in the form of rather conservative hymns, they do not earn a prominent place in our repertoire.

Elsewhere in the big swag, a piece by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), impressively entitled “Venite exultemus Domino: In festo Natalis Resurrectionis Ascensionis” (being the incipit and seasonal use), is remarkable for its arrangement for nine parts in three trios. Each voice was published in 1607 as a separate book. As is his way, he directs that these parts may be for voices, instruments or organs.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius. Danish Royal Library.

Psalm 148, 1 January 2107

This post builds on three previous entries on this psalm, which is set for the first Sunday after Christmas. Psalm 8 also arises this day in readings for New Year’s Day.

IMG_2394

Praise God from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind

This popular psalm is in the middle of the final group of half a dozen songs of praise which bring the Psalter to a climax. Notable for its broadly imaginative evocation of the whole universe in praise of the creator, such poetic flights are a hallmark of the psalms. Psalm 148 echoes Psalms 96 to 98, also set readings for Christmas, and is incorporated into the canticle of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego whose story in the book of Daniel, incidentally, is also a source of the phrase ‘feet of clay’. The poet is intent on sweeping up the whole creation; the word ‘all’ is sprinkled liberally throughout:

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! (Ps 148:9-11)

Psalm 96, Christmas 2016

Psalms 96 to 98Bonsai tree

Psalms 96 to 98 appear often in the Lectionary, particularly at Christmas but also at other ordinary times during the year. The triplet forms a joyful package for a joyful occasion: these three songs for Christmas sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and imagine a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96

Ps96 illustr HenryVIII Psalter 1540

Illuminated capital of Cantate Domino in the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540. British Library.

The fine old manuscript shown in this digital reproduction (click to enlarge) is known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. It opens with a dedicatory letter by Jean Mallard, who wrote and probably illuminated the manuscript, incipit: ‘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 illustration appears in Psalm 97 folio 118r (our 96) showing angels singing within an ornate golden initial capital of Cantate Domino – ‘Sing unto the Lord’.

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. Declare God’s glory among the nations, the marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is God, and greatly to be praised; to be revered above all gods. (Ps. 96:1-4 alt.)

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’.

New songs

For such an important occasion everyone wants to sing a new song, it seems. 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 (listen>>)
  • Claudio Monteverdi, Orlandus 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 (last system of Prima Pars shown) would be a strong contender.Ps96 Lassus à3

Modern settings

  • There are eight in Psalms for All Seasons alone. 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-up three-chord harmonies of the third setting PFAS No 96C roll along sweetly, suggesting an easy first choice. The choice of refrain assumes we have indeed got the new song message and have moved on; it 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 the Lord (v. 11)

  • Together in song, albeit characteristically ignoring some verses (and gender inclusiveness), does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.
  • New Century 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”.
  • This easy home-grown tune has also been sung at South Woden:

Sing a new song

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 to join in!

Psalm 43

Note. Psalm 43 was almost ignored when it came up last time (June 2016) since the Lectionary adds it to Psalm 42 as a combined reading — and there is a good reason for that. It appears in its own right, but only as the alternative reading, late in Year A, 5 Nov 2017. This interim post is intended to remediate a sketchy coverage so far.

Psalm 43 (text here>) is quite short at five verses, and quite like several other songs. The writer, of the Korahites, is seeking justification against nastiness of various flavours. Then, asking himself why he should mooch around gloomily, the psalmist rolls out a prayer whose frequent use in liturgies and hymns has made the lines familiar:Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. (v.3)

Taken together with Psalm 42, the song’s structure is in the form of a lament — complain (42), ask, trust, praise (43). This, plus the fact that 43 has no heading, is evidence that these two were probably written as one song. Further, both share the same antiphon:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again to the one who is my help (or saving presence, welfare, prosperity, deliverance) and my God. (v. 5)

Music

One would have thought that this inbuilt antiphon shared by Psalms 42 and 43 would be preferred for the refrain in modern sources:

  • Everett in TEP does choose this verse (43:5)
  • PFAS 43C, a nice setting from The Iona Community and Wild Goose, selects the sending of light and truth in verse 3;
  • NCH goes for a slice of verse 1.

Several classical SATBs may be found online. The name Claude Goudimel is often associated with psalm settings, particularly of the Genevan Psalter project. This French composer was born in Besançon, lived in the north-east of France for some time until forced out by religious wars, and died in Lyon in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Note in this excerpt from his Psalm 43 published in Paris in 1568 (but in Dutch) that bar lines have been added for the convenience of the modern singer.Ps43 Goudimel 1568

Psalm 80, 18 Dec 2016

80 signNote: Previous posts on this psalm (see index) were limited by a selective local music agenda for the day. This post broadens and integrates those comments for more general applicability.

At South Woden this year, we decided that Psalm 80 would be displaced by other Advent readings and carols. Pity in a way, since coincidentally we celebrate two 80th birthdays on this Sunday in a special celebration.

Psalm 80 by Asaph is a cry for restoration by the ‘Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’. As strife continues all around, the singer seeks a more peaceable zone, perhaps by the still waters and safe pastures of other familiar psalms. The psalmist invokes the Creator’s strength and justice to intervene and bring safety to the people. A promise of faithful obedience (verse 18) concludes the song before the final repetition in verse 19.

The modern reader might be mystified by the historical references that come up early in the song; you might dig Israel and Joseph but why do Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh get a mention (v.2)? Leaving the intricacies of tribal history in the north and south kingdoms to expositors, this can be taken as a prayer that all tribes will be equally blessed. The message of the first few verses is pretty plain:

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel … Restore us; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (verses 1, 3)

This follows a nice throw-away line in an associated reading from Micah, using that same image of the shepherd feeding the flock:

He shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:5)

Both writers trust that preservation from a raft of trials and tribulations is assured, and that it may be both individual and collective. They both use another archaic reference, that of the shepherd and flock.

IMG_1067It’s often said that this recurring biblical idea has lost its punch in modern urban life, especially in this wide brown land. Maybe, but coming once across a couple of modern shepherds wending a path through a busy market street in Bruges, complete with band and children’s play castle, the action was instantly recognisable. Even if you had never seen it before, the shepherd’s role was evident.

Looking again at the psalm, verse 3 quoted above appears again verbatim in verse 7. After a change of imagery to the vineyard, that same line returns in the final verse 19. This is clear internal evidence that the poet had a responsorial plan in mind from the beginning. So it’s easy to pick a line to use as a sung response.

Music

Complete with black sheep

A flock in Turkey, complete with black sheep.

Besides several SATB classical settings, there are two rather more demanding ones by Purcell and Mendelssohn.

  • The former is in English but in eight parts. Purcell has not conceived the setting as two SATB choirs like much of the music of the Venice school of the 17th century, of which more later. Sometimes Purcell has the singers in close harmony, almost homophonic. At other times he playfully weaves selected parts around individually. At other points, two halves act as high then low voice choir almost antiphonally.
  • Mendelssohn‘s work is for TTBB, so may be well within the reach of even some smaller choirs and groups. However, the original envisages continuo accompaniment and it would lose something without that.
  • There are several other SATBs on the web, including the rich Slavonian Orthodox ‘Cherubic Hymn’, a Latin gradual for Advent Qui sedes Domine from the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom by Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825)

Modern settings are equally rich and varied. The choice of an antiphon is easy with verses 3, 7 and 19 forming that recurring prayer of supplication:

Restore us O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved.

Psalms for All Seasons uses this verse in the responsorial setting 80A. This antiphon may be taken as usual as a single response: it also lends itself to division between two or three groups of voices in call and reply. Separate phrases could be allocated to good effect to small groups, solo voices and the congregation:

A: Restore us again (instrumental bar follows)
B: O Lord God of hosts, (instrumental bar follows)
C: and show us the light of your face and your grace,
All voices: and we shall be saved.

PFAS also provides a tone for the singing of the verses. However, a scanned version of the words can be written and sung to the tune of the response — a common practice at South Woden:

Hear Shepherd of Israel, leading your flock / shine from on high upon Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin

Rather surprisingly, the refrain in New Century Hymnal ignores the internal antiphon, preferring the second half of verse 2: “Stir up your might and come to save us”. Everett uses it in his nice lightly syncopated refrain in TEP.

Double trouble

After introducing the idea of antiphon within antiphon, we must refer to the St Mark’s 11th century church in Venice. The early choirmasters at St Mark’s in the 16th century took warmly to the idea of double choir works, writing in 8 parts or more. Masters like Willaert and Schütz, encouraged by the independent nature of Venice as the second most important city in Italy, as well as by the presence of two organs and two choir lofts, were innovative and free in their exploration of the form and wrote many rich masses and anthems in that style.

StMark's Venice

Under Giovanni Gabrieli, according to A history of Western music (Grout and Palisca, Norton, p. 300),

… the performance forces grew to unheard-of proportions.

The choirs may sing alternate repeated phrases, sometimes overlapping, sometimes echoing, sometimes developing to a new theme, sometimes coming together at a dramatic moment or an important part of the text.