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!

Psalms 96 to 98, Christmas 2015

IMG_3002A joyful package suitable to a joyful occasion, these three songs for Christmas Eve and Day sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96 begins with the much-sung ‘Sing to God a new song’. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm — or I should say opening phrase; nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses. The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in earth and heavens, and includes repeats of bits of other psalms like 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’.

Psalm 97 takes on a more feisty tone, declaring the enmity of false gods and carved images. These days they might be identified as fascination with youth, self-promotion, nationalism, wealth or power. The psalmist calls for The Force to awaken against this dark side (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference; and there will be more star-shattering revelations next post…)

InstrumentsPsalm 98 again urges us to lift up  our voices to sing a new song. This time, we are encouraged to bring along our harp, trumpet and horn. The psalmist broadens the focus to call for vibrant harmony among all nations with creation (we are thankful for small steps taken recently in Paris) and the Creator (more steps needed).


Ps96 illustr HenryVIII Psalter 1540

Ps.96 ‘Cantate Domino’; from the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540, British Library. Click to enlarge.

As mentioned above, there are dozens of ‘new songs’. Bach did a great piece called Singet dem Herrn, a cantata that needs to be taken at a clip for full effect. Here’s a very small sample of some other more demanding pieces listed on the Choral public domain for Psalm 98:

  • Orlando di Lasso SSATB (vv. 1-4)
  • Claudio Monteverdi SSATBB (combined with Psalm 96); and one for 2 soprani
  • Johann Pachelbel SATB.SATB – two choirs please!
  • Michael Praetorius vv.1-3 SSST.ATBB and vv.4-6 SSSAATTBB – whew!
  • Heinrich Schütz, SATB.SATB – another double choir piece in the Venetian style.

There are of course plenty of nice songs within reach of amateur groups. Together in song, characteristically skipping some verses and gender inclusiveness, does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.

Psalms for all seasons and The emergent psalter have other suitable settings.

Merry and blessed Christmas to all readers around the world.

At South Woden (… and more about that character Henry) Continue reading

Benedictus (Zechariah), 6 Dec 2015

The lectionary in some seasons substitutes a canticle or other reading for the psalm. We can hardly feel short-changed: we sing most of the psalms over the three-year (weekly) cycle, compared with less than 10% of the rest of the Bible. Anne Richardson, of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, writes:

All three of the non-Psalm options in Advent of Year C are in the format of one of the groups of Psalms referred to as the individual thanksgiving Psalms or Songs of Praise.

Accusation or anunciation

The annunciation, 16th C carving, Toulouse

So this week, the second Sunday in Advent, we find the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah in the psalm spot. The Latin name comes, as usual, from the first few words of the text:

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel / Blessed be the Lord God of Israel


Psalms for all seasons suggests two chant-style settings.

  • The first (page 1013) is pure simplicity — two notes, two chords throughout, in Gregorian tradition but even less adorned — which has its own beauty.
  • And the second is like unto it (quiz; where did this little phrase come from?) but with more of a flourish.
  • Additionally, a third option, again similar but with variations, is a home-grown setting to the SW Communion Chant.

However, this week at South Woden we are privileged to be treated to a session in which Len and Sue will report their experience at a recent modern theology conference in the USA. We will sing not this canticle but the other NT reading from Philippians. Sue has chosen a tune by Father Frank Anderson MSC, with verses by a cantor and a chorus:

I thank my God each time I think of you
And when I pray for you, I pray with joy (Phil. 1:3,4)

All singers welcome, meeting a little early on Sunday.

Next Week

Another canticle, this time the First Song of Isaiah. We return to a lovely song by John Bell to which we have moulded the words to make a great children’s song, complete with uke and Hallelujah for evermore! Our good friend Jonathan Barker leads us.

Psalm 25, 29 Nov 15

Image: Wikicommons

Image: Wikicommons

Psalm 25, an acrostic psalm in Hebrew, runs to 22 verses. The alphabetical arrangement is lost in our translations.

The psalmist seems to swing between two states, first soaring then penitential. Our selection is the first ten, more aspirational, verses. David then goes on to lament his failings and seek forgiveness in the second half.

Here’s the opening verse,  from the old BCP translation:

Unto thee, O Lord, will I lift up my soul; my God, I have put my trust in thee : O let me not be confounded, neither let mine enemies triumph over me.

And progressing to that very familiar and recurrent of prayers in the psalms:

Shew me thy ways, O Lord : and teach me thy paths. Lead me forth in thy truth, and learn me: for thou art the God of my salvation; in thee hath been my hope all the day long.(v.3, 4)



Another Genevan psalm;

Many early settings of this psalm may be found, including those by Boyce, Lassus, Goudimel (Genevan) and Blow. Composers of any era usually chose to use either first aspirational or second penitential section; an impressive total suggests that this psalm was of particular interest and widely loved.

Confining our attention to responsorials in modern sources, we again find several options:

  • Together in Song, from which we sang a (modified) setting of Psalm 93 last week, offers a composition by Christopher Willcock, whose work we find reliably beautiful. The verses are a little tricky for those who do not read music.
  • Everett in The emergent psalter uses verses 4 and 5 for the antiphon. The Carers’ Group used this one last February.
  • Psalms for all seasons gives us 25A, again using verse 1 as the refrain and verses to a tone; as well as a more formally arranged 25C.
  • The Taizé chorus Ad te Jesu quotes verse 1 of this psalm.
  • South Woden has a home-grown refrain and verses based on a simple tune we used in recent years as the monthly ‘communion chant’, called into service as a vehicle to sing many different verses and psalms, in this case verses 3-4:


Psalm 96, Christmas Day

Bonsai treeIn many churches, Psalm 96 is read on Christmas Eve, for example midnight mass, while the next two psalms are listed for the great day itself.

Psalm 97 uses fiery image to proclaim God’s sovereignty.

Psalm 98 is a burst of joy:

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. … All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to God with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. (Ps. 98:1-5)

The whole world

Let the earth be glad, let the sea thunder (v.11)

Last time we sang Psalm 98, it was to a jazz-inspired 12-bar piano blues. There were, I admit, a few surprised looks; perhaps it was pushing the envelope of my desire to include a wide range of styles and traditions from around the spiritual cultures of the world.

I don’t think we should stretch tradition so far as to pull this on Christmas Day, despite the expansive magnanimity within the gathering flock as they observe the slightly chaotic atmosphere of welcoming visitors and families rolling in with children bearing — or wearing — their new gifts.

And anyway, we are going ahead for our Christmas Day celebration with Psalm 96, almost indistinguishable in spirit from 98 in its call 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 marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; to be revered above all gods. (Ps. 96:1-4 alt.)


So no more blues as we sing the straight-up harmonies of Psalms for all seasons No 96C:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let all that is in them sing to the Lord (v. 11)

Cantors will sing the verses for us as usual, the people responding with this refrain.


1. We are the delighted beneficiaries of a bequest of a dozen new copies of Psalms for all seasons. Dedicated with three generations of the family present last Sunday, they will be well used, serving to keep the memory of good friend Ralph Tolson warm in our hearts as we sing.

2.  This is our beloved minister’s last service with us. Rev. Rachel will hit the road for Melbourne immediately after this joyful Christmas Day celebration. We have greatly appreciated and been enriched by her years of fruitful, inspired and inspiring ministry at South Woden. She is going out in style: the final hymn that we will share with her will be a lively rendition of ‘Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere’. Sure enough, it echoes the call of the psalm:

Go tell it to the nations … then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O Lord.

The ancient psalmists would assume that you will bring your lyre, timbrel and sackbut to join in!

Black Mountain

The Magnificat, 21 Dec 14

This lovely Song of Mary, found in Luke 1:46b-55, is called Magnificat since that is the first word of the text in the Latin:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?You can feel the thrill springing up in her heart — to be the mother of the promised one!

The subject of this outpouring of joy is not just personal, although that surely would be enough for several songs.

She quickly broadens the focus to recognise divine benevolence to all the faithful, bringing mercy, justice and equality:

God’s mercy is for believers from generation to generation. God has shown strength by deeds, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. (vv. 50-52 alt.)

Each newbornIt is a lovely song, reminiscent of the Song of Hannah, mother of Samuel. Mary’s thoughts and examples range across both the personal and the community, with many ideas threaded into the central theme of Mary’s awe at this surprise honour.


Over the last few years our ladies and girls have sung versions of this song to inspiring effect, the Canticle of turning in 2012 and then Holy is your name (PFAS p. 1020 — see the post last year for discussion of other music options).

All women and girls are welcome to share this experience again, meeting on Saturday for the first sampling of an arrangement in Psalms for all seasons.

You may wish to add your comments on this reading.

Psalm 85, 7 December 2014

A song of ascent

There’s comfort in familiar landmarks

The first Australians have been conscious of and connected to the land in much stronger and deeper ways than more recent arrivals can comprehend or feel.

Their livelihood was far more intimately bound up with their natural environment. Features in their traditional territorial landscapes have longstanding narrative and spiritual importance.

Somehow, this atmosphere permeates Psalm 85. The first verses speak of restoration and forgiveness but these blessings are anchored in a context. From the opening phrase we are reminded that we live in a certain land:

Lord, you were favorable to your land …

Later, we are assured that salvation is at hand; why?

… that God’s glory may dwell in our land (v.9)

But the strongest imagery is yet to come:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. (vv. 10, 11)

Faithfulness, a fundamental divine and image-of-the-divine virtue, is somehow associated with the very heart of the creation.

Other readings

As we so often find, lectionary readings are linked in many ways. I’ll bet the founders of our current lectionary didn’t have the land in mind as they made their selections, but the presence is just as strong in the text we hear from Exodus:

  • In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway
  • Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
  • The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
  • Get you up to a high mountain … (vv. 3 to 9)

Cathedral walk in the Bungle BunglesAnd where, in the reading from Mark, does John the baptiser appear? In the wilderness of course.

The land is by no means the main story in this psalm. There’s a lot more for you to discover (full readings are here>).

However, whether it’s bush-walking, growing your own, or working to preserve the environment, it’s a reminder to connect with our world afresh.


We shall sing a setting used previously:

Ps85 Show us

It’s worth noting that No 45 in Together in Song would also be a good choice; easy response, simple chords, interesting harmonies for SATB in the verses. However, it does not quite cover the lectionary readings and I think verses 1 and 2 are necessary to set the scene.