Psalm 136

The immediately remarkable feature of this psalm is the antiphon inserted in each verse of the poem, which begins:

Give thanks to God who is good : whose steadfast love is eternal.

The phrase in the second half (in bold) is added to each verse, presumably in the original text.

Ps136 RoyalMs2

Ps136 in the Psalter of Henry VIII, British Library Royal Ms 2

These repeated antiphons are shown in the 16th century manuscript illustrated, known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. Personal notes in the king’s hand hand appear here and there, although not in this snapshot. Here we see the last verse of the preceding Psalm 135, followed by the words Gloria and Sicut erat, which of course are just cues for the full doxology. Then in red the psalm number 135 in the Vulgate, 136 in our English Bible. Then comes verse 1, with several abbreviations, after a decorated capital C:

Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus / quoniam in aeternum [or here, saeculum] misericordia ejus

Such short statements in each verse continue, the repeated antiphon of the second half of the line above being repeated and further abbreviated to quoniam or just qm (see lower right of the illustration) to save space.

History – with antiphon

These short statements remind the reader of all the major events related in the five books of the Torah: the wonders and sustainment of creation, the history of the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea and the conquest of various kings in taking of Canaan, the promised land. Ironically, in the following Psalm 137, the glory days have passed and they sing the lament of captive exiles, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’.

These days the facts of the story are better known than they are relevant, save as an inspiring if remote myth of divine guidance and protection. Did the Red Sea really roll back at the right moment then roll back, as Miriam sings in Exodus, to consume pursuing horse and rider? In poetry the detail is less important than the message.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that poetry often invokes the “suspension of disbelief”, a phrase he dreamed up in 1817 for when we are happy to go along with the romantic story regardless of credibility or otherwise. Poetry that infuses a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale can entice the reader willingly to suspend logical judgement. He had his own poetry in mind, no doubt:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

The ride is sometimes more fun than the destination. The stories of the psalms are no exception.screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-14-15

The long …

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wins the prize for producing a startlingly grand motet on Psalm 136. Assuming the major congregations or patrons of the day had such resources to hand, he arranged the piece for up to four choirs or smaller groups of voice, brass or other instruments, together with a figured bass continuo. Illustrated here are the last few bars, in 17 staves, of the 200 bars of this piece. Each staff shown here is edited for voice with text underlay but in all probability some would be instrumental. One edition has Cantus 1 taken by trombone.

… and the short

On a more modest scale, several modern psalters provide a short tone (Psalms For All Seasons 136D) or background vamp (The Emergent Psalter) for the first phrase, then a refrain for the antiphon in each verse. They often include John Milton’s rather dated hymn Let us with a gladsome mind; interestingly, PFAS 136B updates and vamps it up a bit with new rhythm, an echo voice part and refrain — Genevan adapted.

New Century cunningly starts with the “Steadfast love …” phrase of the repeating antiphon but adapts it by adding a response that invites the congregation to participate more personally. Rather than continuing “… endures forever”, the refrain concludes ” …  surrounds those who trust in God”.

Psalm 40

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year as well as 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.

Choose your antiphons

Responsive refrains are often drawn from a key verse in the psalm being sung, or a related or derivative text from other biblical references.

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

Antiphon for Psalm 39 (40) in an English Psalter, early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83 f35r.

 

The beautiful early manuscript of the Howard Psalter in the British Library, digitised and illustrated here, reveals an interesting departure from the practice of using a verse of the psalm being sung. It takes a little unravelling. Those familiar with Latin and the medieval scribes’ habits of abbreviation in manuscripts will have a head start.

Here is my take. The decorated text at the top of the page is the final verse of the Psalm 40, the rest of the psalm appearing on the previous page:

Adjutor meus et protector meus tu es; Deus meus, ne tardaveris / Thou art my helper and redeemer: make no long tarrying, O my God. (Ps.40:17, BCP)

Then the music is appended, with its ‘antiphona‘ heading, in square notes on a four-line C clef. A close look reveals that the second staff casually switches to an F clef. That must have kept the monks alert.

Now what about the words underlying the music?

Ut non delinquam in lingua mea / (I will take heed to my ways) that I offend not in my tongue

First, the small ‘a‘ in the last line is a kind of pointing, a cue for alternating responses by groups, or answering a priest or cantor. You will not find the antiphon words in this psalm. The fist phrase, starting with the tall decorated ‘U’ and up to that a, is borrowed from the previous Psalm 38:2 in the Vulgate; our 39:1. [These words also appear in the next illustration of the Grandisson Psalter.] Then, the last little phrase beginning with a fancy S looks extraordinarily like a much abbreviated quote from the next sequential Psalm 40:5 (our 41:4):

Illustration from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter 13C. BL MS 21926 F66v

Illuminated capital and text of Ps 38 from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter 13C. BL MS 21926 f66v

Sana animam meam Domine / Lord, heal my soul

Reaching out thus to neighbouring psalms may have been intended to help learning and to reinforce the continuity of the Psalter. Whether coincidentally or deliberately, both of these quotes from the preceding and following psalms happen to begin with Dixi / I said.

Later …

Leaping forward a century or two to 1564, Claude Goudimel writing in middle French stuck to the text of Psalm 40. Lassus (1585) then Mendelssohn (19th century) both wrote nice four-part inventions on the opening verses that they probably regarded as modest affairs. In the Lassus work, that Latin phrase ‘I waited patiently for God’ appears as the tasty title Expectans Expectavi.

And finally …

To the present day:

  • 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”)
  • 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”. Listen:

Psalm 147, 3 Jan 16

Band in ParisThe last half-dozen songs in the psalter are songs of praise and joy. Each one begins with a Hallelujah or call of praise to God.

This one is longer than most. We start at verse 12, although to my mind the selection is best read in the context of the whole psalm. It rings as a little nationalistic, even exclusive, without the earlier rejoicing that the remnants of an exiled people have been saved and gathered, the holy city rebuilt (verse 2). As with most of this poetry the associated meanderings, in this case celebrating the creation’s being sustained and ordered by divine love and power, help to broaden the focus to a more inclusive perspective.

Music

We have previously sung the refrain from The emergent psalter on a couple of occasions, using a local SATB arrangement of both antiphon and tone rather than Everett‘s version of unison refrain and spoken verse. However, the reading then was the first half of the psalm, from which Everett uses verse 4 as an appropriate refrain:

Jehovah with immeasurable wisdom calls each star by name

This refrain is a little stranded when reading the second half of the psalm, but it could still be effective.

PFAS rolls out several responsive options, frequently just picking the ‘hallelujah’ theme. One (147A alt.) is even a familiar tune by Mozart. Mozart’s music is supposed to soothe the troubled breast: this is a canon in three parts, so it will keep the congregation awake and alert as they learn and enjoy their woven harmony.Tomas-Luis-Victoria-300x300

Victoria

Lauda Jerusalem by Victoria (1548-1611) still lurks in my files awaiting the moment when we can do justice to this nice setting.

Much early psalm music was composed using alternate verses, either odds or evens, for antiphonal singing with cantor and choir. All of Victoria’s eleven vespers psalms follow this pattern, the one cited below being odd verses. Victoria also arranged several psalms for two choirs.LaudaJerusalemExperienced Canberra singers interested in singing Victoria’s magnificent Officium defunctorum for six voices should think about joining the Oriana Chorale workshop on 28 May 2015.

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 24, 12 July 2015

'Lift up your heads', chorus in 1902 Novello edition of Handel's 'The Messiah'

‘Lift up your heads’, chorus in 1902 Novello edition of Handel’s ‘The Messiah’

Lift up your heads O ye gates,
and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors
and the King of Glory shall come in …

Thus opens this chorus half way through the second half of G F Handel’s oratorio The Messiah.

Following the structure of the poem, Handel chose to use this text from Psalm 24 antiphonally. A melodious trio by women’s voices (SSA) introduces these lines quite sweetly; mens’ voices then come in asking: ‘Who is this King of Glory?’ to be answered by the women: ‘The Lord stong and mighty’. By page 3, the combined chorus is in full swing — a harbinger of more fiery music to come as Handel moves towards Psalm 2 with two later choruses:

  • Why do the nations so furiously rage?
  • Let us break their bonds asunder.

If all that sounds familiar, you may also be thinking of the old hymn ‘Ye gates lift up your heads on high’ in various hymn books, including Together in song No 12, but also the old Scottish psalters, to the tune ST. GEORGE. Guess what? In this venerable arrangement, the men again get to sing: ‘But who of glory is the king?’ I wonder where A M Thompson got this idea from?

Ephesus: looks like bits of this one have already been lifted.

Ephesus: looks like bits of this one have already been lifted.

Something that often bothered me when I bothered more about things was what it all meant anyway? Gates and everlasting doors don’t have heads to lift up do they? And they should be just swinging open, albeit in grand style if they felt so inclined. You will have your own poetic images of this impressive welcoming ceremony.

And so to this week

Leaping with relief a couple of centuries ahead, we find more antiphonal settings in both PFAS and The emergent psalter — quite the thing, evidently:

  • PFAS 24E is a setting of a familiar Israeli tune (279 in TiS) The king of glory comes, the nation rejoices, with different words following the psalm text
  • Everett has used his typically innovative harmonies to write a simple but effective response with two lines that can be sung by two halves of the hall. Verses have been adapted to sing to the same tune – so our version will be responsorial as well as antiphonal!

Singers: let’s support David as he leads us this Sunday with the second of these fine offerings. All welcome, as usual.

Antiphon by Hildegard, 8 March 2015

Hildegard

Illumination from the ‘Liber Scivias’, Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary. Wikipedia.org

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) shines as a beacon from the past, standing for the validity of a feminine voice and interpretation in a world where men wrote the rules and the history.

Unlike many, Hildegard achieved a degree of recognition in her own times, and even more unusually left a significant body of work in thought, art, theology, visions and music that still inspires across the centuries.

One of the first posts in this blog was occasioned by Hildegard’s saints’ day on 17 September 2013, the anniversary of her death. Accompanied by hurdy-gurdy and percussion, women and girls sang her Spiritui sancto from the story of Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. We have also enjoyed O rubor sanguini in years gone by.

This week as International Women’s Day approaches we turn to one of her poems used as an antiphon for the set psalm, rather than the psalm itself (Psalm 19):

O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans
sicut aurora procedit:
nunc gaude et letare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
O blooming branch,
you stand upright in your nobility,
as breaks the dawn on high:
Rejoice now and be glad,
and deign to free us, frail and weakened,
from the wicked habits of our age;
stretch forth your hand
to lift us up aright.

Whatever wicked habits of the age she had in mind, ours are probably no less grievous. Hildegard’s prayer remains valid. One commentator has written:

‘O frondens virga’ recalls the elemental association of the divine feminine with earthly fertility. Mary is addressed as “O blooming branch,” and she is described as standing in her nobility. The image of dawn and its radiance is also invoked. As in ‘Cum erubuerint’, Mary’s salvific actions take on a hint of independent agency: “deign to set us frail ones free” and “stretch out your hand to lift us up.”

– N M Campbell, Hildegard of Bingen Society

Irrespective of various viewpoints on Marian intercession, Hildegard’s inspirational value is undeniable. Gwenda will lead us in a reflection on the place of influential women in our lives and faith.

Manuscript of Hildegard chant, http://hildegardmusic.blogspot.com.au/

Manuscript of Hildegard chant, click to enlarge. http://hildegardmusic.blogspot.com.au/

Music

Exactly how this antiphon would have been performed in the 12th century is a matter for speculation. It would have been written in neumes as shown in the manuscript at left, accessed on one of the many web resources available on Hildegard.

These dots and dashes indicate the pitch of the notes but not the length or duration, which probably depended on the flow of the text and local practices of the nunnery or monastery in which they were taught and sung.

In any case, length and complexity preclude the performance of the full work with any pretence of authenticity and accuracy. We therefore hear extracts transcribed into modern musical notation, adapted for ease of learning and interpretation.

O Frondens extract

So it won’t necessarily sound quite like this youtube clip> — but it’s recognisable and nice, and shows that Hildegard’s creativity is fruitful soil for modern interpretation. The spirit of Hildegard’s feather is more important than literal detail.Feather

The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus I am a feather on the breath of God.

– Hildegard of Bingen

Our women and girls gather for this rendition of the lilting poetry and chant. We are blessed that Talitha will again accompany the women’s voices on her hurdy-gurdy, a mechanical violin-like instrument which evolved before the time of Hildegard and was often used to support the monophonic melody of those times.

Historically informed, constantly relevant.More detail  Continue reading

Psalm 68, 1 June 2014

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness The merry month of May, with its beautiful autumn leaves and the busy international music festival, departs. Only three weeks to the shortest day of the year when Keith, returning from the wilds of Celtic islands in another hemisphere, will lead a worship service at South Woden at the Winter Solstice. But for this Sunday, it’s the first ten then the last four verses of Psalm 68.

The psalm

Between bookends at beginning and end of this psalm, consisting of verses of praise for divine power and ubiquity, comes a recitation of providence and caring for the 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)

IMG_3012The psalmist in the ‘bookends’ 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.

It’s hard not to link this grand call with verses like those quoted above emphasising care for the needy (v.10), the homeless and the poor who – as that quintessential observer of human nature Jesus observed (Mark 14:7) – regrettably are always with us.

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? Our prayer is surely to gain the ideal of governance in the final verse:

Ascribe power to God … whose strength is in the skies. Awesome is the divine, who gives power to the people. (vv. 34, 35)

Music

Each week we try to find the tune and antiphonal response that fits the season and the sense and message of the readings. Each month we try to achieve a balance of styles and participation as well, such as the male voice group (thank you for a fine rendition of Psalm 66 last Sunday) and something in which our children can contribute their enthusiasm and voices.

On 1 June, we sing the verses 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 we shall sing as a round against a simple repetitive harmonic pattern. The congregation sings two parts, part 2 starting at bar 2, while the children repeat just the first phrase in a simpler and more easily learned part.

And for a little more … Continue reading

Psalm 31, 18 May 14

Some translations use 'castle' instead of 'refuge'.

Some translations use ‘castle’ instead of ‘refuge’; the ‘tower’ like this one is often a related image

We are familiar with Psalm 31 from Palm Sunday, although this time we read the first 5 verses and a little more in mid-psalm.

This is a rich psalm, if that’s not too trite a thing to say about the deep artistry and imagery of all of these songs.

It combines feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay in which the divine refuge and blessing are earnestly sought and highly valued:

  • I have taken refuge (v.1)
  • incline your ear to me (v.2)
  • be my strong rock (v.3)

… and then this:

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me (v.4)

What net, we wonder? Intrigue, hatred and jealousy amongst competitors or unbelievers, or just common old greed and selfishness? David, who endured all this cunning, 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 that the dying Jesus quoted (so it’s sometimes used on Good Friday):

Into your hands I commend my spirit

Music

Here’s an extract from the previous post on this same tune (from PFAS) that we sang on Palm Sunday:

… there are many intertwined ideas in this song. The response is strong, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: ‘My times are in your hands.’ That’s only one of four good snapshot statements of belief in this antiphon.

The earlier post revolved around that quoted theme. This week let us note the other ‘snapshot’ phrases of the refrain:your word

My times are in your hands. You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.

A nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of natural phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. We use the same refrain during prayers.

Verses will 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 would be very warming. If you can help by meeting early to learn and sing this supporting tune, please do.