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

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.


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


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 147, 3 Jan 16”

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.