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The modern reader might be mystified by the historical references that come up early in the song; you might dig Israel and Joseph but why do Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh get a mention (v.2)?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.


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.

Psalm 79, 18 Sep 2016

This song by Asaph voices a communal lament for the defeat of Jerusalem, seeking safety and justice until the people can “give thanks forever from generation to generation”. It’s another “How long?” song, themes taken up by many song writers including Canadians Steve Bell and Linnea Good. The psalter is riven through with songs of the blues and forbearance — at least ten of them, such as Psalms 6, 13 and on through to 119, include this anguish.

When a footnote in one of our psalters (1) cautions that this psalm should be used “with great care”, and that it “may be appropriate … focusing of situations of extreme persecution”, you know you are in for one of those bitter cries for help in time of trouble. This note, rather than putting us off, is quite helpful. There are, and regrettably will ever be it seems, such situations — think of violence in South Sudan, Syria, Burma and so on. So the song could be used to identify with and pray for those who suffer dolorous lives at the hand of aggression or repressive régimes. That source, PFAS, thoughtfully uses the more hopeful Kumbayah (but in a minor key) as a refrain:

Someone’s crying Lord, kum-ba-yah.

A footnote in another of our regular sources (2) has this angle on the psalmist’s crying “How long?”:

In the Bible as a whole, it’s just as likely to be God who is putting the question to us, wondering how long it will be necessary to put up with our antics [then several Biblical references.]

TiS 69Music

Kumbayah is fine. But far away in another galaxy, one Clemens non Papa wrote a nice four-part setting called Domine, ne memineris / Adjuva nos, from the first and ninth verses. Non Papa? How would you like to go down in history as “Not the Pope” just to make sure we knew who you were? The Belgian composer Jacobus Clemens (c. 1515-55), who worked mainly in Bruges and Paris, is known for his psalms in French and particularly Dutch.

In yet another world, the Anglican church has a great tradition of chanting the psalter in a particular style that is a satisfying evolution of ancient Gregorian tradition into more recent polyphony. It uses, as many of us do, verses with pointing markers as clues for fitting the words into a chant. Our practice is marking the last three notes, usually three syllables or words, as illustrated above. The preceding words of the phrase are all sung on the first ‘reciting’ tone.

Anglican chant has two more notes in the second line, so the last five syllables or words are allocated their own notes. There are always four notes then six, making ten in all. Once you crack the code, it’s easy with a little rehearsal to agree on the flow of the words. The example shown below, for Psalm 79 by English organist C. Hylton Stewart (1884-1932), is a little different. It has two lots of ten notes so is a truly antiphonal song; verses are sung alternately, odds then evens, usually by two groups.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.21.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 81, 28 Aug ’16

Psalmist Asaph begins by casting into a shimmering spotlight some energising phrases:Lyre player, AlteNatGal

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the merry harp and the lyre. Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon, and at the full moon (v.1, 3)

Then this touch of mystery:

I hear a voice I had not known: “I eased your shoulder from the burden You called on me in trouble and I saved you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder and tested you at the waters of Meribah” (vs. 5-7)

Asaph was one psalm writer who knew his history and used it in his songs. Whether today’s reader knows the background or not, the poetry sparks thought, dreaming, soaring imagination and hope.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Meribah, for example, refers to a real historical event  (disputation, angst and water from the rock; Num. 20). Knowing the history helps. If not, you just say: “Some secret, ancient or holy places, I imagine.” One can still feel the warmth of being in the company of a great cloud of witnesses, hopeful humanity, whoever they are.


The upbeat refrain in The Emergent Psalter (Everett notes: “This antiphon sounds great with power chords and a little distortion”) uses that mysterious verse 5 quoted above.

Psalms for All Seasons has a small clutch of offerings that most musicians would relish. Like the phrases already mentioned, they seem to display a theatrical bent:

  • 81A Sing with joy, antiphonal, with solo and tutti voices and verses to a tone; words and music traditional Malawian
  • 81B Strike up the music! with a quiet ostinato of ‘Hear my voice’ behind the reading of the verses (and an added flute part)
  • 81C in hymn style, and therefore not our choice, but interestingly breaks for ‘a reading of the law’.

Predictably, that opening call to raise a joyful song and blow the ram’s horn captured several classical composers such as Byrd (two setting for 5 and 6 voices), Hassler, Palestrina (again à5) and Scarlatti (SATB).

[PS. This is the 200th post. 150 psalms, and still 17 ‘un-blogged’.]

Psalms 74, 75

Book 3, as mentioned previously, is the home of the songs of the musician Asaph. His first five are not included in the lectionary, the next five are.

Psalm 74

Psalms for all seasons offers but one setting, the well-known O come, Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL 88.88 with refrain). This is an interesting choice, since it uses ancient antiphons rather than the text of the psalm. In particular, it draws on the ‘O Antiphons’, named for the invocations:Male voices Vézelay

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

In the Catholic tradition, these antiphons are sung at vespers during Advent. Here, the call upon God’s various names reflects the communal despair and lamentation of Psalm 74, particularly at the destruction of the temple, which leads Asaph to turn to God on behalf of the people.

PFAS usefully suggests using both verses and refrain of this hymn as congregational song, with the sections of verses spoken or chanted in between.(1) A combination of the haunting early French plainsong (2) and the early antiphonal references thus provide a conducive ‘music space’ in which to contemplate the messages of words and music.

15C clock, Basel museumJohn Blow (1648-1708) wrote a motet O God wherefore art thou absent, drawing on the ‘How long?’ theme in the first few verses (see also Psalm 13). It’s arranged for SSATB and basso continuo, so won’t be heard in many halls.

Psalm 75

This short psalm is one of thanksgiving for divine justice, with a reminder to the proud and powerful not to rely on their own achievements for prominence or praise. That justice, pictured as a common draught of mixed wine from which all shall drink, will be a great leveler.

The thoughtful approach of Psalms for all seasons mentioned above is continued here in the suggestion that the psalm is quite like the Magnificat (Luke 1). So PFAS includes a nice traditional Irish version of this song, My soul cries out, to the tune Star of County Down.

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 73, Asaph

Book 3 of the psalter (73 to 89) opens with eleven psalms of Asaph, a temple musician referred to in Chronicles. The first five do not appear in the lectionary.


I warm to Asaph. Admittedly, we don’t really know for sure who he was. Probably a musician and official in the temple during the reign on David and Solomon, he must have seen a fair bit of drama and the associated internal manoeuvring within the administration. Musical, leadership and political sensibilities were no doubt abundant.

Musicien, SérignanAsaph was reportedly one of three Levites appointed by David as in charge of singing in the temple community. Those of us active in singing the psalms and gathering like-minded singers to interpret these songs are bound to feel a degree of kinship with Asaph. He may not have had undelivered emails and children’s sport fixtures to contend with, but from reading Psalm 73 there were obviously many other and bigger concerns in his mind.

Withal, he brought the psalms in song to people over many years. Innovation is important in supporting afresh the message of the poem. I wonder what musical ideas and inspiration he pulled out of the hat for young listeners in those days. (It wasn’t Eurovision, I’ll wager.)

Psalm 73

This psalm is both a ‘wisdom psalm’ and an ‘individual lament’, both being categories that someone has applied to the psalter. It speaks of corruption in the ruling system and how easy it is to envy the powerful, how easy to stumble in such an environment. (v.2)

How does one respond to corruption within the ranks of wealth, power and influence, especially when they get away with it?  Asaph is initially confused and ’embittered’ (v. 21) until he ‘entered into the sanctuary’ (v. 17). There he reflects, guided to the realisation that corruption will somehow be judged (18, 19). Worldly concerns fade. (25)


Assuming you don’t have the full professional ensemble available to perform the pieces that Schütz, Lassus and Hassler wrote for verses from this psalm, have a good look at the selection — admittedly limited — in Psalms for all seasons. I love the innovation and musicality in these three settings, not denying that it would take some good musicians to make the most of them:

  • Pete_Seeger-1979

    Pete Seeger in 1979; one of many musos since Asaph who have sung a ‘Worried man blues’. Image:

    73A; any music that comes from a source called ‘Brier Patch Music’ is bound to be interesting. This one is based on a popular American folk tune, ‘It takes a worried man’, somehow quite appropriate to this lament by Asaph when he was fed up to his back teeth in frustration at the great and powerful (just like today?)  Ken Madema has fitted some great words  — ‘All my life I’ve sung a jealous song; the evil people flourish and the good folks suffer wrong.’  Then it goes into an interesting, if rather long refrain, in which ‘ … God has changed my vision.’
  • Domicile adoré73B is a sweet little three-chord, 3/4 song in old fashioned hymn form, In sweet communion. Nice, but not for us.
  • 73C lets us have it in the title; Why do the Powerful Have it so Good? Then the compositional structure by Andrew Donaldson ©2010 is unique and innovative, full of rhythmic spoken word and nice little musical vamps in the background. His paraphrase interpretation of the psalm is worth reading.

The tradition of Asaph is surely still alive.