Psalm 123, 19 Nov ’17

Psalm 123 is a song of ascent. These short and hopeful songs, sometimes called degrees or Graduals, are grouped as Psalms 120 to 134. The songs of ascent have a particular fascination. They have a message and it’s economical. They challenge. This one, with only four verses, is short and bitter-sweet. Isaac Everett says of this psalm:1

The thing I love about the psalms of ascent is that they are so simple and short, yet they say everything they need to say.

Two themes are mingled: the psalmist declares (i) trust in divine love and protection, while (ii) hoping for mercy and relief from injustice from the ‘indolent rich’ and proud. (4) Unfortunately, progress against oppression is often slow. Ascent towards justice is not straight-forward or easy. Climbers are motivated by hope and belief that the effort will be worthwhile. Often it’s a long drag. 

So the psalm could just as well have been written for today’s inequalities; it uses the image of looking faithfully to a benevolent authority, seeking a time when the dominance of the proud and the rich might be at least ameliorated, if not completely countered. ‘We have had more than enough of contempt’ (3) from those who should be statesmen and leaders.

Musical settings of Psalm 123, perhaps due to its brevity, are relatively few. Together in Song skips this one; there are a couple of early settings by Palestrina and Hassler that are beyond our reach; and the Genevan and similar psalters have hymns rather than responsorials. However, some regular sources include nice congregational refrains:

  • TEP offers the penitential theme, ‘Have mercy on us’, with simple tune and chords

  • Linnea Good in a nice SATB setting concentrates on the single phrase, ‘To you I lift up my eyes’, from verse 1.

  • David Haas in PFAS takes a hopeful view: Our eyes rest on you, awaiting your kindness.

1 The Emergent Psalter, page 243

Psalm 130, 2 April 2017

This psalm is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). It’s also the sixth of seven penitential psalms: not that it matters greatly, as the idea of ascent captures the imagination more powerfully. The song is a statement of the mystery not only of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations, but also of our access to grace. The first verses, if you have not already looked it up, get right to it. In Sinead’s version:

Whales off Bribie
Whales playing off Bribie Island

Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; don’t let my cries for mercy be ignored.

Arising from the depths surely adds a new dimension to ‘ascent’. The poem recognises that despite our efforts and capacity for good, we will never reach divine standards in behaviour or nature. The psalmist just waits upon God ‘more than those who watch for the morning’, trusting that divine power will bless with hope (v. 5), love (v. 7) and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; vv. 7, 8). Turn up this text next time you are in the doldrums.

Life in many places has often been pretty rough over the years; people fight, wars arise over land, resources or power grabs. Days are very dark for ordinary people feeling the consequences of conflict. When things fall apart like that, community rulers try new ways of patching them up and preventing recurrence.

Schwych CharterThe charter shown here is one such attempt. It’s a page of a 16th century Book of Alliances of Schwyz, in the middle of Switzerland, a transcript of an earlier treaty between confederations or cantons, the Sempach Charter of 10 July 1393. This document sought peace by agreeing that military force would only be used in defence against external threat not between the valley communities. Amongst other things, it laid down rules of conduct:

Feuds are prohibited between the confederates and unity should reign in all military campaigns. The proceeds of war must be divided, monasteries and women spared. Plundering is only permitted after victory.

All well and good — as long as you are the victor!  On the whole, however, treaties don’t have a great track record. They look good but are often ignored in the interests of expediency, greed or control. At such times, the common people suffer again and again. (The celebrated Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary slipped by recently, left an important marker for human rights. But the treaty itself was much repealed within a few decades.) No wonder the writers of the psalms were doubtful about trusting in princes (Psalm 118) or great armies (Psalm 33). This psalm provides quite a different focus. The peoples’ cry from the depths continues:

Hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications… For there is hope of steadfast love and forgiveness. (verses 2-4)

The tone of the psalm thus encourages confidence in divine forgiveness and help. However, it wisely counsels patience:

My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning (v.6)


Verse 1 delivers such a strong image that it features prominently in many of the songs and antiphons associated with Psalm 130:

  • In PFAS, for instance, six of seven suggested music options are titled in those words or the idea. (The first by the way, 130A, goes back to one by Martin Luther in 1524.)
  • In the hymn book TiS No 81 for Psalm 130 begins the verses the same way, but chooses the theme of mercy and redemption for the antiphon. It’s quite a nice setting and should not be overlooked.
  • A favourite version by Sinead O’Connor works well, lending itself to a solo or supported singer presenting words more closely following the psalm text than the Sinead song. Her opening lines quoted above make a good responsive refrain.

Classical settings abound for the enthusiastic choir or quartet. Michael Praetorius alone wrote more than ten motets drawing on this text. JS Bach, Des Prez, Lassus, Sweelinck, Tallis, Wesley, Weelkes … the list of rich pickings goes on. Again, many of these composers were obviously captivated by the imagery of those first few verses, imagining what ‘Out of the depths’ might really look like. Whatever works.

Psalm 121, 12 March 2017

Mt Taylor

I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. (v.1)

Or so went this familiar line from Psalm 121 in that old dusty King James version on the top shelf somewhere. This is the second of the songs of ascent (120 to 134). Originating perhaps as pilgrimage songs, the psalms of ascent depict the journey figuratively, a rising access to a higher plane. This rising ground is reminiscent of Psalm 15: “Who may abide on the holy hill?”   The answer in verse 2 (“My help comes from God, maker of heaven and earth“) prepares the ground for an assurance of protection in the last four verses of the song: “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (6) The moon? Remember that in ancient times the physical arrangement of the heavens was little understood and subject to much speculative superstition.


The innovation prize goes to Isaac Everett who suggests using Help! by John Lennon of The Beatles. This would work well as an antiphon. Definitely not in the King James tradition, but a great idea if you are feeling brave – and have your own in-house rockers. For the less adventurous:

  • Everett in TEP also provides a refrain by Lacey Brown that looks quite tricky to learn but would settle into a groove. Unusually, the text is not actually taken from the psalm but the theme is certainly there, depicting the singer looking around for help.
  • The second of two settings of Psalm 121 found in Together in Song, No 77 offers other attractions (the first, 76 is a Ravenscroft hymn from the Scottish Psalter, 1615.) Responsive participation by both the lead voice(s) and people are neatly woven into a paraphrase and music setting by John Bell. Cantors may lift their eyes to the beauty of hills seen and unseen by singing the first two lines in the book, the people responding accordingly. That theme of protection and safety permeates this song.
  • PFAS 121D, amongst the nine choices for 121 in this excellent psalter, is a good responsorial setting. The refrain music, with attractive harmony changes (Dm-C-Eb7#11-D7#9-Gm-G-Bb7 …  sumptuous harmony shifts and chord extensions), is well worth a look.
  • NCH has a simple refrain: “My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”
  • Michael Card has also written a nice anthem on this text, words in Hebrew, with phonetic transliteration, and English. (© Birdwing Music 1990)

Psalm 15, 29 Jan 17

A song of ascent
A song of ascent

Psalm 15 (text here>) this week, probably used as an introit or gradual, asks who may dwell in God’s ‘tent’ or ‘holy hill’. The remaining verses provide a checklist of rather challenging qualifiers, from the grand ‘live blameless’ to the nitty-gritty of ‘take no bribes’. The challenge is really encouraging the reader continually to seek to connect with sources of divine presence and goodness.

Those who study structure have noted a degree of symmetry and balance in the group of nine psalms from 15 to 24 inclusive, being chiastic in form or mirrored around the central psalm 19:

  • 15 and 24 are entrance liturgies
  • 16 and 23 are about trust
  • 17 and 22 are laments
  • 18 and 20-21 are about the victory of the king
  • 19, creation and other tales of the Torah


An impressive motet Domine quis habitabit by Thomas Tallis (1505-85), while rather long and calling for five voices, is worth a brief preliminary mention. The score may be found in Tudor Church Music p. 246, or on the web in CPDL.

Psalms for all seasons suggests two responsorial songs. 15B asks that question “Who shall be welcome in your tent?”, and the verses rather repeat the checklist of how to get into the A Team. The next setting 15C is excellent. This is a superb gospel-influenced refrain that we have sung several times:

I’m gonna live so God can use me, anytime anywhere.

The psalm’s call and response structure, widely used in gospel music, supports an approach of engagement, response and identification by all present. The verses may even be sung to a 12-bar blues, discussed in the context of the preceding Psalm 14. This refrain rounds up all those rather random dos and don’ts in the list of qualifiers into a much more positive general inclination for life – be available. The vaguely legalistic approach of the Old Testament is thus broadened and enriched to New Commandment principles; no lists of good and bad behaviour; just be ruled by love. After all, do you really want to sing ‘Don’t lend money for interest’ or ‘take no bribes’ (v.5) over and over, however reverently? Much more freedom, much more challenge, and a much more positive and active message. A touch of faith not works. And the African-American style feel adds a real spark.

Slightly less exuberant but still swinging, Everett’s refrain in The Emergent Psalter also recognises the disadvantages of concentrating on the behaviours list. He chooses just to pose the initial question, leaving us to decide. The simple tune is based on the unusual but satisfying chord sequence of Bm A F#m G, following the fifth degrees of each triad.

Other traditions adopt a more sedate style. Anglicans, for example, will default to a restrained but expressive chant which always, usefully, deploys a well-known form for the convenience or comfort of both singer and listener. This has the advantage of a standard pattern for all psalms essentially of ten chords, four allocated to the first phrase or line and six to the second. It can be embellished melismatically and extended as a double tone, as in the following example by Francis Melville:

ps15-anglican-melvilleVerse 1 would thus be sung to the first section of ten chords as follows:

Who shall abide | in thy | tabernacle? || Who shall dwell | in thy | ho-ly | hill? ||

The harmonisation is actually fairly traditional in that first section, four flats but essentially in Bb minor. Its more adventurous side comes out in the next section, where the chords move along in unexpected modulations. Noting the chiasmus structure mentioned above, this setting by F Melville Esq. is from his arrangement of both Psalms 15 and 24 in sequence, the final verse of 15 modulating nicely via Bb major to the next key of D for 24.

Psalm 122, 27 Nov 16

Note: An earlier post in September 2016 on this psalm provided more commentary and looked at an early manuscript antiphon. This post briefly covers the responsorial settings offered in a few sources normally used at South Woden.

The song starts with the familiar opening declaration, appropriate for a Song of Ascent:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

The psalmist — said to be David — continues by imagining himself and the people of God ascending through the gates of the holy city to give thanks and seek justice. (v. 4-5) The prayer of ascent also seeks peace (v.6:):

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”


TiS. First, we find an interesting piece in the ‘Red Book’ Together in Song by Abbé René Reboud. The refrain is arranged for SATB, with verses sung by either the male or female voices singing different melodies. These parts and melodies are not complex but would take a little learning. A sound sample may be heard here>.


  • The refrain in Psalms for All Seasons 122D eases the burden of learning by having a cantor sing a phrase at a time for the people to follow. It draws on verse 1
  • Those wishing to emphasise the peace theme could use the alternative refrain, Dona nobis pacem, a simple round in D.
  • The next song, 122E Let us go rejoicing, could also be made responsorial by having people sing the last line which is common to all verses.
  • 122F paraphrases the text into three verses with refrain.

NCH. Somewhat unusually, the refrain in New Century Hymnal passes over the peace theme in verse 6 and uses the second phrase, “May they prosper who love you”. Taken thus on its own, the refrain loses the context and acquires a slightly self-serving ring about it.

TEP. Isaac Everett, perhaps recognising this, has chosen verse 9 from this same passage at the end of the song which constitutes a prayer for Jerusalem.

Coming upgoldenage2016

Plenty of Advent music, if not psalms, in two concerts that arise on this Sunday 27 Nov. Both include musicians from South Woden. Most unfortunately, they are programmed at exactly the same time that afternoon, 3:00 pm:

  • The Resonants directed by Helen Swan present a family concert of carols and folk songs for Christmas at the Belconnen Arts Centre. More>
  • The Oriana Chorale continues its Golden Age series of Renaissance music, this time German music of the 17th century and featuring Michael Praetorius. Director: Peter Young. At Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest. More>