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>

Psalm 128

Psalms by Praetorius

A Praetorius text from 1605, Danish Public Library

This poem of six verses, like most of the psalms of ascent, is short and simple. It presents an idealised picture of prosperous and happy family life. Surely, this is one of the pillars of a strong community:

Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house, your children like olive shoots round about the table (v.3)

By updating a little terminology (‘beloved’ instead of ‘wife’ for example) the song becomes more universally applicable. Like some other psalms of ascent, the poem concludes with a lovely prayer for God’s people:

May you live to see your children’s children; peace be upon Israel (v.6)

Regrettably, this is a long way from the pictures we see from refugee camps and villages attacked for sectarian or tribal reasons. Surely people of faith, whatever creed it be, can do better?

Prolific German composer Michael Praetorius (or Schultze, 1571-1621) wrote many psalms settings, usually for double choir, of which some voice parts could be replaced or doubled by instruments as available. His Psalm 128, Beati omnes however, has the choirs singing sometimes together, sometimes responding to each other. The antiphonal effect would be best with words: on the other hand it could be quite dramatic with instruments.

GoldenAgeDulciMore modern and practicable settings include several easier refrains based on verse 1  — which says that people who follow divine ways shall find blessing — by Carolyn Jennings (NCH), Isaac Everett (TEP) and Marty Haugen (PFAS 128B); verses may be sung to a tone of choice in the normal fashion.

For much more music by Praetorius and other German composers of the 17th century like Schütz, keep in mind a performance by The Oriana Chorale, The Golden Age – In dulci jubilo, on 27 November 2016, 3pm at Wesley.

Psalm 131

Like most songs of Ascent, this is brief and to the point. Three verses extolling simplicity, honesty and humility, with a fourth calling for Israel, or the people of God, to wait in reverence. And as one of the songs of ascent (120 to 134), the poem is said to be one of pilgrimage (see also the comment on 122 regarding the pilgrimage series of 120 to 123) though such a construct is not obvious from the evidence of this text alone.

Child at peaceWhat is more obvious is that the song uses maternal images of divine love. While it is said to be by David, again from the text it sounds as though it may have been written by a woman. This feminine touch is regrettably rare in the psalter. Such were the times.

Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter paraphrases this into a nice refrain using his characteristic syncopation and modern chord voicings, in this one with lydian mode atmospherics based around Cmaj#11:

I have taught myself to be content. I am like a child with its mother.

The responsorial setting in PFAS 131C by Loretta Ellenburger — again on verse 2 and the quiet child — is more conventional, but creatively adds ATB parts in a different rhythmic pattern behind the refrain melody. The setting in NCH, despite its female authorship, skips the maternal theme in favour of ‘Hope in God’ from verse 4.

Equally pleasing but in a different style and more demanding are rather lengthy classical settings by Schütz, Lassus and White, for four to six voices. Schütz wrote a motet for each of the first three verses.

Psalm 127, vespers

This psalm of ascent asserts that ‘unless God builds the house, in vain the builders labour.’ And without divine protection over a city, the watchmen are wasting their time. The song is clearly worth consideration by anyone undertaking a new project.

Then there’s a sweet section about the joys of having children, said to be an inspiration behind some of the poetry in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

monteverdi_vespersTomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings of Psalm 127 (126 in the Vulgate) for 4 and 8 voices. One is for odd verses only as a vespers psalm, allowing for a priest or cantor to sing the even verses.

And speaking of vespers there is the great Vesperis in Festis Beata Mariae Vergine, usually just called the 1610 Vespers by Claudio Monteverdi. This is much broader in scope than just one psalm; indeed, the whole work revolves around six psalms. 127 is included in this wide-ranging composition, along with several other vespers psalms like 122, 137 and 147, calling for a choir of six or eight voices. These are all separated by a variety of lighter motets.

Virginal in the Berlin museum of instruments

Virginal in the Berlin museum of instruments

The 1610 Vespers is usually accompanied by harpsichord, basso continuo and such early instruments as are available — theorbo, portative organ, strings and reed or horn. The whole work takes about an hour and a half, last sung by your webmaster many years ago with the then Bromley Singers in London.

This is not one to cobble together with a few keen volunteers on short notice.

PFAS 127B is worth a look. The refrain is antiphonal and, being syncopated, might take a little learning. Verses are sung to a nice tone.

Psalm 122

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Psalm 122 is not only a Song of Ascent (the third) but also one of pilgrimage to the centre of divine love and justice. Psalm 120 told a sorrowful tale of living afar amongst alien people; the next one 121 starts the journey to Jerusalem (“I lift up my eyes to the hills…’); and finally in this psalm the pilgrim arrives. In the Orthodox tradition and no doubt elsewhere, these three are sung together, often during Lent.

A long list of classical compositions ranges from relatively unknowns Arigoni and Bauer through to Vogel and GJ Williams, encompassing more famous names like Blow, Haydn, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Victoria and Vivaldi. Most pieces start with the familiar opening declaration, appropriate for a Song of Ascent:

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

The psalmist continues by imagining him or herself and the people (tribes) of God ascending through the gates of the holy city to give thanks and seek justice. (v. 4-5) Other composers have spied the peaceful intent of this prayer of ascent in verse 6, no doubt applying it, as should we, beyond the physical meaning of the city named:

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

Antiphon to Ps. 122 Arundel MS 83, British LibrarySignificantly, the psalmist’s motivation is altruistic:

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

This is a lovely poem with many musical settings, including a short antiphon beautifully adorned in the illustration of the Howard Psalter shown here (British Library reference Arundel MS 83 f80v). The first phrase refers to but is not identical with verse 1 of this psalm:

In domum Domini ibimus/We shall go into the house of the Lord.

The second phrase after the vertical ‘ant’ marker is a response that may refer to the incipit of Psalm 91 (90 in the Latin psalter):

Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi/He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High

Singers were expected to know the text sufficiently that such abbreviated words, indicated by superscript dots or commas, would be sufficient to jog the memory. This jogs my memory of singing Qui habitat à24 by Josquin des Prez. This is a setting of the first 6 verses of that earlier psalm for 24 voices, irreverently known amongst our Chorale members, particularly the irreverent basses, as ‘Who lives at No 24?’

Psalm 129

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

The tenth of the Psalms of Ascent (text) regrets the oppression of the people of God. The psalmist recognises that God is the source of goodness but seeks shame on the oppressor. At the distance of some millenia, it’s easy to suggest sniffily that he or she should have been more forgiving of Israel’s enemies. However, the psalm was probably written in the midst of dire threats to the very survival of the nation and the people. Nevertheless, the poet urges their downfall in quite a poetic, if not forgiving, manner, by imagining the enemy as withered grass on the housetops

… which does not fill the hand of the reaper, so that passers by do not say so much as “God prosper you. We wish you well in the name of God” (vs. 7, 8)

This final blessing, Benediximus vobis in nomine Domini, is repeated in the antiphon in the early manuscript of Psalm 129 illustrated. (The last phrase of the antiphon appears to be a shorthand reference to the incipit of the next psalm 130: De profundis / Out of the depths.) The blessing quoted here seems to have been a customary greeting between workers in the fields, as Augustine points out in his commentary on the psalms:

For ye know, brethren, when men pass by others at work, it is customary to address them, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” And this was especially the custom in the Jewish nation. No one passed by and saw any one doing any work in the field, or in the vineyard, or in harvest… without a blessing.

The two sentences in the psalm may have been a type of call and response, as when Ruth met Boaz:

A light burdenJust then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “God be with you.” They answered, “The God bless you.” (Ruth 2:4)

Psalm 129 does not appear in the Lectionary so is not likely to be often sung. If it is, that reapers’ blessing should surely be the focus of the song, as it is in The Emergent Psalter. Sung as a reciprocal blessing of the people by the people it would grace any gathering.

Sweelinck Psaumes coverOtherwise, this is something of a musical orphan that has attracted little compositional interest. However, the mention above of 130 reminds me we recently heard The Song Company perform in the purest tones two psalms by the Dutch composer Sweelinck. (1562-1621) The familiar lines of Pss. 130 ‘Out of the Depths‘ and 24 ‘Lift up your heads‘ took on quite a new character at the hands of Sweelinck and Song Company and in Latin. (This encounter gave added delight since, while these works are found in many versions on YouTube and IMSLP, no score appears in CPDL, which boasts toward ninety other settings of Psalm 130 alone.)

Thus inspired, I include a fragment of a short piece on Psalm 129 emanating also from the Low Countries but a hundred years earlier, by Josquin des Prez:

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez.

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez.