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

Music

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.

Psalms 76, 77, 26 June 16

Psalm 76 makes a strong plea for a peaceable world where divine power and justice are the forces to be revered. In the city of God:

… God broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword and the weapons of war … none of the warriors can lift a hand. (v.3, 5)

Just as we saw in Psalm 44.6:

I do not rely on my bow, and my sword does not give me the victory; surely you gave us victory (vs. 6, 7)

Psalm 77 goes on to emphasise how powerful divine love and influence are — the psalmist cites not only elemental forces evident in creation, but also the miracles and guidance on display during the escape from Egypt.

The sword

When the psalms seem violent and vindictive, they reflect the outpourings of a soul in anguish and in times of conflict, a lament like the blues. However if the pen is mightier than the sword, so is love. The insistent and unmistakable message of the psalter is of a creator who loves justice, equity and peace.

An F-86 Sabre with a DH Vampire

Coincidentally, the ‘sword’ was the nickname for the F-86 Sabre, the aircraft your Webmaster flew in a first Air Force posting after graduation from university and pilots’ course. Also quite coincidentally, 76 and 77 are the numbers of a couple of the Air Force squadrons which flew the Sabre and then Mirage III aircraft (pictured below with an F-4 Phantom high over the Arafura Sea).

Mirage III and Phantom F4 returning to DarwinAll the aircraft I flew are now in museums, of course. Without undervaluing this military career, or denying the importance of a strong national security policy in this uncertain world, we can still wish that all such swords should be in museums or beaten into ploughshares. Untrained, uncontrolled and undisciplined, humans with guns are dangerous, as we see in the news all too frequently.

The psalms indicate that in a regime where divine love dominates, weapons are be discarded as useless. They will win no lasting peaceful victory. The psalm points out that the shield is broken too; so the same rule applies to attacker and defender alike; giving people more guns in defence is no answer. Unfortunately, until society values justice, equity and love as key values, we must keep locking our doors and controlling guns.

Music

These two psalms appear little in the Lectionary; 76 is a ‘skip’ and 77 makes it once into Year C. Classical settings are rare, so the value of our modern psalters and collections is underlined.

Gregorian peaceFor Psalm 76 a peace prayer, also appropriate with Psalms 50 and 120, would be relevant. The illustration shows one in the Roman tradition from Corpus Christi Watershed,(1) who suggest that the Gregorian chant will serve to unify people in this cause.

For Psalm 77, Everett in The Emergent Psalter offers a simple refrain:

I call to mind your deeds, remembering your wonders of old. (2)

Fishing into the Dropbox library, I find (I had quite forgotten — it was three years ago) that I have written a paraphrase to facilitate singing the text to the same tune as the refrain (Everett assumes you will read the words to a background vamp, but this seems to miss the idea that the psalms are fundamentally songs.) The singer can use this as a guide but improvise the tune as inspired by the words of each verse. This is easier if you accompany yourself, of course.

Otherwise, here’s a good chance to write your own.

Notes: Continue reading “Psalms 76, 77, 26 June 16”

Psalms 87, 88

Yin YangHere are a couple of very contrasting songs: one looking out happily to ‘Zion’; the other lamenting, no silver lining. Both are ‘skips’ in the Lectionary but should not be ignored — and indeed are not by those traditions that regularly sing all of the psalms within a short period of a month or so.

Psalm 87

Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God (v.2)

The psalm praises ‘Zion’, the city of Jerusalem, representing God’s presence. A psalm of global vision, disregarding tribal or national identities, it connects people of the world to this spiritual home, describing a diaspora of those who acknowledge a divine and benevolent creator spirit however named or imagined. It concludes joyously:

Singers and dancers alike say: ‘All my springs are in you’ (v. 7)

As to the music, there are few classical setting available but several more hymns including Haydn’s traditional AUSTRIAN HYMN tune starting with verse 2 quoted above. The Emergent Psalter uses the same verse. PFAS 87F is a swinging refrain picking up the idea of the Creator as source, water in the life-giving springs.

Psalm 88

This psalm is the only lament in the Psalter that includes no silver lining, no ray of hope, no statement that it will be OK.  Why not skip it? Because, like singing the blues (see post on Psalm 14), it’s a valid and comforting way to externalise distress and share individual pain.

Otis_ReddingFor other reasons not associated with the psalms, I have been thinking lately of the great American singer Otis Redding (1941-1967).  Dock of the Bay by the ‘King of Soul’ is another song of unrelieved weariness:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes; watching the ships roll in, and then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah … watching the tide roll away, wasting time. / Looks like nothing’s gonna change; everything still remains the same / Sittin’ here resting my bones and this loneliness won’t leave me alone / It’s two thousand miles I roamed just to make this dock my home.

The words are a blues lamentation, a way of singing out your woes. The music is vaguely like the old twelve-bar blues, but has a unique and recognisable character; I loved playing it with the band. Redding was actually rich and successful by the time he wrote this song. That did not stop him empathising with many others less fortunate who could see no silver lining. And then, Redding died in an aircraft crash a few days after recording this classic. It’s hard to see a silver lining there but for the great legacy that his music lives on. Indeed, both Dock of the Bay and Psalm 87 have a timeless feeling about them, suggesting in Ps. 88 that the silver lining is out there somewhere, just not at this moment.

As with Psalm 87 above, there are few classical settings listed, save for a nice short piece by Orlando de Lassus, Domine Deus salutis meae, quoting verses 2 and 3.

Entering Taizé village

Many readers will recall with pleasure singing the Taizé chant Dans nos obscurités.

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.

Asaph

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)

Music

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: wikipedia.org
    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.

Psalm 91, 14 Feb 2016

A high placeThe devil took Jesus to a high place and said: “Jump! You’ll be fine…

…  it is written, ‘God will command the angels to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ (Luke 4:9-11)

Psalm 91 is where it is written. That is why this is our psalm for the beginning of Lent, at the entry into the forty days and nights of reflection in the desert.

The whole poem is really about being in a safe place in the shadow of the wings of a caring God, despite desert, dangers, devils.

Music

Josquin canonThe psalm arrangement shown here in this small corner of a page is unusual. What are the large coda markers and numbers about?

The clue is in the headers; first, Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi, XXIV vocum. The first phrase is obviously the incipit:

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty (v.1 KJ)

Then XXIV vocum, or ‘in 24 voices’. A few weeks ago we read about several psalm settings for many voices. Josquin des Près ran this one up for Psalm 91. Twenty-four parts looks pretty fierce but the work is actually a round (‘Canon à 6’ gives it away), the song being sung sequentially by six quartets. This accounts for the numbered signs for the entries of the six groups a bar apart. What fun that one would be with a big choir.

Back to reality and the beginning of Lent. Many settings revel in that safe shelter in verse 1.

  • TiS 48 (albeit neither responsorial nor coinciding with the lectionary verses) is the popular And I will raise you up on eagles’ wings.
  • PFAS 91D alternate refrain is one of the easiest, and offers a simple tune and nice standard chord progression (I-IV-vi-ii-V-I).
  • The previous PFAS91C is a nice Spanish one (the dancers seen below are Chilean but the heritage is Spanish) with a slightly longer refrain that rolls along. Best if you have SATB singers but nice without.
  • And then that 12-bar piece in the Dropbox library; blues for Lent — a bridge too far?

Latino dancers