Psalm 104, 17 Sep 17

‘You make springs gush forth in valleys, they flow between hills.’ (10)

Here we have epic demonstrative poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and the Creator. The author’s feelings are quite infectious:

You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (2-4)

Kanga on the Keys with Joyful Joey? A creation full of wonders.

The song continues relishing the diversity and complexity of creatures and the environment. As in several other psalms (145 for example) divine love also sustains and provides for this diverse living planet. In these days of global warming, extinction of many species and desertification, this picture can be lost in the fear. However, the psalms long for times when divine love working through people can regenerate and fulfil the intention of the blueprint.

The poet is certain that our world is wonderful and enduring: “You have set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never move.” (5) Psalm 102 counters that all things shall pass,1 however this poor little verse had the dubious honour of being one of those the church cited to condemn evidence of heliocentricity. For more on Copernicus, see Psalm 86; and beware literal doctrines.2

The settings in TEP, PFAS and the NCH are all suitable. The refrain from TiS 65 perfectly suits the theme of caring for our environment to  be taken up this week by our leader, Keith. Versification will be modified to the lectionary selection rather than that in the book. We shall also sing the verses to a different, home-grown tone — with a little swing added.

The hair-raising setting by Rachmaninoff mentioned under Psalm 103 is also relevant here as it shares similar text.

And just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.

1Psalm 102:26.

2Refer also to Psalm 93:1

Psalm 148, 1 January 2107

This post builds on three previous entries on this psalm, which is set for the first Sunday after Christmas. Psalm 8 also arises this day in readings for New Year’s Day.


Praise God from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind

This popular psalm is in the middle of the final group of half a dozen songs of praise which bring the Psalter to a climax. Notable for its broadly imaginative evocation of the whole universe in praise of the creator, such poetic flights are a hallmark of the psalms. Psalm 148 echoes Psalms 96 to 98, also set readings for Christmas, and is incorporated into the canticle of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego whose story in the book of Daniel, incidentally, is also a source of the phrase ‘feet of clay’. The poet is intent on sweeping up the whole creation; the word ‘all’ is sprinkled liberally throughout:

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! (Ps 148:9-11)

Psalm 77 again, Solstice

Solstice in the south

The shortest (and longest) day has just passed (as has the Solstice reference at South Woden last Sunday — but here are a couple more ideas anyway.) It’s cold in Canberra but from now on, those dark evenings will gradually lighten.

Fire and waterPreviously at the Solstice we have picked up a common theme in the psalms of relief after stress, peace after conflict, safety after danger. In Psalm 77, sure enough, it comes up right at the start of the selection for this Sunday 26 June:

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. / I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old / I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. (vs 10 – 12)

Note verse 11 is the one Isaac Everett uses in his refrain, as pointed out in the previous post. For the Solstice refrain used two years ago The psalm was 86, with a tune that dips to a slow low then rises to greet the spring:

However, a rework for Ps 77 is easy enough. Refitting with a selective paraphrase of the verses quoted above, it goes:

Cantor: In our troubles | we seek God || People: We meditate on | all your work re- | membering your mighty deeds.

A chord is omitted there, I see; insert G7 after the third chord Eb. A full SATB arrangement, with a parallel tone for chanted verses, is in our library.

ListenersNorthern light

The majority of followers and readers of this blog are, in fact, in the northern hemisphere,  where it’s summertime and, for the most part, the livin’ is easy.

Jorge Portuguese bass voiceIn many of the lively evening streets in Berlin last night a festive air was quite palpably abroad. The Fête de la Musique (not sure why the title is in French) was in full swing. I am told it is held on the same date each year to coincide with the summer solstice. Crowds were out late to celebrate. The recognition is not religious but clearly follows an ancient spiritual awareness in the community of our being connected to the life cycles of creation.

Duo in BerlinThe Turkish market was bustling. Musicians sang in the streets. A group of spirited young women sang on the banks of the canal, accompanied by clapping and listeners joining in familiar folk tunes. Young people in baggy tie-dye and dreads sat chatting, drinking and listening to the music and the song of the solstice spirit.

The concave tune shown above does not fit so well in this context, at least to the degree that shape matters a jot. Someone will have to rewrite to a concave rise and fall tune to suit the joy of a rising summer and the prospect of a fruitful autumn before the winter frosts. Perhaps the succeeding verses of Psalm 77 would be better:

Your way, O God, is holy. You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples (vs 14, 15)


And behind it all is the symmetry of human experience in north and south, east and west, as cycles repeat, generations follow. The creative spirit is pervasive and infectious.

Psalm 8, 22 May 2016

In the cosmology of Psalm 8, as in many others, humankind is a jewel of creation, somewhat smaller than the universe —  ‘a little lower than the angels’ — yet ‘adorned with glory and honour’ (v.5).

Significantly, the creation is placed under our care (v. 6), a responsibility that is not absolved by the loss of the Garden of Eden, however one interprets that tale. As Prof. Tom Wright says:

The four winds and more, traditional namesThough the psalmists were aware as anyone of the darkness within the human heart, Psalm 8 can still gloriously remind us of the human vocation.(1)

The fact that civilisations over the centuries have named natural phenomena from the constellations to the winds, (2) building tales and myths around them, indicates our empathy and sense of symbiosis in a universal search for the Dreamtime.


This is the first psalm in the psalter in which an integral antiphon appears in the text, in the form of an opening and closing doxology that has little to do with the content of the song itself:

O God our sovereign, how great is your Name in all the earth. (verses 1 and 9)

Familiar names including Hassler, Schütz, Gabrielli, Lassus, Purcell and Ravenscroft all line up with classical settings; a popular poem, manageable length, and good content for the composer, or so it seems.

The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?

Our choice again (please read the post for Trinity Sunday 2014) is a lovely song by Linnea Good, The Height of Heaven.

Our women will lead this refrain, between bending their pure voices to an antiphonal tone which follows a similar attractive chord pattern.

Ps8 Linnea

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 104b, 15 May 2015

Whales off Bribie

Denizens of the deep surface in verse 25 – and elsewhere, such as in Psalm 148

In this selection from Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, the poet’s eye sweeps appreciatively across the ‘manifold works’ of creation, made with wisdom and full of wonderful creatures:

Yonder is the great wide sea, with its living things too many to number. There move the ships, and there is that Leviathan which you made for sport. All of them look to you for food… You open your hand and they are filled with good things. (vs. 25-28)

Just one intimate word picture of one of those moments of wonder that strike us from time to time. With Mothers’ Day last Sunday (in some countries) still warm in our memories, the creative theme reinforces a female image of a nurturing God. Fourteenth century author Julian of Norwich is famous for her extended comparison of God to a mother:

… when [a child] is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and [God] wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, “My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me.” (1)

Lofty music

Recalling some lovely works of English composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), your male voice group if you have one should probably grasp with all hands and voices his motet O Lord how manifold are thy works setting for TTBB, from Musica Deo sacra (London, 1668).Ps 104 Rach vespters

And I must mention the gorgeous Russian Orthodox sounds of Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospodi from the wonderful Vsenoshchnoe bdenie (All-Night Vigil, Op. 37) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Amen. Bless the Lord, my soul. Blessed are You, Lord. O Lord my God, exceedingly great are You. You are clothed with honour and majesty. On the mountains water stands. Your works are wonderful

But in Russian of course (see illustration above). (2) Treat your shell-pinks to this:

Local music

Our men will turn to Together in Song number 65, one of those antiphonal chants in this publication that offers a tone in four rather than two phrases, with a modulation section for each.(3)

This will be a good opportunity for singers to become more familiar and enjoy singing tones, that text with the mysterious dot three syllables from the end of each phrase or line (see also Notes for Singers). These chords (I-vi-iii | I-iv-V-I) are not as ‘colourful’ as one could wish — read modern, jazz-influenced harmonic structures such as Δ or 9th, 13th or tri-tone sub. (4) However, that avoids a whiff of anachronism I guess; and singers, as always, will enjoy stretching into the four-part journey of ‘psalms in tones’.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 19, 24 Jan 2015

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork (Ps. 19:1)

The question of whether the wonders of creation do or do not prove the existence of an omnipotent Creator and intelligent design will always be debated. The psalmist is definitely in the ‘do’ camp, the theme appearing strongly in many other psalms (8, 24 and 104 just for starters). Tom Wright says:

Our modern Western worldviews have made it seriously difficult to hear Psalm 19.1-2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.(1)

SM1 uzh

Standard model (3)

[Aside, which you may skip: I have been reading (yet another) book on particle physics this week.(2) Things like gauge theory and breaking electro-weak symmetry are daunting — definitely not ‘pretty fantasy’. However, leaving aside the heavy maths and the hyperreality, the last century of unravelling the scientific clues to the universe has been a fascinating journey. It’s easy to go with the psalmist … if you’re not a post-modern anti-foundationalist or similar.]

Psalm 19 starts in an affirmative frame of mind. It smoothly progresses:

  • from the glories of creation
  • to how this declares God’s presence
  • to the influence of the creator, specifically the theme of the similarly-numbered Psalm 119, the importance of divine guidance to humankind — the ‘law’.
  • to those who are so influenced, and our own ability to turn a blind eye to our faults
  • concluding with that prayer heard so often:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (v.14)


The winner for complexity this week probably goes to Hans Leo Hassler (1564 – 1612) in the late Renaissance, a German composer and organist who learned the polychoral style during his studies in Venice, and brought it back to influence German music. He knocked out an arrangement of the first 5 verses for 13 parts in three choirs.(4)

Thirteen parts may not be unlucky but it’s certainly unusual. There are plenty of 8 to 12 part pieces around; a lovely one by Hassler contemporary Tomás Victoria comes to mind. These are nowhere near the earlier Thomas Tallis work Spem in alium for 40 parts (8 choirs of 5 each).(5) But really, Mr Hassler, prime number 13? Ah! — there are five voices in choir II. In all these pieces the choirs or quartet/quintets often leave each other a fair bit of space, stay silent to listen or answer from time to time before joining for a homophonic finale. Silence is an important part of music.

Psalm 19 Genevan

Psalm XIX Genevan psalter

In contrast, the slightly earlier (c. 1560) Psalm XIX from the Genevan Psalter (pictured at left) was in the spare Calvinist tradition, sung as a monophonic tune unaccompanied.

All that is a long way from home. The quoting of that final prayer (v.14 above) in the gospel/reggae song By the rivers of Babylon has had us singing that in recent years, using the same tune for the verses. We have also sung this for Psalm 137, from which the main verses and title are taken.

This week, the proximity of Australia Day has our worthy leader Libby looking for all-Australian compositions as she does so effectively each year at this time. So we sing a hymn version of the psalm in TiS 166 by Richard Connolly (1927-), who was also the composer of the well-known ABC Play School theme, There’s A Bear in There. I’m on piano, so I’ll have to restrain myself.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 104, 18 Oct 15

Here you have classic arm-waving poetry, the poet overcome by the glory and power of the creation — and Creator. His or her feelings are quite infectious:

Bless God, O my soul. O my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. (Ps. 104:1-4)

it’s enough to make you wave your arms around.

This view, which has been greeting us at dawn from our rooms recently (a much-loved aspect)  immediately came to mind — though no photograph can capture the imagery of this song. It’s Mont Ventoux, much bigger than it looks from a respectful distance; but you will have your own mountain, waters, light and winds in mind.


Taking my own advice in the sticky post, I note that I have suggested that the settings in The emergent psalter, Psalms for all seasons and the New century hymnal are all suitable.

If you choose No 65 from TiS you should use the lectionary verses rather than the selection in the book. (There is a cantor sheet on our Dropbox library folder).

Ps 104 cantors 22Sep13 WIP_html_54be5d52And just for interest, we have in years gone by used a Gregorian chant (no 8) for this psalm, again with different verses, to accompany a Hildegard song, complete with that marvellously atmospheric hurdy gurdy.