Psalm 29, 7 Jan 2018

These days, voices frequently heard are those of political arrogance, religious friction, the rich getting richer, vigorous and exclusive nationalism and faint calls for assistance to the suppressed. While such evidence seems to support the ‘God is dead’ theory, much of it is the bad news, unbalanced if not fake, served up by commercial interests to a readership hungry for the sensational.

Image by Libby O’Loghlin, Switzerland

Where is the voice of God in all this? At the personal, local and community level,¬†optimism and inspiration are still alive, as many readers will attest. The psalmist, said to be David in this Psalm 29, is in no doubt that a sovereign creator, a dominant eternal divine influence, reigns supreme and glorious across the world. In the previous psalm, David lamented the press of wickedness that we hear about abundantly today. Here, however, God’s powerful voice speaks through a vibrant, energetic, beautiful environment.

When you tire of the bad news, turn up Psalm 29 and refresh your sense of a creation and a human race that is designed, according to Psalm 99 and many others, for love and justice. Sing David’s final verse:

May God give strength to the people. May God bless the people with peace. (11)

ūüéĶ

Together in song¬†17 offers an easy refrain, with verses sung to a double tone, by Christopher Willcock — safe hands. For more on this psalm and music, please turn to a previous post twelve months ago here>>

Psalm 86, Solstice

There‚Äôs no hint of it in the text of Psalm¬†86 but the Lectionary occasionally (Year A) trots¬†this song out at around the time of the solstice. For those in ‘the South’, this is the winter solstice, shortest day in the southern hemisphere calendar. [Readers in the northern hemisphere might have to find a point of entry more relevant to the height of summer.] Down under, the lament resonates since David is here at a low point again, “poor and in misery”. But as usual, in such a slump he calls on divine support. (vs 4-7)

The Solstice itself has no particular significance in the Christian year. No, not true: we did borrow it in the days of the old Julian (and northern hemisphere) calendar for the pivotal festival of Christmas. However, the metaphor of reaching the nadir of cold times, be they astronomical, physical, social, emotional or spiritual, is obvious. Psalm 86 somehow reflects these circumstances, providing comfort and inspiration. With this in mind, in the following home-grown song (an SATB arrangement is available) the tune, in both verse chants and refrain, falls gradually to a low point before rising in hope. An obvious device, no doubt, yet undeniably in harmony with the liturgical concept.

People of every race and any century have long pondered on the cycles of heaven and earth, sometimes seeing spiritual significance, sometimes just in awe. In the early 16th century and a long way from the Greenwich Observatory, a Polish medic, cleric and astronomer named Copernicus hesitated for years before finally being pushed into publishing irrefutable evidence that the ancient Greek and Egyptian observers including Ptolemy (who lived not long after Jesus) were wrong in one major premise. The earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe and creation. It actually rotated in orbit around the sun, not the other way around. Galileo agreed.

Final bars of the nine-part ‘Incline thine ear’ by Lassus

The established church opposed them, under pain of excommunication and worse. Some were actually burned at the stake for espousing such views. Galileo recanted, Copernicus kept his head down. The church fathers were stuck in the Ptolemaic system based on some very dubious and over-literal readings of biblical texts ‚Äď including psalms such as 19 and 93 saying the earth shall not be moved ‚Äď ¬†for fear that science would undermine belief in the inherited wisdom and authority of the church.

When Copernicus was finally convinced to publish, just before he died mid-16th century, Rome sniffily placed his book on a banned list. It stayed there for more than a century. Regrettably then as now, targeted or random, extreme interpretations in any faith are hard to reform and can lead to foolish attacks on innocent, thoughtful people.

Music

For the ambitious there are many larger classical settings, such as a Morales 1541 motet in three parts, Inclina Domine aurem tuam.  An even more demanding piece for nine voices [illustrated] under the same incipit was published by Orlando di Lasso (1530 Р1594) in 1604, in what turned out to be a very productive early decade for fine music.

Apparently is it possible to conduct from an assembly of many challenging parts. Not a bar line in sight.

This structure, two small choirs or quartet and quintet groups of soloists with or without accompaniment, was not uncommon. The author had the pleasure of hearing a Vecchi mass for 9 voices and early instruments, including psalm settings, performed near Den Haag by Musica Antica recently.

All musicians were reading from the original published music, not at all an easy task to the modern musician. It was conducted by Kate Clark, an Australian baroque musician, professor and lawyer resident in Amsterdam.

Period instruments, violi da gamba and bass viol

Modern music

Psalm 86 is frequently absent in hymn books like TiS. However, TiS 725, the Taizé song In our darkness, is suitable in this context, under the Southern Cross at least.

The psalters, naturally, have settings. PFAS 86B is a responsorial setting whose words paraphrase the theme of the psalm, rather than a particular verse: “Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.” A simplified version of the same refrain may be found at 91D a few pages on.

Everett in TEP homes in on one of the few verses in the collection that mentions a female role-player:

Give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your handmaiden (16)

We are not sure whether this is David referring to his mother as the handmaiden, or it is indeed a prayer by the woman author herself.

Alternate Psalm

The alternate set of readings includes Psalm 69. See previous posts such as that on 4 Sep 2016> Coincidentally, a featured refrain therein offers northern hemisphere readers a tune that rises, rather than falls, to match the summer solstice pattern.

Psalm 119

Note: This post re-introduces the longest psalm, sections of which arise in the next two weeks. Subsequent posts will look more closely at sections as they appear in the Lectionary, starting with Aleph then He on the following Sunday.

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, Rice University

Psalm 119 has at its heart the ‘law’, or the premises principles, and promises of God. At 176 verses, this is longest psalm ‚ÄĒ and¬†the longest chapter in the Bible. The psalm is made up of a succession of 8-verse sections, 22 of them, each labelled acrostically with a Hebrew letter. The song is seldom sung in its entirety, save in the Orthodox tradition where it appears on the Saturday of Holy Week. Seven of these sections appear on a total of nine occasions¬†during the three-year Lectionary cycle, sometimes two consecutively.

This extended lesson on divine law explores how it might influence the life of the follower: from the opening lines, inviting the reader or listener to follow¬†the ways and decrees of God; through the great centrepiece of verse 105 declaring this “Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path”; to the last verse 176 suggesting that in remembering the commandments, sheep who have gone astray may be returned to the fold.

This all sounds good — but exactly what is that ‘way’? The psalm constantly refers in each verse, depending on the translation, to decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, judgements and commandments. Immediately following David’s era, the several tribal Abrahamic descendants would naturally have read this as references to the writings in the Torah, be they commandments or narrative elaborations. Later descendants may have turned to the Bible as a whole or sections of the Qur’an. Today however,¬†an integrated view (and the word ‘integrity’ will be found elsewhere in the Psalter and these deliberations) of scriptural concepts¬†is an asset in deciding just what constitutes ‘God’s way’, whether taken metaphorically or theologically. Just as Renaissance writers like Erasmus savoured¬†classical¬†philosophies and updated them by adding a healthy dash of humanism, the modern reader is inevitably influenced by graceful¬†New Commandment principles. This is an attractive approach, at least as a common-sense check.

Each octet may inspire an appropriate musical response according to text and context. However, even if the readings are taken separately their source from that great central psalm, each section linked thematically by the importance of Godly principles, can still be acknowledged by a common refrain. Here are some of the refrains which are applied to the whole psalm or several sections.

  • PFAS 119B provides verses for four of the Lectionary selections set to an old hymn ST CRISPIN. But there are fifteen settings in PFAS. 119F similarly takes a sprinkling of verses, spoken not sung, with the refrain: “Order my steps in your word”; while¬†those that follow (119G to M) assume the full section of the week is read. Plenty of flexibility.
  • TiS applies verse 105 (the ‘light and lamp’ mentioned above) to a pleasing refrain, while the sprinkling of verses taken from the whole psalm are sung to a double tone.
  • NCH limits the readings to RCL sections, offering a nice, short and simple refrain for all by Elaine Kirkland, 1994.
  • Everett has clearly pondered this situation. His solution in TEP is to integrate the separate sections¬†by providing a refrain system throughout, two alternating¬†tunes in fact. Verses are drawn from the section of the week. These refrains can be added together at the end to form a hymn in their own right¬†— well thought out and effective.

Another person who pondered this dilemma was Isaac Watts, (1674 – 1748, a few years ahead¬†of the life of¬†JS Bach.) Watts was a nonconformist English theologian and logician who was also a prolific and popular writer of hymn lyrics. His solution to this smorgasbord of delights in Psalm 119 was to pull the verses apart and reassemble them thematically in a new order of sections or ‘Parts’, as he called them. Part 1 for example included¬†verses 5, 29, 33, 35-37, 133 and 176. He also took the liberty of updating the paraphrased psalms as though the original writers had knowledge of New Testament scriptures. As mentioned above, this seems sensible for interpretation by the modern reader, but goes a step too far for faithful translation. Many composers such as Thomas Clark grasped this alternative arrangement and wrote settings for these parts, although these days the overly¬†liberal translations and dated language argue against their use.

Amongst the classical composers of years gone by, it is interesting that Lassus wrote at least ten settings of various selected verses from Psalm 119, while but one is attributed to Tomas Luis de Victoria, and then doubtfully. Robert White also wrote four or five settings including one for the last half-dozen verses, with incipit as follows:

Appropinquet deprecatio mea / Let my complaint come before thee

Ps119 169 White incipit

Psalm 119:169, Robert White, 16th C.

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‚Äôs¬†‚Äėtent‚Äô or ‚Äėholy hill‚Äô. The remaining verses provide a checklist of rather challenging qualifiers, from the grand ‚Äėlive blameless‚Äô to the nitty-gritty of¬†‚Äėtake no bribes‚Äô. 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôts in the list of qualifiers¬†into a much more positive general inclination for life ‚Äď 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 ‚ÄėDon‚Äôt lend money for interest‚Äô or ‚Äėtake no bribes‚Äô (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 27, 22 Jan 2017

This psalm offers encouragement in difficult times, weaving together two contrasting but commanding threads. First is the imagery¬†of light, beauty and goodness.¬†Calling to mind references to the ‘light of the world’ (John¬†8:12)¬†and ‘light¬†upon my¬†path’ (Psalm 119:105), it¬†is a¬†theme found¬†in many psalms. Many readers will be familiar with the opening verse:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? God is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”

The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see beauty all around and commune with that spirit of love. (v.4)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

Image: E O’Loghlin, rowinggirl.com

Second is the idea of refuge ‚ÄĒ protection, salvation and shelter from danger or persecution. This second theme¬†of heavenly care in adversity is also¬†mentioned frequently elsewhere in the Psalter, perhaps even more often than light — maybe there was more adversity than light in those days. Here, David feels that his enemies surround him; his answer is to sing. (v.6) The psalmist thus merges illumination, guidance and clarity together with security and forgiveness.

Music

Considering that this poem is set only twice in three years of the Lectionary cycle, it has been unusually popular with musicians. Perhaps the potency of the blend of those two themes is the key. Verse 1 quoted above is clearly suitable as an antiphonal response, and many of our sources base a refrain on some variation of this idea. Looking first at modern settings, one blog suggests over 20 songs. A partial summary of some good choices follows.

  • The Taiz√© round The Lord is my light¬†is appropriate in this context. A gathering used to singing these songs will relish two tunes¬†blended together as well as the two entry points for each theme, making effectively four parts. The sound will be effective unaccompanied or with a light backing of¬†guitar, flute or such instruments.
  • Psalms for All Seasons offers no less than ten settings, including this Taiz√© round. A discussion of the whole list is tempting; but since responsorial settings are preferred, suffice to note that all (27A from¬†Taiz√©, B, E, F and H) rejoice in that first verse, highlighting either the ‘light and salvation’ or the ‘strength and courage’ topics, or both.
  • Everett in TEP also uses the second of these two¬†themes.
  • A different approach, using as response a verse from Isaiah ‚ÄúDo not be afraid I am with you‚ÄĚ, will be found in Together in Song no 16,¬†a paraphrase of the verses with a beautiful setting by¬†Christopher Willcock. Enchantment springs¬†in part from his imaginative and unusual harmony changes, moving between Eb and EőĒ tonalities accompanied by¬†related chords, and all supporting a lilting tune.
  • The home-grown setting shown below is equally¬†restrained but a little more challenging for singers.

Ps27 HdimsThis little piece is locally known as the¬†‚ÄėHalf-dim‚Äô antiphon acknowledging¬†several half-diminished chords (minor seventh flat five, subject of longer discussion in a February 2016¬†post) ‚ÄĒ perhaps an unfortunate title when rejoicing in the bright rays¬†of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the paraphrased verses to the same tune.

Psalmus David, priusquam liniretur. Dominus illuminatio mea et salus mea: quem timebo?

Ps. 27, 13th c. manuscript, Getty Museum

Turning briefly to the classical scene, remarkable in the listing online are not only the plethora and variety of settings for Psalm 27, but also the occurrence of little-known composers. Ever heard of Supply Belcher, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Sigismundo d’India or Orazio Tarditi? ¬†More familiar and exciting names¬†are there too, like Charpentier, Lassus and Sweelinck. But they write demanding music for five or more voices and often basso continuo. Dream on.

The illustration (click to enlarge) from an early French manuscript shows David being anointed by Samuel. The Latin version of the first verse quoted at the outset reads: “Psalmus D[avi]d, priusqua[m] liniretur (before he was anointed). Domin[us] illuminatio mea et salus mea quem timebo?”

Psalm 40, 15 Jan 2017

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year as well as this one in Epiphany in Year A, is a rich and captivating poem, said to be by David. It begins with patience, awe, thanks and song:

God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. God put a new song in my mouth. (vs 2,3)

The poem¬†continues with the image of a parent stooping to hear and comfort¬†a child.¬†It then evolves like a harbinger¬†of¬†Mary’s song the¬†Magnificat,¬†before¬†concluding with a prayer, repeated in Psalm 70 and elsewhere, for continued blessing.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

An earlier post (August 2016>) waxes eloquent (quacks on, perhaps?) about some interesting antiphonal music found in an early manuscript, the Howard Psalter from the early 1300s. Have a look at that if interested; but meanwhile the following list updates, expands (and yes, corrects) the originally sketchy treatment in that post of some of the modern settings.

  • A snappy tune in Psalms for All Seasons¬†40C, longish but easy and repetitive, uses the opening verses: “I will wait upon the Lord”. Paraphrased verses are set to an equally nice tune.
  • The first of the three songs in PFAS, the responsorial setting¬†40A, uses verses 7 and 8: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will”. Verses may be¬†sung to the tone supplied.
  • Marty Haugen’s pleasant refrain in New Century also chooses verse 8: “I delight to do your will”
  • Together in Song¬†No. 23 chooses verse 11, (“Do not with-hold your mercy”) and features a double tone, four phrases¬†and bars each versicle, quite suitable for small SATB group. (Change ‘Lord’ to ‘God’ throughout for gender neutrality.)
  • Everett in The Emergent Psalter¬†goes for the final verse 17, illustrated and quoted above. Note that¬†Lectionary readings¬†stop at verse 10 (in March) or 11 (Epiphany). Pointing out how much they¬†make of two chords, he also urges consideration of the chorus of¬†U2’s song “40”. Watch: https://youtu.be/1XzHlySYR_Y

Psalm 29, 8 Jan 2017

The voice shakes the wilderness and strips the forest

The voice of God is a constant and powerful theme in this psalm¬†— thundering over the mighty waters, shaking the wilderness, breaking cedars or flashing forth in flames. The psalmist (said to be David) assures us that through all the elemental turbulence of life, the divine spirit¬†reigns supreme.

A¬†familiar voice from someone well-known but out of sight¬†is often¬†easy to recognise and identify. There is no¬†need to analyse the pattern of frequencies, the combination of harmonics, or the different degrees of resonance. The subconscious sifts. The psalms, poetic and mystical though they may be, are full of voices. The fact that we do not always immediately identify them suggests¬†lack of familiarity. However, it’s also of course¬†because of that poetical and mystical nature. Take the voice of divine influence.¬†In the business of daily life we seldom pull up short and say: ‚ÄėThat‚Äôs a heavenly voice¬†speaking.‚Äô¬†Psalm 29 says¬†the voice of God is to be found in many ways:

  • over the waters
  • full of majesty
  • breaks the cedars of Lebanon
  • flashes forth flames of fire
  • shakes the wilderness
  • causes the oaks to whirl
  • strips the forest bare

John Greenleaf Whittier‚Äės prayer was:¬†‚ÄúSpeak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,¬†O still, small voice of calm!‚ÄĚ All this suggests the need to be attuned¬†to the¬†environment, natural, social and cultural, not just the flow of our internal thoughts. Then,¬†the psalmist seeks more than just hearing. The final verse of Psalm 29 is a prayer:

May God give strength to the people! May God bless them with peace!

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Music

This concluding prayer for¬†peace suggests a familiar and beautifully harmonised¬†Taiz√© chant as the antiphon: ‚ÄúDona nobis pacem cordium,¬†give to us peace in our hearts‚ÄĚ. Sing it twice as a refrain. The text of this psalm falls into place easily using the same chords and basic tune of Jacques Berthier‚Äôs nice little melody. This is very effective presented ¬†by a soloist acting as story-teller.

Everett in TEP also homes in on this very relevant prayer for the modern world, in a  lilting refrain over one of his typically inventive chord progressions.

A more lively song in PFAS 29B, by Lorenzo Florian 1985, is one of those attractive Spanish tunes with good plain harmony, including a few surprise chords, and a little swing. (Is everything Spanish so much fun to sing and play?) Definitely worth a try if you have any Spanish heritage represented in your group. A more conservative (and less inclusive) double tone and refrain (Willcock) is to be found in TiS 17 for the plain vanilla treatment if preferred.

Although Brahms wrote a nice motet drawing on Psalms 22 and 29, he calls for a double choir. Few easier classical settings recommend themselves to a small group of singers. Remember you can always grow your own.