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 — 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 100, 23 Nov 14

No speed limits mentioned

No speed limits mentioned

Psalm 100 simply invites us to be joyful and worship with glad singing (vv. 1, 2). A short psalm, it mingles declarations of faith with calls to:

enter the gates with thanksgiving, and the courts with praise (v.4)

The old ton(e)

The Old Hundredth will no doubt come to mind for anyone over a certain age who grew up on the Methodist or Presbyterian hymn books:

All people that on earth do dwell

This tune, probably written by Louis Bourgeois for Psalm 134, was a fixture in many old hymnals and psalters. Why? It came from the 1551 Genevan Psalter, a foundational collection of the Reformation movement. It was soon adopted in England and, sure enough, still appears in Together in Song at No. 59.

Psalm 1 from the Genevan Psalter

Psalm 1 from the Genevan Psalter

There’s a certain majesty and sedate elegance about these Genevan Psalter tunes, originally intended by John Calvin to be sung in plainsong without harmony (see illustration at left). However, they do not feature in our list of favourites as they are essentially hymns: we prefer responsorial or even antiphonal settings. (Last Sunday’s Psalm 123 was in fact both. Two cantors sang first and second phrases of the early verses antiphonally, followed by the people’s response. And as an aside, thank you to the many singers who responded to the call to create such an inspiring sweet sound.)

Getting back to the Old 100th, for me it does not really fulfill the psalmist’s call to sing with joyful gladness.

Other Music

Well, what about John Dowland who wrote such lovely chansons for voice and lute? Dowland wrote an English arrangement for Thomas Ravenscroft’s The Whole Booke of Psalmes of 1621. It starts out with more promising energy:

Shout to Jehovah, all the earth!

It turns out that this setting follows the fashion of the day by putting the tune in the tenor and arranging around it (‘falsobordone’; this had the advantage that soprano, treble or alto parts could be easily dispensed with if singers were not available or, it must be said, excluded from the choir by male dominance.) So Dowland’s piece has the same metre and sounds pretty much the same.

Psalms for all Seasons has a stack of interesting choices, starting off with (you guessed it) that Old Ton with the words in a dozen languages. There’s a Punjabi one with bells and Orff instruments; there’s one from Taiwan with drums and bass xylophone ostinato; and then a Taizé round and more. Whew! We could have a full hour or so of Psalm 100 with that lot but will keep it for another day.

Josquin des Prez

1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. Source: Wikimedia commons

1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime. All images: Wikimedia commons

The time is right for us to turn to an even earlier composition that might at first glance also be viewed as too sedate. This is the SATB setting by the great Josquin des Prez, a central figure in the Early Renaissance. Josquin was born a century before the publication of the Genevan Psalter and incidentally at about the time Johannes Gutenberg was establishing that first, so influential, printing press.

This setting of Psalm 100 has a generally restrained flow common to many Renaissance four-part voice compositions, but Josquin imbues it with a characteristic vibrancy. He conveys energy and inspiration by weaving, varying and imitating tunes and harmonies.

A small group will combine to present this lovely work. They are also delighted to offer a short motet by Thomas Tallis (1510-1585, a little after Josquin) entitled If ye love me.

Two rich gems for our musical offering this week.