Psalm 119E, 19 Feb 17

Note: An introduction to Psalm 119 was posted last week.


A setting of Ps. 119 He by Heinrich Schütz, 1671. BL Zweig MS 84

He, ח

This fifth section (33-40) reads like a plea from a faltering student for assistance in following a path that is definitely right but steep or poorly defined. The psalmist seeks divine tuition in the way of right statutes, understanding of the law, and the path to justice. He  asks that his heart and eyes may be turned towards divine standards, away from the unjust and worthless pursuits.

  • Everett in TEP homes in on those crucial ingredients of insight and integrity in verse 34, understanding values and right ways in a complex and slippery ethical environment. He paraphrases this verse to fit in with the common tune that is called in to service throughout all sections of this long psalm. The wording is perhaps rather quaint but it is memorable and it works: “Elevate my understanding. Ever in my heart keep watch.
  • PFAS 119J provides an easy but effective refrain based on a ii-IV (or V11)-I which pertains to both the previous section, Daleth, and this one. Verses may be sung to the tone provided or, as usual, one of the cantor’s choice.
  • South Woden has used a simple home-grown refrain with words paraphrased to fit the same melody. For Aleph the refrain dwelt on verse 5; in this section He, verse 33 is in the spotlight:

ps119e-cantors-docSeveral SATB settings of this section or excerpts are listed in the classical arena — by Atwood, Boyce (with alto soloist) and Rogier to name a few. Five-part settings are available from William Byrd, and also Orlando di Lasso whose incipit follows:ps119e-lassus

Psalm 119A, 12 Feb 17

Aleph א

In words reminiscent of Psalm 1, the first section begins by inviting us to walk in God’s ways.

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in God’s way. (v.1)

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

Ps.119:1 in a 1450 Gregorian chant manuscript, five-line staff, F clef on vellum. Rice University.

The preceding post discussed, perhaps inconclusively, what the divine way and the word of God might mean. It also listed some antiphons written for the whole of Psalm 119 rather than individual sections.

A good dozen classical settings are listed against this first section Aleph or just the first verse, a few for SATB but most for 5, 6 or more voices. The Latin incipit of this first verse quoted and illustrated above goes :

Beati immaculati in via

A search reveals several other motets, some listed against Psalm 119, others as separate compositions but clearly using the same text. Tomas Luis di Victoria used this text for his sole composition on this long psalm. On it is listed in his works as a ‘manuscript’ rather than one of his vespers psalms; and a note says it may not be by Victoria anyway. Another such (illustrated below) is a setting for seven voices by a leading Lutheran composer from Thuringia in Germany, Johann Walter (1496-1570, about 50 years before Victoria).Ps119a JohWalter

In more modern settings:

  • Everett introduces the first of his series of additive antiphons in TEP. These are built on two sets of couplets with repeating tunes. This first couplet is backed by alternating D minor and C chords for the first line. The same tune continues for line two for ease of learning, but musical depth is added by changing the backing chords to Bb and A minor.
  • Meanwhile in PFAS, the single song allocated to Aleph is a nice refrain and metrical verses by Lucien Deiss (1921-2007) a French liturgist and composer of many chants.
  • The setting in TiS dips in to sample several sections in a mixed salad.
  • Keeping what may well be the best wine to last, the refrain in New Century Hymnal is short and sweet: “Teach me O God the way of your statutes.” This quote is actually from verse 33, and is one of those generic refrains that is used in NCH and other psalters (see PFAS 119B to E) for all Lectionary selections whenever they arise.

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 119:105ff 13 July 2014

Enter ‘119’ in the Search field at right and you come up with four posts on this psalm over less than a year — this one makes five. Five times out of 150 psalms is favouritism, surely? No; at 176 verses this is longest psalm — and the longest chapter in the Bible. So we’ve been taking small bites.

As an acrostic psalm, in the original Hebrew each section of eight verses is identified by a letter of their alphabet. Further, the verses begin with that letter. This was perhaps a teaching aid, or perhaps a touch of poetic flair. The alliteration is lost in the English versions.

This Sunday we sing Psalm 119:105-112 (click for text), in a section with the letter נ (Nun) that sits well-nigh in the middle of the Bible, starting at a well-known verse 105:

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path

Old family Bible


Two different refrain tunes have been used for the four recent readings turned up by that search. This week we use the Isaac Everett tune that we have enjoyed twice before with text by J Snodgrass, this time drawn from נ and the previous section, מ (Mem):

Mindful of your truth inside meCandleholder from Abbé Fontenay

Meditate with every breath

Needing only you to guide me

Never turning from your path.

This is not a direct quote of the text of the psalm. The author has taken a step back, zoomed out and looked at the whole psalm to summarise the ideas. Everett explains in The emergent psalter (page 19) that taken sequentially, these short sectional refrains can be sung together as a song, using this tune or any 8,7,8,7 metre.

And by the way, noting that the four phrases or lines above start with MMNN for sections M and N, we get the hint that the full song is also acrostic! Maybe we’ll try it one day.


All welcome, as we have a four-part arrangement for both refrain and verses that we have found suitable and enjoyable.