Psalm 79, 18 Sep 2016

This song by Asaph voices a communal lament for the defeat of Jerusalem, seeking safety and justice until the people can “give thanks forever from generation to generation”. It’s another “How long?” song, themes taken up by many song writers including Canadians Steve Bell and Linnea Good. The psalter is riven through with songs of the blues and forbearance — at least ten of them, such as Psalms 6, 13 and on through to 119, include this anguish.

When a footnote in one of our psalters (1) cautions that this psalm should be used “with great care”, and that it “may be appropriate … focusing of situations of extreme persecution”, you know you are in for one of those bitter cries for help in time of trouble. This note, rather than putting us off, is quite helpful. There are, and regrettably will ever be it seems, such situations — think of violence in South Sudan, Syria, Burma and so on. So the song could be used to identify with and pray for those who suffer dolorous lives at the hand of aggression or repressive régimes. That source, PFAS, thoughtfully uses the more hopeful Kumbayah (but in a minor key) as a refrain:

Someone’s crying Lord, kum-ba-yah.

A footnote in another of our regular sources (2) has this angle on the psalmist’s crying “How long?”:

In the Bible as a whole, it’s just as likely to be God who is putting the question to us, wondering how long it will be necessary to put up with our antics [then several Biblical references.]

TiS 69Music

Kumbayah is fine. But far away in another galaxy, one Clemens non Papa wrote a nice four-part setting called Domine, ne memineris / Adjuva nos, from the first and ninth verses. Non Papa? How would you like to go down in history as “Not the Pope” just to make sure we knew who you were? The Belgian composer Jacobus Clemens (c. 1515-55), who worked mainly in Bruges and Paris, is known for his psalms in French and particularly Dutch.

In yet another world, the Anglican church has a great tradition of chanting the psalter in a particular style that is a satisfying evolution of ancient Gregorian tradition into more recent polyphony. It uses, as many of us do, verses with pointing markers as clues for fitting the words into a chant. Our practice is marking the last three notes, usually three syllables or words, as illustrated above. The preceding words of the phrase are all sung on the first ‘reciting’ tone.

Anglican chant has two more notes in the second line, so the last five syllables or words are allocated their own notes. There are always four notes then six, making ten in all. Once you crack the code, it’s easy with a little rehearsal to agree on the flow of the words. The example shown below, for Psalm 79 by English organist C. Hylton Stewart (1884-1932), is a little different. It has two lots of ten notes so is a truly antiphonal song; verses are sung alternately, odds then evens, usually by two groups.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.21.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 117

Ps117 BL Harley603f60

Illustration for Ps. 117 (CXVI in the Vulgate) in an English 11th century Psalter. Script Carolignian minuscule. Click to enlarge. Image: British Library Harley 603 f.60r

Psalm 117 is a surprise on several counts.

Short and sweet

First, as the shortest psalm in the bible, it consists of but two verses — and just two songs later the longest psalm 119 sports 176 verses!

These two verses are nevertheless important ones, presenting statements of the universality of all peoples or nations, and the eternal core of divine love and faithfulness. Psalms for All Seasons says they are ‘two of the most lovely and weighty images in the entire Psalter’.(p.737)

Second, even though the psalm is omitted from the Lectionary, yet the settings in our psalters and lists of classical settings online are legion — two in TiS, six in PFAS and nearly 60 online in CPDL. Brevity, rejoicing and simplicity all add to the allure of this little gem, a gift for song-writers it would seem.

So what did they write?

  • PFAS has several Taiwanese, French, Spanish and English options.
  • Together in Song has an Isaac Watts hymn and the Taizé refrain in PFAS.
  • In the more classical arena composers range from Anon. and Bach to Victoria and Vivaldi, with many names in between both famous and obscure
  • Such writers frequently chose the Latin text Laudate Dominum omnes gentes.
Ps 117 (116 in Vulgate) melismatic chant

Ps. 117 (116 in Vulgate Missal) melismatic chant, Solesmes Monastery

The long and the short of it

As might be expected, composers have resorted to various ploys to make a substantial song out of verses that take about 15 seconds to recite:

  • Medieval composers would have just resorted to melismata, singing many notes to each syllable, as does the Gregorian chant still in use today (illustration above)
  • Or their manuscript illuminators just filled in with mysterious drawings (illustration at top of page)
  • Classical composers were quite used to repetition, imitation, counterpoint, inversion and various other tricks to stretch one phrase into a page of music.
  • They could add verses from somewhere else then a few pages of Alleluias — JS Bach by this means manages 14 pages in one of his motets.
  • PFAS points out that some of the shorter choruses can be sung in different languages — how is your pronunciation?
  • Isaac Everett in TEP suggests ‘it could become a full-on jam session’, very appealing to this cantor
  • Some, including Everett’s, can be sung as a round.

Size may matter in some domains. David, by both harp and sling-shot, abundantly demonstrated otherwise.

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.


Roland de Lassus, Psalm 105

Orland_di_LassusRoland de Lassus, (1532-1594) or Orlando di Lasso as he was known in Italy where he spent some years, was one of the towering composers of the late Renaissance in 16th century Europe.

His mastery, breadth and sheer productivity made him famous in his time. Dynamic and emotional by nature, Lassus in his music strove for an engaging rhetorical, pictorial and dramatic interpretation of the text.

The other great composers of the Late Renaissance period are generally recognised as :

  • Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina in Italy,
  • William Byrd and Thomas Tallis in England and
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria in Spain

— all marvellous composers and amongst your webmaster’s favourite fruit.

A Walloon born about 1532 in Franco-Flemish Mons, now in Belgium, he became a fine chorister at an early age. Such was the beauty and purity of his voice that he was reportedly kidnapped three times, the last excursion finding him employed in the courts of Italy where he then learned his trade. By the time he left Italy for Antwerp in his early twenties, he was already publishing books of chansons, madrigals and motets. Another decade of fine composing and singing brought him recognition and, by 1564, to Munich, where he spent the rest of his fruitful life. The listing of his compositions and publications is staggering.

Canberra organist Peter Young, currently conducting The Oriana Chorale, has said that Lassus is very under-performed in this region, and I can only agree with him.

Psalm 105

Evensong, Basilica Vézelay

Evensong at Vézelay

Amongst many settings of scriptural texts, Lassus’ set of 7 penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) is highly regarded. However, it is his relatively obscure arrangement of Psalm 105 that attracts our attention this month. This is a beautiful work for five voices, a combination used often in that period but infrequently within our grasp at South Woden.

Selections from the psalm appear on 27 July, 10 and 31 August, and 21 September so we have decided to make this a season of dipping into this historical period of Renaissance music. We present the Lassus work in Latin, the people responding in the same language.

Our male voice group on 27 July introduced this sequence of readings with a small quote from the Lassus work used as the response. True to the style of the era we sang the verses to a Gregorian chant. This will be the pattern for all occurrences of this psalm. A cantor invites the congregation for the response:

Cantor: Invocate nomen Dei / Call upon the name of God

People: Confetimini Domino / O give thanks unto the Lord

Confetimini Domino à 5

Lassus’ motet* will be an inspiring precursor to this chant and response on 10 August, a red-letter day for the Psalm Singers. He wrote the work in two parts, stretching and elaborating the first two short verses into a couple of minutes of flowing melismatic song. We shall sing just Part 1, Prima Pars, which starts thus:

A five-part setting by Orland de Lassus. Source cpdl

The tenor enters with a statement of the first phrase. A common practice of the era was to have the melody in the tenor voice; old hymn books included special settings of psalms as ‘Fauxbourdon’ versions, the tenor being the leading voice. Sometimes this melody was a quote or based on a well-known tune from the standard church tones of those and earlier days. Other voices enter in sequence repeating the same phrase in imitation.

Our stories for the day include Jacob and his coat; the children will then be busy with a dream coats activity. Here is Lassus weaving a dream coat from a few simple verses. See where the dream takes you.

Continue reading

Psalm 105, 27 July 14

Psalm 105 from the St Albans Psalter, 12th century. Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible:

Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus

Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise:

Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus

Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

Perhaps this is why the lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit this psalm several times in coming weeks, with slightly differing verse selections. It recurs on 10 and 31 August, then on 21 September. This provides an opportunity for continuity, using the same style and response for all four appearances of this psalm.


The illustration from the  St Alban’s psalter above is in Latin (click on all photos to enlarge). Why the quotes in Latin this week, you ask? There’s a beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 in that language by the towering Roland de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso, c.1530 – 94) who, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music – see previous Crystal Ball post.

Works written for five voices are not everyday fare around South Woden; it is beautiful but demanding music. However, the Psalm Team has assembled a small group of experienced singers to present this centuries-old musical gem for your edification on 10 August.

Regrettably, these motets are rarely heard in Canberra, so that presentation on 10 August will be all the richer – note the date now! (It’s also a commissioning service for new Councillors). A separate post on the subject of this wonderful composer will follow soon.

A foretaste

I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, tossing the Renaissance ball into the ring, we start just with a small quote from the Lassus work as the response. And why not? — let’s sing it in Latin. The translation (above) will appear in the order of service: Ps105 Response


Gregorian chant was widely used during mediaeval and renaissance times. In step with the style of the day of Lassus, we shall use one of these chants for the verses, on this occasion Tone VIII which looks like this:

Psalm tone VIII

Originating over a thousand years ago and thus before the advent of polyphony, such tones were sung in unison. We observe that ancient practice for the forthcoming sequence of readings of Psalm 105.

A season of history Words are important

Thus we dip into history in a big way – Latin, Lassus and friend Greg from the 16th century. It’s not without precedent even in South Woden; we used this very chant last year to accompany an inspiring work by Hildegard. It’s worth re-reading the post for the psalm of the day here>.

It is also the fourth Sunday this week, so your ever-faithful men’s group await to lead you in this blast from the past. With some difficulty we have resisted the urge to enter stage right in long cloaks and dark cowls.

Seriously, though, the beauty and inspiration of Gregorian chant have been recognised over the centuries. The tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. Contact me if you want to be in it. Continue reading

Crystal Ball, July to September 14

Crystal ball

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

The Crystal Ball post for June did not quite foresee how lovely the music selections would turn out to be these last weeks. Many thanks to our singers in various combinations for not just good song but also for enthusiasm, support and interpretation of this engaging and meaningful poetry.

The current snapshot

Singers are invited to sign up and indeed take leadership during September. You are at the heart of this small but important element of life at South Woden Uniting. The plot now looks something like this (subject always to worship plan decisions by RevR or other leader of the day):

  • 13 July     That longest psalm 119, the psalm of the law, turns up again, so in the interests of continuity we repeat the antiphon by Isaac Everett that we used when this one last appeared in February two weeks in a row. We have a 4-part setting available so all singers welcome.
  • 20 July    Psalm 139, Search me and know me. If the soloist is available, we hope to hear a fine setting by Michael Card of these familiar verses : ‘ … you know when I sit, you know when I rise, you know where I am going…’

    Orlando de Lassus. Image Wikimedia commons

  • 27 July. Last Sunday, so a male voice group leads our contemplation. Psalm 105 comes up both this week, two weeks later on 10 August then twice more in the coming weeks. Tantalisingly, there is a nice 5-part setting of this psalm by Renaissance giant Roland de Lassus; experienced singers are preparing this for 10 August and we shall use a snippet of this piece on 27 July. Seeking consistency of era and style, the relevant verses will be sung to one of the eight main psalm tones (simple tunes) in the Gregorian Liber Usualis that were by then well established and often quoted in motet settings of the psalms.

    Ps 105 response, Gregorian Tone VIII

    Ps 105 response, Gregorian Tone VIII

  • 3 August  Psalm 17. Settings offered in Isaac Everett’s The Emergent Psalter and Psalms for all seasons contend for a place. Both have good words and harmonies.
  • 10 August  Psalm 105 again, and the beautiful Confitemini Dominum (Give praise to God), a Latin setting from around 1560 by Lassus as discussed above for 27 July –  a blast from the Renaissance years. It would be a treat if the same group of five could be available to present this again on 31 August and 21 September!

The psalm selection plan Crystal ball posts are drawn from a spreadsheet on the SWUC Music Dropbox, where reside all sorts of goodies. This document is primarily the Webmaster’s planning tool for leaders, worship liaison and musicians.  It has now been substantially updated to provide recommendations through to October, including the period of absence of your Hon. Webmaster/Cantor during September visiting family. These Crystal Ball posts from time to time are provided specially for the Psalm Team, a group with no walls, no password and great joy in music; bless you all.

Pärt and Psalm 100, 17 April 14

Image The Oriana Chorale; artwork Dan Sanderson. Click to enlarge

For those interested in sacred songs that you will probably never hear at South Woden, The Oriana Chorale will sing music of some interest at Wesley Uniting Church on Thursday 17th April (‘Maundy’ or Holy Thursday) at 7:00 pm. Their notice says:

The principal work will be Arvo Pärt’s 1990 Berlin Mass. The sections of the Mass will be interspersed with a capella and accompanied pieces by composers ranging from J.S. Bach, Schütz and Lotti to Eric Whitacre, Thompson and Górecki.

It’s not just personal involvement that inspires me to draw this to your attention, but some familiar themes appearing in this blog, works by Pärt and Schütz in particular with the additional appearance of favourite J S Bach!  And if you don’t know Eric Whitacre, you probably should.

IMG_3096Pärt’s Berliner Messe

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is perhaps the most performed exponent of modern minimalist modal music in the tradition of the Gregorian chant.  (See also a previous post on the modern chant.)

The mass follows the standard liturgical sections of the ordinary – but that’s about the end of the standard and ordinary. Here’s an example of the Kyrie sung by the Estonian Chamber Choir – Arvo is an Estonian after all.

Psalm 100

Of the interspersed pieces, I mention the psalm setting by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) not only because it’s a sung psalm, but because it’s a classic example of the emergence of antiphonal performance in polychoral writing. Schütz was a prominent 17th century composer and organist in Dresden and Venice – the multiple choir lofts in San Marco’s Venice was an inspiration for two-choir arrangements. He set all the Psalms of David amongst his many works. It’s the double-choir treatment with antiphonal or at least imitative entries that make this work exciting as the German text urges:

Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt (Make a joyful noise unto God all the world)

The J S Bach selection, Der geist hilft BWV 226, is also scored for two choirs and instruments, the text being from Romans and Luther.

Continue reading