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 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 148, 27 Dec 2015

IMG_2394Those denizens of the deep (Ps.148:7) pop up again after, it seems, so little time. It’s exactly a year since our last post on this effusive psalm of praise. At that time, I chose those monsters from the deep for the illustration.

Now, with a certain blockbuster movie just released worldwide, maybe I should look upward and choose the fantastic universe and all that rushes around in it:

Praise God, sun and moon … all you shining stars, highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens … you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command, wild animals … creeping things … (verses 1-10)

Yoda BL Royal 10EIV

The Biritsh Library, manuscript Royal MS 10 E IV f 30v;

Yoda in mind the psalmist had not. However, cruising around way back in the 14th century Yoda was, and a French illustrator the moment captured. The British Library, who have this image somewhere safe salted away, have this to say:

The jewel in our Star Wars crown is the very Yoda-like creature [shown here], which can be found in a book of canon law now known as the Smithfield Decretals.  Written probably in Toulouse, the manuscript arrived in London in the early part of the 14th century, where numerous marginal illuminations were added.  When we first meet Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back, his age is given as 900 years, meaning that he would have been about 260 at the time of the illumination of the Smithfield Decretals.  It is therefore entirely possible (if not probable) that this is a portrait drawn from life. (more…)


christ_mosaicWell, enough frivolity and back to the music. My last entry on this psalm covered briefly some music options. Reviewing this scene, I am captured the the idea of an Orthodox psalm setting in the Russian style by someone called Atanas Badev (1860 – 1908) student of Rimsky-Korsakov and considered an ethnic Macedonian — you have heard of him, of course! Wikipedia advises he was:

… the composer of The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (first published in Leipzig in 1898), one of the most significant works of this genre from the end of the 19th century.

More realistically, even a few singers holding parts would enjoy interpreting PFAS 148H,  a setting by George Thalben-Ball (1896 – 1987) with nice chord progressions.

Our ‘away’ services at nearby churches after Christmas do not include a sung psalm. The ‘home’ team, Singers in the South, wish all readers a harmonic holiday season until we sing again. Thanks for reading.

While on the subject of Badev, Ball and Taylor …   Continue reading

Psalms 96 to 98, Christmas 2015

IMG_3002A joyful package suitable to a joyful occasion, these three songs for Christmas Eve and Day sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96 begins with the much-sung ‘Sing to God a new song’. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm — or I should say opening phrase; nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses. The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in earth and heavens, and includes repeats of bits of other psalms like 29, 93 and (relevant in this clutch of readings) 98:7-9. It’s also the source of that sweet phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’.

Psalm 97 takes on a more feisty tone, declaring the enmity of false gods and carved images. These days they might be identified as fascination with youth, self-promotion, nationalism, wealth or power. The psalmist calls for The Force to awaken against this dark side (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference; and there will be more star-shattering revelations next post…)

InstrumentsPsalm 98 again urges us to lift up  our voices to sing a new song. This time, we are encouraged to bring along our harp, trumpet and horn. The psalmist broadens the focus to call for vibrant harmony among all nations with creation (we are thankful for small steps taken recently in Paris) and the Creator (more steps needed).


Ps96 illustr HenryVIII Psalter 1540

Ps.96 ‘Cantate Domino’; from the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540, British Library. Click to enlarge.

As mentioned above, there are dozens of ‘new songs’. Bach did a great piece called Singet dem Herrn, a cantata that needs to be taken at a clip for full effect. Here’s a very small sample of some other more demanding pieces listed on the Choral public domain for Psalm 98:

  • Orlando di Lasso SSATB (vv. 1-4)
  • Claudio Monteverdi SSATBB (combined with Psalm 96); and one for 2 soprani
  • Johann Pachelbel SATB.SATB – two choirs please!
  • Michael Praetorius vv.1-3 SSST.ATBB and vv.4-6 SSSAATTBB – whew!
  • Heinrich Schütz, SATB.SATB – another double choir piece in the Venetian style.

There are of course plenty of nice songs within reach of amateur groups. Together in song, characteristically skipping some verses and gender inclusiveness, does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.

Psalms for all seasons and The emergent psalter have other suitable settings.

Merry and blessed Christmas to all readers around the world.

At South Woden (… and more about that character Henry) Continue reading

Psalm 50, 15 Feb 15

Iona Abbey, Scotland. Image wikicommons

Iona Abbey, Scotland. Image wikicommons

Psalm 50 is quite long but we hear only the first half-dozen verses. This week’s selection boils down to a vibrant description of divine eminence, power and identification with the people. The link to the week’s theme of the Transfiguration, while quite direct in 2 Kings, is more oblique in the psalm. The poem certainly reinforces the dramatic images of that stunning heaven-and-earth, prophets-and-future event and declaration on a high mountain. (Mark 9)

Like all psalms, each phrase taken independently can open a whole new world of reflection. For your convenience in this worthy pursuit, here for once is the set text in full, slightly modified for inclusivity.

1 The mighty one, the God of Gods, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. 3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before whom is a devouring fire and a mighty tempest all around. 4 God calls to the heavens above and to the earth to judge the people: 5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare the rightness of God’s cause; for God is judge. Selah

(Note that some sources are better than others in terms of divine gender neutrality. The New century hymnal and The emergent psalter are favoured in this respect.)


Refrain. The chosen setting is No 50B or C in Psalms for all seasons. This simple refrain is from The Iona Community, a distributed movement based in Scotland whose music has graced our hall in the past and is well liked. Some of our members have been there and been inspired.

PFAS describes the psalm as ‘a call to genuine worship with integrity’ (p. 315). The people’s response is:

Let the giving of thanks be our sacrifice to God (v. 23)

Based on the last verse, these words are not actually in the lectionary selection. This should be no barrier; it’s very appropriate and look — a free bonus verse!

Verses.  50B and the next setting 50C have almost identical refrains but treat the verses differently. In the former, verses are chanted by cantors to a tone: the latter offers paraphrased verses in SATB to a nice tune that is quite close to one of the tones provided.

Notes for SWUC members: Continue reading

Psalm 147, 8 Feb 15

Girl with lyre, Adolf von Hildebrand, c.1910. Alte National Gallery Berlin

Lyraspielendes Mädchen (Girl playing lyre), Adolf von Hildebrand, c.1910. Alte Nationalgallerie, Berlin

This psalm of praise calls us to be happy in the creation and this evidence of divine caring. Sure enough, we are to pull out our lyres again in order to sing those praises (v.7). Bring yours on Sunday.

Recalling the Hospitals Chaplain’s words last week, almost in continuity the Psalm reminds us:

God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds (v. 3)

Either in unnervingly sudden shifts of focus, or perhaps in a visionary sweep of the universe, the psalm alternates between the lowest and the highest, the present day to the distant past; reassurance of the bruised and outcast — who are urged to ‘count your blessings and name them one by one’ as the old song would have it — to wonder at counting the stars and naming them one by one.

God determines the number of the stars; and gives to all of them their names. (vv 3, 4)


Tomas Luis de Victoria‘s setting of this psalm would be appropriate if singers were available. Laude Ierusalem, Salmo de Vísperas No. 6 is a series of short sections that, in the vespers service, would be be sung as antiphons between readings or prayers. Outside the vespers context it could be used to inspirational effect as incidental music.

This Victoria motet is in Latin of course: ‘Lauda Deum tuum Sion’. Further, Psalm 147 in the old Vulgate numbering system begins with verse 12. The lectionary selection (vv.1 – 11) in an English setting is preferred.

'Starry Night' by V van Gogh. Wikimedia commons

‘Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh. Wikimedia commons

Together in Song No 92 covers most of the set verses and, being by John Bell, is a pretty sound. However, relishing that idea of naming each of the myriad stars (and in the interests of brevity), the planned refrain is an arrangement of an early composition by Isaac Everett in The emergent psalter.

Who has not stood outside on a clear night — on a balcony, camping in the bush away from city lights, or on the deck of a boat anchored in a quiet havenAt anchor — and wondered at the constellations? This refrain reaches towards that feeling:

Jehovah with immeasurable wisdom calls each star by name

Psalm 139, 18 Jan 2015

IMG_2316 TanglesComplexity of situations, relationships or internal feelings can sometimes create such a tangled web that we are ensnared and immobilised. It would be easier if someone would just sweep in and ditch the unimportant things, whatever they are, and say: “Well, clearly, this is what you should be doing!”

In such times, Psalm 139 has much to say, acknowledging from the outset our essential transparency:

O God, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. (verses 1-3)

Attitude and Altitude

Complex patternsThe spotlight of divine wisdom, if we can find the switch, helps us see through the tangles of our own or others’ making. How that can happen is a personal matter that no set of rules, certainly not a psalm blog, can describe or prescribe.

Attempting to align our frame of reference, our moral compass or our ethical sensibilities with divine wisdom, the creative spirit of verses 13 to 16 quoted below, is surely a good start.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8, 9)

Easier said than done, of course, but hope springs eternal. This is not formally a ‘psalm of ascent’ but that broad sweeping idea of dreaming on a higher plane is certainly present in stirring language typical of psalm poetry. Our selection (verses 1-6, 13-18) straddles but misses this:

Where can I go from your spirit? … If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. (verses 8-10)

… and Alternative Angles

What is not missed out, however, is the imagery of intimacy — pre-natal transparency, ultrasound plus. It’s at once captivating and unsettling:

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret … (vv. 13-15)

Incredible, even allowing for doubts about the original textual meaning and interpretation from various sources. This would have been an appropriate song for the gentle leadership of some of our young women and mothers but circumstances, mostly joyful, have intervened.

The concluding lines draw on this transparency and seek that ‘righteousness’ that’s at the heart of Psalm 1 and also here:

Search me, O God, and know my heart … lead me in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139:23, 24)

Sacred music, BnFFor even more alternative angles on this rich psalm, see also the post on 20 July 2014.


We respond to the verses and in a very short, transparent response from the New century hymnal by Jane Marshall:

Search me O God and know my heart.

All singers welcome as usual, please join in. Short rehearsal Sunday morning. 

*  *  *

Final image: from 6-part music in Recueil de plusieurs messes, Psaumes, motets, Te Deum & c.a.  MS dated 1630-1682, Bibliotèque Nationale de France