Psalm 105, 30 Jul 17

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 God, 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. A psalm singer in the temple or perhaps by a campfire in early times would have known that his audience would conjure up a host of stories and images relating to the era, the plagues, the Passover and the escape from Egypt. By telling and repeating, singing the familiar tunes and lyrics, people learned their history, culture, lessons from tales of the past and, osmotically perhaps, values. The song goes on to enumerate these tales but even so, one of the morals of the story is all the more striking: leaders must arise who are right for the time.

Perhaps this repetitive approach is why the lectionary provides the opportunity to revisit this psalm three times, with slightly differing verse selections, in the space of a little over a month. The music leader can achieve continuity by using the same style and response for all three appearances of this psalm.

A beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 by Lassus has been mentioned previously. Lassus, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music. The full work may be beyond the resources of small churches but extracts can be useful for a thematic refrain:

Verses associated with this refrain might best be sung to a traditional psalm tome. These 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. A quick scan through the Missal published by Monks of Solesmes does not reveal any particular tone associated with Psalm 105. However, Tone VIII is used for various other sung liturgical elements.

A common approach was the use of a particular tone during one service for several psalms. The author has attended a couple of Tallis Scholars summer schools, during which the order of service for Compline — the last office of the day usually at 9:00 pm — used Tone VIII for all psalms sung each night. Singing several psalms morning, noon and night, the monks would complete the cycle of singing all 150 psalms in the space of a fortnight.

As to more modern sources:

  • PFAS suggests a refrain comprised entirely of the word Alleluia repeated several times.
  • TEP’s refrain does something similar, preceding that celebration with an invitation to sing praise.
  • Still on a joyful theme but less exuberantly, NCH uses verse 3, ‘Let the hearts of those who seek God rejoice’, set to a refrain whose 5/4 time renders it more unusual.
  • Some years ago at South Woden the Lassus quintet mentioned above was a source of great joy. This year, a home-grown refrain and verses in gospel style will be used on all three occurrences of Psalm 105.

Psalm 95, 19 Mar 17

This psalm rewards the reader with new dimensions upon each reading. The first half starts with a song, indeed a shout, of praise and thanks to the creator of a fantastic world; and not just any old song but:

let us come before God with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout with psalms (v. 3)

Writing a psalm that urges us to sing psalms seems a bit like blowing your own trumpet; but we assume many of these songs were familiar as part of the culture of the children of Israel from the days of the exile in Egypt.

Wilderness

So the song dips back in time to remind the reader of those trying days in the wilderness that form the backdrop to Lent, after Pharaoh let the people go – into freedom from slavery, sure, but also into the wilds, deserts and privations. When read in Lent, the preceding Old Testament reading is from Exodus 17, the people complaining of their wilderness thirst. Similarly, Australia’s heartlands can be both impressive and fearsome. The psalmist goes on to remind us that trials and hardships pass; do not to take the short view, for in the long run we shall find peace. The song is an encouragement not just to be thankful but also to be humble and not to ‘harden our hearts’. (v.8)

Praetorius

Books of psalms, Michael Praetorius

Music

TiS. Two lively options for Psalm 95 are available in ‘the red book’:

  • TiS 52 is “Let us sing to the God of salvation” (Most rollicking songs like this had a corrupt version doing the rounds of the camp-site or youth group. What was your version of this one: “Give me unction in my gumption let me function“?)
  • TiS 53 is the Calypso Carol.

TEP. A simple refrain from The Emergent Psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice: “Come let us sing, let us shout for joy”. The tune is lightly syncopated but the ‘inside’ harmony is remarkably sedate for Mr Everett: I-IV-I in E major. However, he resolves in the last cadence to an E minor on the assumption that verses will be spoken with a backing vamp. Sung verses might well demand the Em tonality but this should be optional as it will depend on the chosen tone.

PFAS. Three settings in this source invite attention:

  • The first, 95C (Come let us sing), is a chant by William Boyce in the form of an unusually long double tone. This would suit more traditional tastes very nicely. While the harmonies are not adventurous, it can be sung in SATB to rich effect.
  • Over the page, PFAS 95E (O that today) is a lilting tune in E minor by Andrew Moore, with a choice of two tones for the verses. A couple of features make this refrain attractive. First, it flows up and down nicely to finish on the tonic major. Next, both bass note and chord sequence follow a loose stepping pattern down then up, in either a single or double-step (thirds) fashion. This means little when written thus but the musical effect is pleasing. You have to be there.
  • Finally, an oboe descant part featured in “Let not your hearts be hardened” at 95I promises a nice song, including refrain and sung verses.

For the more adventurous, a swag of classical setting of 95 may be found in the public domain, including a smaller but still impressive swag of tunes from a shoe-maker, Thomas Clark (1775 – 1859). Clark, who according to his obituary “received but a scanty education, but was an incessant reader”, was also an incessant composer. You get the picture when, while scanning page upon page of titles by this director of music in Canterbury, the eye falls on A Twelfth set of Psalm Tunes. Being in the form of rather conservative hymns, they do not earn a prominent place in our repertoire.

Elsewhere in the big swag, a piece by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), impressively entitled “Venite exultemus Domino: In festo Natalis Resurrectionis Ascensionis” (being the incipit followed by a direction on seasonal usage), is remarkable for its arrangement for nine parts in three trios. Each voice was published in 1607 as a separate book (see illustration). As is his way, he directs that these parts may be for voices, instruments or organs.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius. Danish Royal Library.

Psalm 148, 1 January 2107

This post builds on three previous entries on this psalm, which is set for the first Sunday after Christmas. Psalm 8 also arises this day in readings for New Year’s Day.

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Praise God from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind

This popular psalm is in the middle of the final group of half a dozen songs of praise which bring the Psalter to a climax. Notable for its broadly imaginative evocation of the whole universe in praise of the creator, such poetic flights are a hallmark of the psalms. Psalm 148 echoes Psalms 96 to 98, also set readings for Christmas, and is incorporated into the canticle of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego whose story in the book of Daniel, incidentally, is also a source of the phrase ‘feet of clay’. The poet is intent on sweeping up the whole creation; the word ‘all’ is sprinkled liberally throughout:

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! (Ps 148:9-11)

Psalm 135

Like Psalm 136, to which the reader should turn for more commentary, this psalm (text here>) is a sort of history lesson or song of praise for the main events in the Torah from creation onwards. Verse 14 promising goodness and justice even repeats a verse of the song that Moses sang after handing over to Joshua.(Deut. 32) The complaint against idolatry (vs. 15 ff) is a repeat of Ps. 115:3-8. The idols of those times are said to be of silver and gold — and nothing much has changed.

Music

Since Psalm 135 is a ‘skip’ and not in the lectionary, three of our four regular modern source books follow suit — skip, and leave us to our own devices. Online, three tunes appear on psalter.org, fine and traditional but all straight 87.87 hymns. None grabs my eye, admittedly through the very inconsistent and unpredictable prism of my itches for this or that idea in music, not least of which is singable, tuneful verses with a good refrain. The classical selections on sites like CPDL and IMLSP offer very interesting historical perspectives but infrequently a song either antiphonal or easy.

This is one of the reasons I often remark on what Isaac Everett is offering in The Emergent Psalter. Sometimes his choice of verse for the refrain may not suit the message of the day but his music is never enervating, always interesting and slightly different. While he leaves the leader to read the verses or to find a tone for the verses, no arduous demand, his refrain for Psalm 135 is characteristically short and tuneful. Free to download from Churchpublishing.org, it has as usual a pleasant chord progression. This one is less syncopated than his normal style and thus easy to sing following a cantor:

Ps135 Everett

Psalm 136

The immediately remarkable feature of this psalm is the antiphon inserted in each verse of the poem, which begins:

Give thanks to God who is good : whose steadfast love is eternal.

The phrase in the second half (in bold) is added to each verse, presumably in the original text.

Ps136 RoyalMs2

Ps136 in the Psalter of Henry VIII, British Library Royal Ms 2

These repeated antiphons are shown in the 16th century manuscript illustrated, known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. Personal notes in the king’s hand hand appear here and there, although not in this snapshot. Here we see the last verse of the preceding Psalm 135, followed by the words Gloria and Sicut erat, which of course are just cues for the full doxology. Then in red the psalm number 135 in the Vulgate, 136 in our English Bible. Then comes verse 1, with several abbreviations, after a decorated capital C:

Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus / quoniam in aeternum [or here, saeculum] misericordia ejus

Such short statements in each verse continue, the repeated antiphon of the second half of the line above being repeated and further abbreviated to quoniam or just qm (see lower right of the illustration) to save space.

History – with antiphon

These short statements remind the reader of all the major events related in the five books of the Torah: the wonders and sustainment of creation, the history of the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea and the conquest of various kings in taking of Canaan, the promised land. Ironically, in the following Psalm 137, the glory days have passed and they sing the lament of captive exiles, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’.

These days the facts of the story are better known than they are relevant, save as an inspiring if remote myth of divine guidance and protection. Did the Red Sea really roll back at the right moment then roll back, as Miriam sings in Exodus, to consume pursuing horse and rider? In poetry the detail is less important than the message.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that poetry often invokes the “suspension of disbelief”, a phrase he dreamed up in 1817 for when we are happy to go along with the romantic story regardless of credibility or otherwise. Poetry that infuses a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale can entice the reader willingly to suspend logical judgement. He had his own poetry in mind, no doubt:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

The ride is sometimes more fun than the destination. The stories of the psalms are no exception.screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-14-15

The long …

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wins the prize for producing a startlingly grand motet on Psalm 136. Assuming the major congregations or patrons of the day had such resources to hand, he arranged the piece for up to four choirs or smaller groups of voice, brass or other instruments, together with a figured bass continuo. Illustrated here are the last few bars, in 17 staves, of the 200 bars of this piece. Each staff shown here is edited for voice with text underlay but in all probability some would be instrumental. One edition has Cantus 1 taken by trombone.

… and the short

On a more modest scale, several modern psalters provide a short tone (Psalms For All Seasons 136D) or background vamp (The Emergent Psalter) for the first phrase, then a refrain for the antiphon in each verse. They often include John Milton’s rather dated hymn Let us with a gladsome mind; interestingly, PFAS 136B updates and vamps it up a bit with new rhythm, an echo voice part and refrain — Genevan adapted.

New Century cunningly starts with the “Steadfast love …” phrase of the repeating antiphon but adapts it by adding a response that invites the congregation to participate more personally. Rather than continuing “… endures forever”, the refrain concludes ” …  surrounds those who trust in God”.

Psalm 61

Capital 'E'(xaudi) of Ps. 61 in a Mozarbic psalter, 11C Spain BL MS30851.

Capital ‘E'(xaudi) of Ps. 61 in a Mozarbic psalter, 11C Spain BL MS30851. A sung antiphon of v.2 precedes the text

Divine standards of perfect love and peace seem far off and unattainable in a world full of strife, refugees, war and deceit:

As high as heaven is above the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways (Is. 55:9)

The good news in the psalms, here and in other songs like 31, is that higher and hopeful levels are not out of reach:

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower (Ps 61:2,3)

(Incidentally, it is worth reading on into the passage from Isaiah 55 for a beautifully poetic and more encouraging assurance of sustainment and fruitfulness.)

In Psalm 61 David, the author, seems to pray for himself as king, though he adds more humbly: ‘before God’ and with ‘love and faithfulness for protection’.(6, 7) This is not just self-importance; David assumed that he and his people were charged with the responsibility of not only caring for the creation (Psalm 8) but also bringing a message of divine caring to a benighted world.

This is the last in a large group of ‘skips’ from 55 to 61 that do not appear in the weekly Lectionary. Thus Psalm 61 is ignored in TiS and NCH, while PFAS offers, apart from a couple of hymns, one setting with a response, originally in Tamil to a Punjabi tune, in 61B.

PraetoriusWhilst classical settings are also fairly few, in somewhat grander style Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) produced a setting of the first four verses, Exaudi Deus for two choirs of four voices, in a collection called Musae Sioniae: Deudsche Psalmen und Geistliche Lieder (1607; see illustration).

And in the ‘little-heard’ category is a Portuguese SATB by Brazilian composer Dr Jorge Moreira (1948-) that is worth a try by your local quartet.

Note in the Spanish manuscript illustrated at the outset, an 11th century script from the Monastery of Silos in northern Spain, that the antiphon here appears to precede the psalm text. The text is drawn but diverges from the first part of verse 2:

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

A finibus terrae ad te clamavi, dum … / From the ends of the earth will I call upon thee: when my heart is in heaviness.

Compare this with another later manuscript known as the Howard Psalter which is discussed in the posts on Pss. 122 and 129. First, note that the musical notation has progressed significantly, from a line of neumes to a four-line staff with square notation. Secondly, in Howard the chant and antiphon may have been sung at the end of each psalm rather than the beginning, although this is not clear, and often uses excerpts from psalms before and after the antiphon.

Psalm 81, 28 Aug ’16

Psalmist Asaph begins by casting into a shimmering spotlight some energising phrases:Lyre player, AlteNatGal

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the merry harp and the lyre. Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon, and at the full moon (v.1, 3)

Then this touch of mystery:

I hear a voice I had not known: “I eased your shoulder from the burden You called on me in trouble and I saved you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder and tested you at the waters of Meribah” (vs. 5-7)

Asaph was one psalm writer who knew his history and used it in his songs. Whether today’s reader knows the background or not, the poetry sparks thought, dreaming, soaring imagination and hope.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Meribah, for example, refers to a real historical event  (disputation, angst and water from the rock; Num. 20). Knowing the history helps. If not, you just say: “Some secret, ancient or holy places, I imagine.” One can still feel the warmth of being in the company of a great cloud of witnesses, hopeful humanity, whoever they are.

Music

The upbeat refrain in The Emergent Psalter (Everett notes: “This antiphon sounds great with power chords and a little distortion”) uses that mysterious verse 5 quoted above.

Psalms for All Seasons has a small clutch of offerings that most musicians would relish. Like the phrases already mentioned, they seem to display a theatrical bent:

  • 81A Sing with joy, antiphonal, with solo and tutti voices and verses to a tone; words and music traditional Malawian
  • 81B Strike up the music! with a quiet ostinato of ‘Hear my voice’ behind the reading of the verses (and an added flute part)
  • 81C in hymn style, and therefore not our choice, but interestingly breaks for ‘a reading of the law’.

Predictably, that opening call to raise a joyful song and blow the ram’s horn captured several classical composers such as Byrd (two setting for 5 and 6 voices), Hassler, Palestrina (again à5) and Scarlatti (SATB).

[PS. This is the 200th post. 150 psalms, and still 17 ‘un-blogged’.]