Psalm 78, 12 Nov 2017

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow…

Stories of old; even better when sung

But wait, I wrote all this and more in a post just recently, so go there to read the rest. This saves space and effort for the web-master; however a close inspection shows that this psalm reading selects different verses. So while it’s close, TiS 41 sung on 1 October does not quite cover the territory. Near enough for the average thematic leader but strictly, the reading is verses 1-7; again, review the other choices suggested in that earlier post>.

Here is the chosen refrain and verse tune for this week at South Woden:Ps78 Listen tune

Worship and song leaders may also be enticed by the alternative readings this week from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book which is not universally accepted as part of the canon. This nice passage could be sung by women to good effect.

Why the quote at the outset from that last verse 72? Here is another reminder of the strong thread of divine justice and goodness that runs through both the Psalter and the stories of old.

Psalm 106

‘Happy are those who act with justice, who do what is right.’ (3)

Psalm 106 drawing to a close the powerful Book IV of the Psalter is related to the previous song. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. A warning against selfishness accompanies a plea for divine guidance and grace. As a good leader, Moses “stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath.” However, provocation made Moses angry and he acted in haste:

By the waters of Meribah they angered God and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (33)

Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. Verse 3 quoted above is a reminder of the insistence on the centrality of justice that runs throughout the Psalter. In the frustratingly faltering pursuit of social justice today, here also are lessons for the worker about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure. (See also Psalm 81)

Incipit to Psalm 106 by Thomas Tomkins; B and TII entries only.

As to the music, in the early 1600s Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings, including 106 for four male voices. This would be a satisfying sing and edifying contribution, probably as incidental music since it presents verse 4 alone.

In more modern sources:

  • The refrain in PFAS 106B invites us to sing: “Cast every idol from its throne”. This might be a good song if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not always appeal as timely.

  • The response in TEP is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period generally available in weekly gatherings.

  • NCH has a simple refrain but no sung verses. Use a tone.

  • PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. First, it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony if enough singers are available.

Psalm 78, 1 Oct ’17

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow.

God … appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children (5, 6)

Then (12-16) come reminders of the wonderful escape through the Red Sea, the guiding pillar of cloud and fire, and the water from the rock. Imagery is a powerful aspect in the psalms. Scientists have offered various explanations on the Red Sea’s behaviour under Moses’ rod, such as local wind conditions altering the tides in the shallows so that sandbanks were revealed. The psalmist sniffs at that and, whether realistically or impressionistically, writes with bold hand:

God split open the sea and let them pass through; the waters stood up like walls. (18)

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

The image of water gushing from rock in a desert land certainly captures the attention of dwellers in the great dry south land. The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist. However, stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable.

I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (2-4)

The associated Exodus 17 reading gives the full unedifying detail of Moses and the rock, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’. It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of woolly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a walking stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, when you are parched in the desert it’s hard to focus on the good times, the miracle of the plagues and the Passover, the sea parting and the fall of the pursuing horse and rider. This is not intended to encourage blind faith or recklessness. We are responsible for ourselves after all, bearing our own and one another’s burdens.1 A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw faith and guidance from absorbed biblical values.

As to these ‘dark sayings’ (‘hard sentences’ in the BCP), previous posts (September 2014 and November 2014) have commented on tales like the the folly of the Berlin Wall. Few sections of this wall are still extant, most having been reinstated years after being unceremoniously pulled down. Meanwhile, however, walls are still seen by some as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.

This song arises twice in the Lectionary within weeks, but that only every three years. Here are some suggested refrains, mainly drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:

  • Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)

  • We shall listen (TiS 41). [At SWUC, assured of an interesting and encouraging time together under Roger’s capable leadership, the full gathering will sing this song antiphonally.]

  • God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)

  • Forget not the works (NCH)

  • Linnea Good proposes this response: “Stay awake with me, listen carefully.”

Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the Psalter, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing.

1   Galatians 2 and Philippians 2

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.

IMG_2394

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