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’.]

Psalm 60

Bauhaus washbasinIt was the washbasin that put me onto it.

I realised of course that there is quite a lot of repetition in the psalms – asking God to defend, save and vanquish evil, ‘for human help is worthless’ as in this song (Ps 60:11). But you immediately know you’ve been there before when you read something like this:

Ephraim is my helmet, Judah is my sceptre, Moab is my washbasin. On Edom I hurl my shoe … (Vs 7, 8)

Those phrases, indeed a whole slab of this psalm and some of 57, has been recycled in Psalm 108 (qv).

Music

How (I’m tempted to add “in God’s name”) does the cantor sing “Moab is a washbasin and let us all throw our shoes” with a straight face? Do you try to slide it off in a folksy guitar number, or clothe it in Gregorian mystery, perhaps singing in Latin so no-one knows what the heck is going on anyway? I don’t think so.

Henry Purcell played it straight, writing a setting of Psalm 60 for six voices and continuo, with the rather forbidding title of O God, thou has cast us out. He sets up some nice antiphonal sections with two groups of three voices answering each other.Ps60 Purcell

But wait! He ducked Moab and the washbasin completely by picking verses before and after that bit.

Otherwise (as for many in this group of ‘skips’ from 55 to 61 omitted from the Lectionary) there are few classical settings available.

Map tribes in Caanan

Www.biblehistory.com

The keen scholar might well analyse the historical references in each phrase, noting that the tribes in Caanan were not great friends of their neighbours — Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, even the Cardassians were probably in there somewhere Israel was in and out of war with them from the arrival out of Egypt; and what has changed? Here David has clearly been under sore duress when, as the sub-heading to the psalm says:

… he struggled with Aram Naharaim.

Our purpose here is not historical exegesis but to try to recreate the beauty of singing these ancient poems in a meaningful and inspirational setting. So, unless you are quite dedicated to changing not a jot nor a tittle (Matt. 5:18 KJV in a different context), then at the risk of throwing out Moab with the washbasin, I’d be paraphrasing for dear life.

Psalm 82, 10 July 16

Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 82 is fundamental teaching on the importance of justice in the world. God is imagined amongst other gods berating them for their partiality as unfair judges:

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. (Vs 3, 4)

Social justice

Here around the Berlin streets it’s often on display — refugees, street people, men smoking in cafes while women with head-scarves are in the streets begging, even the rich-poor split of the Brexit vote seems relevant.

Reminders

Cycle rally on the eastern taxiway at old Templehof airfield

Cycle rally on the eastern taxiway at old Templehof airfield

We walked to Templehof the other day. Even that vast open space is a reminder of past oppression. The area has been variously an airfield, military base, concentration and labour camp, and finally potential housing area until a popular uprising managed to keep it as a public space.  Significantly, it was also the hub of the Berlin Airlift, a stand taken soon after the Second World War 1939-45 against a Soviet blockade of free West Berlin, years before the Wall went up.

Berlin WallOther references to past injustice in Europe are manifold. The tracery of the Wall is marked here and there by a double row of pavers and occasionally a plaque, as shown.

The deportation and murder of Jews are well recorded in bold face at the Terrain of Terror, and more intimately in small plaques set into pavements throughout Europe recording the names of those murdered. (See post on Psalm 5)

Justice NeuköllnThese reminders are great. But we need to renew and refresh the cues and images of our quest for justice. Walking back from Templehof, we came upon a street market by a church. A black gospel choir sang as people sat around in the warm evening airs. People were sitting on boxes provided by the church emblazoned with symbolic images — heart, dove, and sure enough the scales. A familiar reminder in a new place.