Psalm 115

Psalm 115 is a song of praise to divine love and faithfulness (v.1), a source of security (9-11) and blessings.  Other psalms suggest ‘Our nation is better than your nation’, with a sense of preference for a chosen people. Here is refreshing humility, whether applied at national or personal level. And as we were reminded at South Woden recently, humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. The psalmist also rails against the worship of dumb idols of silver and gold. These days, the idols may not be graven images but frequently they are still materialistic.

The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett; Church Publishing .org

The Emergent Psalter

PFAS and TiS offer no antiphonal settings. Isaac Everett in TEP displays his familiarity with the roots of the psalter, declaring that the Hebrew lo lanu, lo lanu sounds so much better than the English. So he provides both languages for his simple but effective refrain that slides from E minor to D, to Dm and back to Em:

Lo lanu lo lanu, ki leshimka ten kavod / Not to us, not to us, but to your name give glory (v.1)

Amongst the classical composers Schütz can be relied upon for a major production. For Psalm 115 he wrote one for three choirs and instrumental accompaniment. Such motets are intended as anthems rather than antiphonal settings. However, following liturgical practice composers often inserted short introductory chants by a cantor, to which the whole work becomes a response.Ps115 Schütz introit

The introit to this work caught my eye, partly since the accidental on Na-men has a similar effect to that Everett response mentioned above. Starting with the reciting tone on A with a B natural that could be in a mode based on A (major or minor), this accidental B flat implies a modulation. It leads into the first F chord (which has one flat on B) of the entry, moving smartly into the relative D minor. Schütz pulls out all stops at the end with several pages of Alleluia, moving to final A and D major cadences.

More approachable for small groups, Non nobis Domine by William Byrd is a short motet for three voices, just one verse and one page. If you can field a quartet, go for the short Victoria vespers setting:Ps115 Victoria

Note: The set psalms for Sunday 4 Sep were discussed in recent blogs: see Psalm 139 and Psalm 1 (alternate reading). Choice of music does not still apply.

Psalm 120, Ascents

The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect

This is the first of a group of fifteen psalms from 120 to 134 called the Songs of Ascent.

Most of them are quite short, between 5 and 8 verses; one (132) is longer but is surrounded (131, 133, 134) by poems of just three verses each. Originating perhaps as pilgrim songs, they are sometimes called a gradual and used as a processional or song of approach.

The psalmist paints a picture of himself living afar, amongst alien and truculent tribes. He regrets human tendencies to deceit and to warfare. Without excluding himself from these tendencies he asks for peace, while those around call for war.

Two offerings, quite contrasting, must suffice in our musical meanderings for this song.

TimbrelsSeven beats of the drum

First, we look at an example of the innovation and broad world-view taken by the compilers of Psalms for All Seasons. 120B is a demanding but rewarding song from the Philippines, When my trouble arose. You know your troubles have just arisen when you look at the opening bars to see no time signature, a tutti ostinato, drum beats and notes that don’t seem to add up.

The congregation, acting as a quiet accompaniment, sings a constant rhythmic ‘Go forth — ‘ to an insistent 3+2+2 rhythm. The time signature is not 7/8 however, because there’s a sneaky 3/4 coming up. Fun. This is surely enough to catch the eye of anyone looking for something different and engaging.

A solo voice overlays the verses. It would be quite a trick to sing this in such a way that the words can be fully comprehended, absorbed and cherished by all. A few well-rehearsed lead singers and drummers are needed to hold this restrained but insistent drive, keeping the sevens, giving energy to the soloist but quiet enough not to drown the message.

Full many a flower

Turning to the classical arena, we run down the list of the usual suspects — Lassus, Morales, Palestrina, Tomkins.  All good stuff, but an unusual name at the very bottom of the list catches my eye.

It is one Ivo de Vento, who turns out to have been an active Flemish singer and organist who learned his trade in Italy. Ivo (or Yvo) then moved to Munich, perhaps with, or as a student of, Orlando de Lassus. He died there having reached the ripe age of about 30+ in 1575.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 17.53.

Psalm 120, Ad Dominum, de Vento. Liber Mottetum, 1571, National Library of Denmark http://www.kb.dk

Several points are notable in this illustration:

  • First, by the 16th century the five-line staff is standard. A century earlier it might be on four lines.
  • Those lines are not quite continuous, indicating a mechanised printing process. It is, after all, more than a hundred years since Gutenberg invented his printing press.
  • A rudimentary treble clef sits on the G; earlier manuscripts would show only a C or an F clef. But since there are no bar lines and the C just happens to sit where the C clef sign would normally sit, this may be an additional key C rather than a time signature.
  • Dotted notes have appeared to indicate note values. (The figure 4 is just a page number)
  • Finally, that little squiggle at the very end of the line, a hangover from very early manuscripts, indicates the next note to be sung on the next line. This little cue can be found in many manuscripts of early music, as a valuable hint for those singers who rely on recognising intervals rather than singing the notes in perfect pitch. In this case, it tells the singer that the first note on the next staff of music is sung at the same pitch.

Ivo de Vento? We know little of this musician. Such brief biographies as we have attest to his creative productivity and influence, while noting how little he is remembered or studied. One commentary says:

He was conservative in taste … avowing a ‘Pythagorean’ preference for pure music over madrigalian conceits. [www.bach-cantatas.com]

Red and green for the seasonHow sad that this obscure composer died so young and was so little recognised and remembered. Did he, like Thomas Gray‘s rustic flowers, blush unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air?

Though his name may be last in the list and little known, yet he made sweet harmony and no doubt lifted many souls on their daily path. Gray’s Elegy continues:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[I think I snuck that in purely for that madding crowd. Or was it the noiseless tenor? … now there’s a thought!] No, we can hardly say that Munich, home of the Oktoberfest, was either desert air or far from the madding crowd, even in de Vento’s day. However, the continuity of sincere, unsung lives with preferences for ‘pure music over madrigalian conceits’ — just like the ‘restrained but insistent drive’ of our PFAS 120B from the Philippines — is often much more valued than we imagine.

Psalm 8, Trinity Sunday 15 June 14

Each newbornOut of the mouth of babes and sucklings‘, according to Psalm 8, comes not precocious wisdom and truth – as is the modern common usage of this phrase – but strength or a bulwark ordained in heaven. The very existence of each new child speaks of the power and wonder of creation.

Then comes a familiar expression of amazement; that in the grand system of the universe and its myriad stars, as the psalmists sings:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than divine, and crowned them with glory and honor. (verses 4 and 5)

Ben Myers’ short summary tweet on Psalm 8 is worth repeating here:

The stars are a minor achievement (Your finger-painting). Humanity is Your masterwork; the stars gaze down admiringly.

Music

The Everett refrain for this psalm provided one good choice. Then Rachel once more came up with some rich new resources. Two of our young women will lead us in singing a Linnea Good setting called The Height of Heaven.

Ps8 Linnea

Now search as you might, you will not find this little verse in the text. Avoiding the perhaps dated sense of dominance, Linnea and Lynn have managed to personalise the experience of inspiration.

 

Psalm 95, 23 March 14

This psalm rewards the reader with new dimensions 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. We are reminded of Rachel’s invitation last week for us to present our own wilderness imagery for the season. Australia’s heartlands can be both impressive and fearsome.

But the psalmist goes on to remind us that’s not all. Trials and hardships pass; do not to take the short view for in the long run we shall find peace. The psalm is an encouragement not just to be thankful but also to be humble before God and not to ‘harden our hearts’.

Music

A simple refrain from The emergent psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice:

come let us sing, let us shout for joy

And you may have seen a comment by Rachel on last week’s post with the thoughts:

I like the Everett. I’m also drawn by the refrain at TiS 95 by Michael Perry (though not especially keen on the verses)

In both cases, the verses could well be spoken or sung to a simple tone.

For some additional comment on the readings… Continue reading