Psalm 101

King David and harpKing David shown here with his harp, assuming he was in fact the poet and songster of this psalm, determines to ‘sing of loyalty and of justice’. (v.1) He adds a powerful proviso. Recognising that he himself is not there yet, he intends to ‘study the way that is blameless’, (v.2) seeking that vague but enticing quality called ‘integrity’, then continuing with a manifesto of the attributes of a good ruler. This early admission of personal inadequacy avoids a tone of boasting. In a broader modern context, singers might well view these aspirations as social goals for increasing justice in the community.

In a way, if Psalm 1 is an introductory call to an upright way, this is a sort of version 1.01 — the next lesson, expanding the call to a good life by adding a few practical dimensions for reformist attention.

The classical composers stayed away from this one in droves, a little surprising given the somewhat grand declarations. Since this is a ‘skip’, not in the Lectionary and thus seldom sung, our usual sources — NCH, TiS and PFAS — also skip or give it cursory treatment. The last psalter mentioned has just one setting with antiphonally spoken verses, the refrain tune being drawn from an old hymn. Everett in TEP uses verse 2 mentioned above.

Psalm 41

The gospels differ slightly in how they report the Beatitudes. Luke says: “Blessed are the poor”, while in Matthew we read:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt.5:3)

Whatever Jesus actually said, it’s quite possible he was quoting this last song in Book 1 of the Psalter:

Blessed are those who consider the poor and needy; God delivers them in time of trouble (Ps.41:1)

Like Psalm 1, it calls for upright living; like Psalm 26, it calls for integrity; and like many others, seeks grace in times of trouble.

Strangers

Professional musicians will no doubt be familiar with some of the composers we seldom encounter in the psalters. These, for example, all wrote settings in the late Renaissance / early Baroque: Anerio, Calcott, Nares, Schein, Usper. A brief look at two.

Johann Schein. Image: wikimedia

Johann Schein. Image: Wikimedia

Johann Hermann Schein (1586 – 1630) was a German composer, ending his days in Leipzig a century before Bach reigned supreme there at St Thomas. This accomplished composer never lived in Italy yet is now credited with introducing Italian styles such as figured bass (but perhaps not the coiffure) into the Lutheran surrounds of German music. His Psalm 41, Was betrübstu dich meine Seele (verse 6) is written for five voices, employing contrapuntal imitative and homophonic techniques. Sure enough, it includes that Italian basso continuo. An a cappella version exists.

Francesco Usper or Sponga (1561 – 1641) was an Italian composer and organist born in what is now Croatia. Unlike Schein, he moved to Venice about the time of the birth of his German contemporary and stayed there, serving as organist and chaplain. Usper knew and worked with the better known Claudio Monteverdi. His Beatus qui intelligit, for two choirs of four voices, is also accompanied by continuo.

The refrain in NCH uses a phrase from verse 12: “Set me in your presence forever”. This seems to miss some of the key themes of the song, such as the word ‘integrity’ appearing earlier in the same verse. The tune looks innoccuous enough, especially since the composer directs us to sing it in unison. When you play it, however, the pedal open fifth in the lower staff, 3 and 7 of the first D major seventh chord, is arresting. (This echoes the highly effective opening broken chords of Calling you by Bob Telson, the theme of the film Bagdad Café sung hauntingly by both Telson and Jevetta Steele. A must listen.) This arrangement definitely enhances the otherwise plain refrain, although the final cadence to A minor is unconvincing in the progression IΔ-IV2-ii7-v.

Psalms for All Seasons suggests the verses be sung to a vi-ii-V-I tone with a refrain that, rather strangely, uses phrases from the old hymn What a friend we have we in Jesus. This is occasioned no doubt by the fact that the hymn lines — trials and tribulations and “when your friends despise forsake you” — closely mirror lines in the psalm.

Psalm 26

We find early in this song an echo of Psalm 1. The writer, thought to be David, declares his innocence and refuses to ‘sit with the wicked’ (v. 5). He offers a prayer for justice and confirmation of sticking to the ‘right way’ — that powerful word ‘integrity’ occurs at beginning and end in some translations.  Psalm 1 assures us that blessings will reward such a choice.

All other ground is sinking sand? (Murray River mouth)

‘… All other ground is sinking sand’ 

Psalm 26 thus declares the wonders of divine love and encourages personal integrity, that we might sing confidently with the psalmist:

My foot stands on level ground (v. 12)

Such poetic phrases leap out of the psalms all the time. It will depend on the eye of the beholder, of course. Composers writing refrains for Psalm 26 seem to agree that themes of love and faithfulness appeal:

  • Isaac Everett in TEP imagines this psalm as a good processional or call to worship, and recalls Jesus setting his eyes on Jerusalem. He thus selects verse 3 and modifies it slightly to: ‘I’ve set my eyes on your love. I walk in faithfulness to you.’ Typically, he slips from past into present (and often future) tense. Also typically, it’s a nice flowing refrain. This one starts in E minor, going through the relative major and associated chords and ends in a B7 turnaround.
  • John Becker in PFAS 26A is right there with Everett. His paraphrase of verse 3 in a similarly structured refrain goes: ‘Your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.’
  • Josef Haydn much earlier (1794) wrote a trio entitled, rather mysteriously: ‘How oft, instinct with warmth divine‘. The word ‘instinct’ in this case is archaic and means imbued, as the singer continues ‘…thy threshold have I trod.’ So Haydn was captured by ideas later in the psalm,  notably verse 8. His subtitle says: The Psalmist declares his Love for God’s House and determines to bless God. Reminiscent of Joshua’s “As for me and my house …” (Josh.24:15).

200 years earlier again (1597) Giovanni Gabrieli, in a major work for two choirs of five voices, eschewed key words and just went with the first five verses. The incipit provides the title: Iudica me Domine/Be thou my judge, O Lord, for I have walked innocently.