Psalm 96, Christmas 2016

Psalms 96 to 98Bonsai tree

Psalms 96 to 98 appear often in the Lectionary, particularly at Christmas but also at other ordinary times during the year. The triplet forms a joyful package for a joyful occasion: these three songs for Christmas sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and imagine a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96

Ps96 illustr HenryVIII Psalter 1540

Illuminated capital of Cantate Domino in the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540. British Library.

The fine old manuscript shown in this digital reproduction (click to enlarge) is known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. It opens with a dedicatory letter by Jean Mallard, who wrote and probably illuminated the manuscript, incipit: ‘Regium istud Davidis’, a prefatory reference which likens Henry to King David. This Psalter, which includes three Canticles, was very much a personal reference. The British Library says:

As indicated by the many marginal notes added in the King’s own hand, the volume became Henry VIII’s personal copy of the Psalms.

So it seems that the psalms had high profile in earlier times. And since Henry was also a respected musician and singer, he may also have sung his psalms. The illustration appears in Psalm 97 folio 118r (our 96) showing angels singing within an ornate golden initial capital of Cantate Domino – ‘Sing unto the Lord’.

The words ‘sing’ or ‘song’ appear in about half of the 150 psalms, evidence enough that these are poems to be sung. Psalm 96 begins with that oft-repeated call to sing a new song. Like Psalm 98, it calls for joyful thanks and praise:

O sing to God a new song; sing, all the earth. Sing to God and bless the name; tell of this salvation from day-to-day. Declare God’s glory among the nations, the marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is God, and greatly to be praised; to be revered above all gods. (Ps. 96:1-4 alt.)

The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in a universal sense, to include the earth, seas, heavens and all living creatures and peoples. Some verses are repeated from other psalms such as 29, 93 and (relevant in this clutch of readings) 98:7-9. It’s also the source of that sweet phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’.

New songs

For such an important occasion everyone wants to sing a new song, it seems. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm, or at least the opening phrases. Nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses starting with Cantate Domino.

  • Bach conceived a great piece called Singet dem Herrn (BWV225), a lovely sing that needs to be taken at a lively clip for full effect (listen>>)
  • Claudio Monteverdi, Orlandus Lassus, Heinrich Schütz and Jan Sweelinck  produced some similarly demanding works.
  • However, there are also several other nice songs within reach of amateur groups. A trio by Lassus (last system of Prima Pars shown) would be a strong contender.Ps96 Lassus à3

Modern settings

  • There are eight in Psalms for All Seasons alone. One of them (96G) even stretches the text to: “Sing to the Lord no threadbare song, no time-worn toothless hymn, no sentimental platitude, no empty pious whim.” OK, we get the message.
  • The straight-up three-chord harmonies of the third setting PFAS No 96C roll along sweetly, suggesting an easy first choice. The choice of refrain assumes we have indeed got the new song message and have moved on; it reminds us of that universal vibrant response sparked across the whole creation:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let all that is in them sing to the Lord (v. 11)

  • Together in song, albeit characteristically ignoring some verses (and gender inclusiveness), does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.
  • New Century has another simple refrain but with a hidden surprise. The tune by Jane Marshall, 1994, is nice enough. No chord symbols are added but on closer inspection of the harmonisation, an unusual twist can be seen. The chords all behave themselves with due modesty, clustering mildly around the root Eb major, the sub-dominant and related minors. Then at the end, Jane sends us an unexpected rising swell to lift us to a final III chord, G major. Good one.
  • And while we are riding the wave, Everett in TEP provides his usual innovation with a two-part canon. He draws on verses 7-8 but, as he says: “mimicking the rise and fall of the seas mentioned in verse 11”.
  • This easy home-grown tune has also been sung at South Woden:

Sing a new song

In many churches, Psalm 96 is read on Christmas Eve, for example at midnight mass, while the next two psalms are listed for the great day itself. The ancient psalmists would assume that you will bring your own lyre, timbrel or sackbut to join in!

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 77 again, Solstice

Solstice in the south

The shortest (and longest) day has just passed (as has the Solstice reference at South Woden last Sunday — but here are a couple more ideas anyway.) It’s cold in Canberra but from now on, those dark evenings will gradually lighten.

Fire and waterPreviously at the Solstice we have picked up a common theme in the psalms of relief after stress, peace after conflict, safety after danger. In Psalm 77, sure enough, it comes up right at the start of the selection for this Sunday 26 June:

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. / I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old / I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. (vs 10 – 12)

Note verse 11 is the one Isaac Everett uses in his refrain, as pointed out in the previous post. For the Solstice refrain used two years ago The psalm was 86, with a tune that dips to a slow low then rises to greet the spring:

However, a rework for Ps 77 is easy enough. Refitting with a selective paraphrase of the verses quoted above, it goes:

Cantor: In our troubles | we seek God || People: We meditate on | all your work re- | membering your mighty deeds.

A chord is omitted there, I see; insert G7 after the third chord Eb. A full SATB arrangement, with a parallel tone for chanted verses, is in our library.

ListenersNorthern light

The majority of followers and readers of this blog are, in fact, in the northern hemisphere,  where it’s summertime and, for the most part, the livin’ is easy.

Jorge Portuguese bass voiceIn many of the lively evening streets in Berlin last night a festive air was quite palpably abroad. The Fête de la Musique (not sure why the title is in French) was in full swing. I am told it is held on the same date each year to coincide with the summer solstice. Crowds were out late to celebrate. The recognition is not religious but clearly follows an ancient spiritual awareness in the community of our being connected to the life cycles of creation.

Duo in BerlinThe Turkish market was bustling. Musicians sang in the streets. A group of spirited young women sang on the banks of the canal, accompanied by clapping and listeners joining in familiar folk tunes. Young people in baggy tie-dye and dreads sat chatting, drinking and listening to the music and the song of the solstice spirit.

The concave tune shown above does not fit so well in this context, at least to the degree that shape matters a jot. Someone will have to rewrite to a concave rise and fall tune to suit the joy of a rising summer and the prospect of a fruitful autumn before the winter frosts. Perhaps the succeeding verses of Psalm 77 would be better:

Your way, O God, is holy. You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples (vs 14, 15)

Symmetry

And behind it all is the symmetry of human experience in north and south, east and west, as cycles repeat, generations follow. The creative spirit is pervasive and infectious.

Psalm 97, 8 May 2016

Light in the forestThe readings this week contain an amount of shake and show.

  • Paul and Silas in prison are shaken by an earthquake, showing both them and their jailer their ways to freedom. (Acts 16)
  • In the Psalm, fire, lightning, trembling mountains — and light dawns.
  • ‘See I am coming … Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift’ (Rev. 22)
  • Jesus as the conduit to understanding and grace (John 17)

Psalm 97

In the psalm, firstly, the ruckus seems to be about:

  • a call to praise a creator who mysteriously (‘clouds and darkness’) established goodness and justice as foundational elements of the universal blueprint (vs 1, 2)
  • celebrating the escape from Egypt, with pillars of fire and such theatrical effects (vs 3-6)
  • and more generally an awareness of the power of the elements.

chinese_dragon_artA second section laments the habit during the exodus of turning to graven images for inspiration and guidance. These days, the traps are just as pernicious as we tend to be fascinated by images, youth, beauty, public profile or power. Appreciation of meaningful activity, art and beauty are important; but so is balance.

Then comes a promise to those who follow this admittedly broad instruction (what is ‘true-hearted?):

Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are true-hearted. (v. 11)

Broad instruction allows people in many different situations to consider, discern and apply. But remember the context of the Christmas readingsPsalm 97 sits in the middle of a bracket of three psalms, 96 to 98, that (like the song of Meshach and his mates in Ps. 148) call for the creation to unify in praise of the creator by singing that ‘new song’.

Music

The Crystal Ball for May gave fair warning that the Cantor’s whims might intrude. So it evolves that we shall not toss up between TEP and PFAS as foretold therein, but sing a new song using verses 11 and 12 for the refrain:

Cantor: Let us be glad.
Response: Light has sprung up for the faithful; give thanks to the holy name.

Ps97 BOL refrain tune

Sheet music here: Ps97

Psalms 9 and 10, skips

Psalm 10 never makes it into the weekly Lectionary readings, but 9 just sneaks in: “Year B, ordinary time, June 19-25 (if after Trinity)”. Sounds iffy indeed. But still, 9 does not qualify as a ‘skip‘. So on to 10.

But wait! In the early Septuagint translation and the original Hebrew, these two songs were one. (1)  Isaac Everett says:

It’s clear that they form a single unit because the combined text is acrostic, with the first letter of each forming the Hebrew alphabet: Psalm 9 is roughly A-K and Psalm 10 is roughly L-Z.(2) So 9+10=a big fat psalm.

9 10 henThey were split because they have a different theme. First is joy and thanksgiving, then a lament. Convention would have it the other way around. But in the ship of fools, the first shall be last; so forget the labels and ‘Nine, ten, sing it again’. (3)

Nine. As in history, here David is thankful that his many enemies have been defeated. The modern reader gets little from triumphalism except as an example of faith in adversity, or as an allegory of our struggling with our own demons or the ‘Dark Side’. Throughout, we are reminded:

God will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. (v. 9)

Ten. The mood changes to waiting, praying and a little hand-wringing while those enemies play their nasty tricks:

Why do you stand so far off O God, and hide yourself in times of trouble? (v. 1)

Not all about me

In Psalms for all seasons No 10A, a plainsong melody, the translator has nicely emphasised a social justice angle:Image: Wikimedia commons

From every plan which harms the poor,
from schemes to victimise the weak,
from those who snare the innocent,
Lord your defence, your help we seek. (4)

That certainly brings it up to date in a world of growing divide between rich and poor. Big fat hen or goose, maybe there’s the golden egg?

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 30, 10 April 2016

IMG_0400Psalm 30 may have originally been a song of thanks for recovery from a serious illness. Evidently this was somewhat worse that just flat batteries; brought up from death and ‘the Pit’ (verse 3).

Whatever the origin, the psalmist — it’s again attributed to David — gives thanks for finding restoration and divine mercy after striking tough times, a very low ebb.

The song contains some lovely phrases, including the famous verse 5:

God’s wrath endures but a moment: God’s favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night: but joy comes in the morning.

There’s also a rather lovely image of responding through dance, something that we do not much favour in laced-up Western traditions:

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (v. 11)

Women sing

In Aboriginal cultures, the dances of men and women were quite different, telling life from different angles and roles. I can imagine women of any culture gathering for this song, telling the tale from a carer’s or a mother’s viewpoint, gracefully and quietly expressing thanks and hope.

Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/03/kassia.html#sthash.IIN3Czdw.dpuf

Kassia’s Epigrams, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r

As it happens, Gregor spoke warmly on Easter Sunday of the important role of women in the Easter story, especially when the big-name male disciples were conspicuous by their absence. Coincidentally I noted a post from the mediaeval manuscripts section of the British Library the other day that resonated with my interest in both early manuscripts and music from Orthodox and other traditions. The BL, marking women’s history month and the recently celebrated IWD, informs us:

Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia — had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams.

– See illustration and more here>.

Sunday. Returning to the plan for the day, women will sing a simple home-grown arrangement of our South Woden Communion Chant, last sung with Psalm 30 in July 2013, but still hidden away on our Dropbox. The refrain is:

You turned my lament into dancing, and girded me with joy.

Ps30 Dancing

This psalm and the accompanying readings all tell tales of a complete change of direction — sorrow to dancing, Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus, fishermen reluctantly casting their nets on the other side — a wide variety of situations all telling of the transforming power of divine love and grace.

Psalm 150, 3 April 2016

Panel Psalm 150At last, here is the last psalm in the book. It only appears once in the three year cycle, Easter Year C. So here we are, and pleased to welcome this short joyful, musical finale.

The psalm

Band in ParisThe six short verses of Psalm 150 call us to praise God in creation. No specific reasons are adduced, because there are plenty of them mentioned throughout the Psalter. We are then called to take up trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, strings, pipe and cymbals — clashing cymbals indeed.

[By the way, the Vulgate text in Latin is slightly different:

Laudate eum in tympano et choro; laudate eum in chordis et organo. = Timbrel and choir, strings and organ.

PercussionHere the choir and organ get a mention. And those ‘clashing cymbals’ are described in the Latin as ‘cimbalis benesonantibus’ and ‘jubilationis’, which looks more like well-sounding and joyful than clashing. Another direct translation from the Hebrew says ‘loud-sounding’. OK, end of rambling aside.]

Even if you did not graduate with quals in cymbals, the psalmist then spreads the net even wider in the final verses — everything that breathes, song and dance please. So ignore the detail, grab whatever is handy and join in.

Words and music

This song of praise reminds us that the psalms were written to be sung, and this one with lots of good accompaniment. The power of music to lift words, thoughts and hopes to a higher level in human experience is manifest. As the calligraphy here says, words and music together are something wonderful.

Words music together

Words, music: together beautiful

A recent blog on Good Music Speaks points out that it’s hard to say why it’s important to us, but it certainly is. That post also notes that music has a special way of bringing people together. This psalm clearly anticipates such a situation.

The Psalter opens at Psalm 1 with instruction for our journey and ends with this vibrant song of praise. However, it’s not the end, a full stop: it’s a semi-colon inviting us to keep singing.

Music

Well after all that build-up, what about that music? There are settings by the dozen in the Choralwiki on the web, including pieces by Bach, Byrd and Monterverdi. Closer to home, a couple appear in The emergent psalter and in Together in song.

Psalms for all seasons offers an interesting musical miscellany, ten settings in all. It’s worth a closer look to see the variety of ways in which composers for congregations around the world have imagined this song of praise — and they are not all embellished by those clashing cymbals. Here’s a summary:

A. Tuneful verses in unison followed by ‘Halle, Hallelujah!’ in a two-part, repetitive refrain. From Singapore; the reason for mentioning this will become clear as we read on.
B. A similar pattern with shorter and simpler verses and refrain. Alternates quite pleasingly between keys of D for the refrain and Bb for the verses. For pleasure and ease of learning, this one is a good choice. It’s by great scholar of African-American songs, J Jefferson Cleveland
C. A Punjabi melody next, unaccompanied save for finger cymbals and drums!
D. And now one from Mexico, with a nice swing, good chords and eminently singable. A little long to learn but the rewards would be there.

Remind me again; where was this port call?

Remind me again; where was this port call?

E. Then a sedate English-style chant, not in the ‘Anglican’ tradition but fully arranged homophonic chant
F, G. a couple more hymns, to tunes like HELMSLEY and EASTER HYMN
G. has an alternate refrain from the Caribbean, the familiar Halle. halle, halle-lujah!
H. is an ancient French tune (not responsorial)
I.  is a Wesley hymn, and
J. is for Genevan.

So that’s once around the world for you!

Bottom line. We’ll go with B, the children assisting with percussion. Anyone else is welcome to join in!