Psalm 118, Easter 16 Apr 17

All this was written long ‘BCE’, of course. But the idea is carried forward to the New Testament, with Jesus revealed as the stone in the first letter of Peter, appropriately enough as the apostle who was named ‘stone’: “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word … But now you are God’s people … now you have received mercy.” (I Pet. 2:7-10)

Freiburg-im-BreisgauVisitors to ancient cities like York enjoy discovering quaint and remote features: the Shambles; archaeological remains of successive eras under the cathedral; hidden misericordiae within, saints and gargoyles without. The Shambles provides just a hint of the chaotic life in early times; narrow alleys, stalls, clamour, smells and all sorts of behaviour, seen and unseen. Fairness and justice were features of common law but may have felt a little out-of-place here.

Justice

These overhanging buildings, now nicely renovated and refreshed, are only about 500 years old. Concepts of justice were built into English common law long before then. The Magna Carta of 1215 is a famous example. Well before that, biblical precepts were being absorbed into official and secular mores by early rulers.

The Law Code II Cnut (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A I, f. 33r)

In the 11th century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d.1023) wrote them into draft proclamations by King Cnut. The British Library notes: “The Ten Commandments were a particularly important model for the drafting of Anglo-Saxon law codes. They are referenced in the laws of Alfred the Great (r. 871–899) and formed part of the preface to his law book, grounding the secular laws in biblical precedents.”

God’s law is also specifically referenced in the longest Anglo-Saxon law code, which begins with the line, ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice suppressed, that every illegality be eradicated from this land with the utmost diligence, and the law of God promoted’. This was issued by King Cnut (r. 1016–1035) with the advice of his counsellors. The text was drafted by Archbishop Wulfstan of York, and one of the eight surviving medieval manuscripts containing the text was produced in either York or Worcester in the 11th century. It was probably owned by the archbishop himself, and may contain his own annotations. The psalms tell us that the concepts of justice and equity emanate from the just Creator spirit at the beginning of time.

Building blocks

So here are some of the biblical building blocks of justice in the modern rule of law. They are fundamentally strong in this country despite some glaring blind spots. On the whole, however, despite centuries of law-making around the world, justice is still rough, equity lacking. And as for equality, the struggle must go on. Buyers of The Big Issue, an Australian charity magazine, may have seen a special edition devoted to the growing gap between rich and poor. Will such truths ever convince societies and governments? That corner-stone appears in verse 19. The stone that was rejected became the chief cornerstone of a new world of faith, a new system of justice and life. There is not always a keystone at the top of arches but it’s common enough. However arranged, a key block is the chief cornerstone in holding a structure together.

The Easter story opens a new chapter of this search for justice and justification. We hear every year from Psalm 118 that Jesus was the building block, despised, rejected but destined to be the basis of a whole new world and a whole new way. This way recognises and compensates for our essential inability to keep the scales of justice and equity in true balance. Here is how that enduring and powerful text looked in the 1540 Henry VIII Psalter:

Psalm 118:22 (modern numbering), Henry VIII Psalter, BL Royal MS 2 A XVI

This detail is included it not only for its intrinsic value but also to note that the Latin ‘caput anguli’ suggests it’s not the ‘chief’ in terms of size or weight, but the head at the top of the arch or corner of walls, holding it all together.

Music'Laudate Dominum'; detail from a motet by Lassus

There are dozens of classical settings of this psalm, including some classical pieces by Renaissance and later composers. Lassus wrote one called Dominus mihi adjutor, starting with text from verse 6. There’s one for 16 voices, four quartets, by German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) that runs to 50 pages in one modern transcription. All parts are shown on each page so there are but four bars per page; those pages would flick by quite fast but it’s still a major work. Praetorius (whose family name was originally Schultze, of rather less superior airs) was a German Lutheran. So, in a way, was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther wrote a lot of words — poems, sermons and ideas — but also several songs, including the well-known Ein feste burg, ‘A mighty fortress’, based on (you guessed it) a psalm, in this case 48. So he was quite capable of running up a good harmony. Perhaps he spied verse 17 of this psalm from a hundred paces and was moved to write the short and sweet four-part motet, Non moriar sed vivam. No doubt the text fitted his mission perfectly:

I shall not die but live, and tell the works of the Lord.

Plaque on the rebuilt Damenhof where Luther advocated the centrality of justification by faith.

A building in Augsburg bears a plaque recording the fact that therein, Luther defended himself before the Papal investigation of 1518. His pleas fell on deaf ears, as we know (well, he was a bit rough on the Pope) and he went into hiding.

By way of contrast, in style if not underlying message, The Building Block by Paul Stookey mentioned above has long been a favourite. A cantor sings paraphrased verses, the people responding with joy, vigour and, of course, good harmony parts.

As a reading for Easter, there are a swag of settings in Psalms for all seasons to choose from. An old favourite tune suggested therein is ‘This is the day‘. It’s quite repetitive, but this suggests a possible antiphonal approach, one group serving a phrase (con brio of course) and another group volleying it back.

NCH presents one of Carolyn Jennings simple and effective refrains: “The righteous shall enter the gate of God.” Verses may be sung to a double tone.

Psalm 2, 26 Feb17

Psalm 2 complements the first psalm as a joint introduction to the Psalter with the assurance that the divine Spirit, with inevitably associated moral and behavioural constructs inferred from the Torah, is supreme above temporal rulers of the world. While this theme has ancient roots in the stories of creation and the establishment of the tribes of Israel, it also has a very modern message, as:

… nations conspire and people plot in vain; the rulers of the earth set themselves and leaders take counsel together … ‘Let us break their yoke, let us cast their cords from us’. (v.1-3)

Rulers then and now conspire to throw off the ‘bonds’ or ‘yoke’ of benevolence, truth and justice. There is a lot to be said for separation of church and state, especially given human tendencies to bend religious dogma for selfish purposes, power or control. That is not the same as governments ignoring or running counter to ethics and values recognised by humanists, Christianity and most major religions of the world. Does it matter that leaders base decisions and policies on ‘alternative facts’, declare history false, or ignore the law? Of course it does. Words have consequences, sometimes quite unpredicted and unintended. People without power suffer.

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

Maps drawn by the great navigators of the seventeenth century show how spheres of influence and fiefdoms spread around the world. Planted flags and place names reveal just a little of the manoeuvring and politics of exploration and possession, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes in that of nationalism, empire or commerce. Today, rulers change or ignore constitutions to gain or stay in power, use or abuse the church according to their ends, and take little heed of any moral compass. The psalm is a good reminder to dictators and democracies alike.

In amongst the sheep going astray, feeding of the flock and the hallelujahs of The Messiah by George Frederic Händel (1685 to 1759, a contemporary of J S Bach), behold this psalm text turns up in full force. Handel inserted some of this rage into his oratorio in a bass solo air Why do the nations? (quoting v.1), and the furious chorus Let us break their bonds asunder (v. 3). This latter is one of the show-stoppers, sometimes omitted since it’s not an easy sing when taken at full gallop.

Such atmospherics are nevertheless appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday, for which this psalm is scheduled. But Händel’s great music is not a likely choice for a light Sunday morning antiphon. Fortunately, much easier responses are to be found in modern sources (although there is no setting in TiS).

  • PFAS 2D is a simple tune. Two refrain text are provided. The first (“You are my son …”) is only relevant when associated with the Transfiguration. The alternative general text (“The Lord is King, with trembling bow in worship”) is a good admonition for wayward leaders, but may engage neither the average listener nor singer.
  • However, PFAS also recognises the turbulence and danger of the situation and provides both a ‘Dramatised reading‘ (2B) and a ‘Liturgy for Responsible Exercise of Authority‘ (2E). This latter title sounds a rather cumbersome but there’s no doubting it’s right on theme.A light burden
  • Another in The New Century Hymnal by Carolyn Jennings has much milder but more comforting words from the final phrase (v. 12) which refers us back in full circle to the beginning in Psalm 1: “Happy are all who take refuge in God”, whose bonds, according to Matthew 11: 30 and another chorus in The Messiah, are anything but onerous: “My yolk is easy and my burden is light.”
  • Everett’s singable refrain in TEP notes that the rulers of the world have set themselves against God.

Note: The alternative Lectionary reading is Psalm 99. For commentary on this song, please review the post on 7 Feb 2016.

Psalm 119E, 19 Feb 17

Note: An introduction to Psalm 119 was posted last week.

Ps119h

A setting of Ps. 119 He by Heinrich Schütz, 1671. BL Zweig MS 84

He, ח

This fifth section (33-40) reads like a plea from a faltering student for assistance in following a path that is definitely right but steep or poorly defined. The psalmist seeks divine tuition in the way of right statutes, understanding of the law, and the path to justice. He  asks that his heart and eyes may be turned towards divine standards, away from the unjust and worthless pursuits.

  • Everett in TEP homes in on those crucial ingredients of insight and integrity in verse 34, understanding values and right ways in a complex and slippery ethical environment. He paraphrases this verse to fit in with the common tune that is called in to service throughout all sections of this long psalm. The wording is perhaps rather quaint but it is memorable and it works: “Elevate my understanding. Ever in my heart keep watch.
  • PFAS 119J provides an easy but effective refrain based on a ii-IV (or V11)-I which pertains to both the previous section, Daleth, and this one. Verses may be sung to the tone provided or, as usual, one of the cantor’s choice.
  • South Woden has used a simple home-grown refrain with words paraphrased to fit the same melody. For Aleph the refrain dwelt on verse 5; in this section He, verse 33 is in the spotlight:

ps119e-cantors-docSeveral SATB settings of this section or excerpts are listed in the classical arena — by Atwood, Boyce (with alto soloist) and Rogier to name a few. Five-part settings are available from William Byrd, and also Orlando di Lasso whose incipit follows:ps119e-lassus

Psalm 72, 4 Dec 16

Previous posts in 2013 and 2105 reviewed a variety of ideas for this psalm, which asks for justice and wisdom in the ruler — and in particular the sort of justice that emanates from divine sources whereby all are equal. Result: right judgment and protection for the poor (v.2).

Those previous posts mentioned Taizé, some home-grown refrains, and this motet, William Byrd’s 1610 four-part setting of just one verse (10):Ps72 Regis Tharsis

Musician and leader approach the choice of setting with slightly different priorities. The music leader might concentrate on how the music will sound, support for the words, whether there are enough singers, and whose voices suit different styles — the art of the possible each week. If sight-readers are available, this Byrd piece would be lovely. The worship leader, however, might wonder what good it is other than a nice addition to the atmosphere: it’s in Latin, not in the reading for this week, and the text is peripheral to the main message of justice:

Jars from the Rhône

Gift packaging, perhaps from Tarshish, found in the Rhône

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render [the ruler] tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.

In fact, in Byrd’s original publication this theme was seen as appropriate as a Gradual or Offertory for Epiphany, which refers to the coming of the Magi bearing gifts. So it’s not completely off the mark. It invites us to follow the example.

Here is a quick summary of just some of the options showing different themes according to the verse highlighted in the refrain:

  • PFAS 72B. The hymn: Jesus shall reign where’er the sun. (v.5)
  • PFAS 72C. In his days justice will flourish … peace forevermore. (v.7)
  • PFAS 72C Alt. Every nation on earth shall adore you. (v.11)
  • PFAS 72D. (Spanish) In your hand are grace, power and grandeur.
  • Emergent Psalter. He shall deliver the poor. (v.12)
  • New Century. Give the ruler your justice. (v.1)
  • Taizé. TiS 706 Bless the Lord my soul; or 747 The Lord is my light. (Not quotes from the psalm.)
  • By Cantor. May the mountains bring peace… (v.3)
  • By Cantor (SWCC). May honour flourish and peace abound until the moon is no more. (v.7)

So much good music, so little time.

Psalm 59

King David and harp

King David playing his harp

In Psalm 59 as in many others, context and time are important. The situation is referred to in the introduction:

To the leader: Do not destroy. Of David. A Miktam, when Saul ordered his house to be watched in order to kill him.

The phrase “Do not destroy”, like “Miktam”, is obscure but may mean that the tune was used for several different songs. Maybe it was the name of the tune (see NIV translation) which was associated with several other songs. Other psalm introductions also say they were written as David hid in caves to evade Saul’s pursuit — for example 52, 54 and 57. Saul was clearly out to get rid of David. So no wonder David asks for protection and an unhappy ending for his “enemies”, declaring that his eyes are fixed on God, haven and strength, of whom he will sing.

Old Music

Ps59 antiphon SarumBreviary Add MS 52359

Decoding the antiphon shown in this old Sarum manuscript from about 1300 (British Library Add MS 52359) is tricky but interesting. The psalm text is pretty clear: at the beginning of this particular extract is the last verse of Psalm 59:

Adjutor meus, tibi psallam, quia Deus susceptor meus es; Deus meus, misericordia (abbreviated) mea / Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for thou, O God, art my refuge, and my merciful God. (BCP)

ps59-antiphon1300Then comes the antiphon. The music itself is also fairly easy. The simple series of single notes starts on C — the C clef is at top left, almost invisible  — and there is only one podatus or double-note. It would sound something like this in modern notation.

As to the text, the words below the four-line staff appear to read:

Juste iudicate filii hominis / Judge fairly, sons of man

Besides the frequent mentions of the amazingly strong thread of justice that appears time and time again in the Psalter, two other references come to mind:

  • First and most obviously, it seems to hark back to the first verse of the preceding Ps. 58 upon which a recent post commented, including a quote from St Augustine on walking the talk. In some translations, ‘sons of man’ is interpreted as the Ruler.Prague Astronomical clock
  • And second, this text is the quote that appears above one of the great tourist attractions of Prague, the iconic Astronomical Clock in the façade of the Old Town Hall that dates from 1410. This old clunker indicates the movement of the sun, moon and stars, and a monthly calendar. Statues of the apostles march out every hour. The High Gothic facade features an angel with the inscription “Juste Iudicate Filii Hominis”

Finally, the antiphon is then followed by the decorated capital D (Deus repulsisti nos /O God, thou hast cast us out) the first verse of the following Psalm 60.

The few classical pieces, including motets by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Orlando de Lassus, stick to safe verses like 2, 9, 16 and 17 which might have been quoted from any one of a dozen psalms.

Ps59 Lassus

Psalm 59 by Lassus

This illustration shows only the first two entries of the four voice parts of a motet in which Lassus elaborates on verse 2:

Eripe me de inimicis meis / Deliver me from mine enemies

New music

NCH, TiS and PFAS all skip this psalm. It is left to Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter to point out that the text has two separate inbuilt antiphons. Responding to this structural feature, Everett offers a refrain in duet using both of the repeating verses against each other. The first is in verses 6 and 14, while the second appears in verses 9 and 17. These he renders as:

They run around every night like snarling dogs (v.6)
I sing to you. You are my strength and haven. (v.9)

This is an approach that is at once both thoughtful and contrasting; it is also, somewhat courageously, true to the original text. David was evidently satisfied to choose the themes uppermost in his mind. These days, however, little inspiration or edification would seem to flow from having people sing about enemies — or anyone for that matter — as ‘snarling dogs’.

Note: This is the final post about individual psalms, each of the 150 having now been discussed in at least one blog post. Future posts will be relevant only to the set readings and local choices, or updated consolidations of multiple earlier posts. Refer to the index pages to find discussion of particular psalms.

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 58

FIRE_01David is certainly angry in Psalm 58, primarily against rulers who are wicked, unjust and violent. Although this poem does not appear in the Lectionary, this feature alone makes it entirely relevant in today’s world as an expression of indignation and as a prayer for improvement in the rule of law and equity.

However, anger can lead to intemperate raging, often later regretted. David’s outburst, which he may or may not have later retracted, is the charge that the wicked are perverse from the womb. This is surely no more true of ‘the wicked’ than any human being. We all have our weaknesses but no one is thoroughly bad from the beginning. In the same mood, David desires that their fangs be pulled and worse, a sentiment we heard about way back in Psalm 3. Anger against evil is justified. But thank God for the balm of the New Commandment. The magnanimous interpretation is that David was really asking that the fangs to be extracted are those of wicked words and behaviour.

This and the next two psalms, 59 and 60, are all skips which continue the tirade against evil, its source and its perpetrators. Online and hard copy sources both classical and modern largely ignore these three psalms or treat them cursorily. If you want to sing this one, use a tone in a minor key, of which there are many in most books, and use Everett’s refrain in TEP based on verse 1:

Rulers what do you  decree? Do you judge with equity?

Sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine in his commentary said of this first verse:

But hear ye the Psalm. “If truly therefore justice ye speak, judge right things, you sons of men.” Be it not a justice of lips, but also of deeds. For if you act otherwise than you speak, good things you speak, and ill you judge.