Magnificat, 17 Dec ’17

A marble on the Siena Duomo floor. A wondering Mary?

The Song of Mary, her joyful response to the angels’ declaration that she would bear a special child (are they not all?), is timely and most appropriate in the Advent season. The Magnificat, as it is known from the first words of the song in Latin, has frequently been sung by women and girls during Advent.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.

The song is used much more widely than in the festive season, appearing regularly in vespers or evensong services as well as in many other liturgical situations, particularly in faith communities with a strong Marian tradition.

Detail of the Magnificat, followed by an antiphon and the Nunc Dimittis, in the Howard Psalter, http://www.bl.uk. These canticles were often listed together in Psalters and books of hours.

The text, reminiscent of the Song of Hannah mother of Samuel, has been identified for centuries as one of the key liturgical canticles. It’s part of the great Marian tradition of course, but is also appropriate during Advent and the story of the coming of the baby Jesus. You can feel the thrill springing up in her heart — to be the mother of the promised one. The subject of this outpouring of joy is not just personal, although that surely would be enough for several songs. She quickly broadens the focus to recognise divine benevolence to all the faithful, bringing mercy, justice and equality, which are of course also recurring themes of the psalms:

God’s mercy is for believers from generation to generation. God has shown strength by deeds, scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. (50-52 alt.)

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The popularity of the song, which is found in Luke 1:46b-55, has ensured that many varied settings exist. CPDL has a list of a hundred or so, including music for full worship services like Matins and Vespers.  Settings range from an early Latin hymn after the Gregorian chant tradition to the paraphrased Canticle of the turning sung to a traditional folk tune.

In Together in song there are seven tunes that are either settings of or references to this lovely paean of thankful wonder. No 161 Tell out my soul is a favourite as a hymn. No 172 My soul gives glory, much less frequently sung, presents a nice approach with an early American melody and more inclusive references to God. The text lends itself to participation by all – but verses 1 and 2 particularly invite the pure sounds of female voices.

Psalms for all seasons offers four settings, including Holy is your name set to the Irish traditional tune ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’. A more traditional chant and response style, using a simple three-note tone or chant tune may also be found (PFAS pages 1020-22).

Psalm 85, 10 Dec ’17

First animals contemplate evidence of the new arrivals in their land.

The first Australians have been conscious of and connected to the land in much stronger and deeper ways than more recent arrivals can comprehend. Their livelihood was far more intimately bound up with their natural environment. Features in their traditional territorial landscapes have longstanding narrative and spiritual importance.

Somehow, this atmosphere permeates Psalm 85, declaring that “truth springs up from the earth”. (11) Justice is associated with the very heart of the creation. For further comment on this theme see a previous post in December 2014.

The first verses speak of restoration and forgiveness; but these blessings are anchored in this context of the land:

… that God’s glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. (10, 11)

Justice, which throughout the Psalter is seen as a cornerstone of the original creation plan, again receives emphasis in imagery of the journey of life:

‘Justice goes before God, and peace is a road for God’s feet.’ (13)

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Palestrina, Lassus and others employed such mellifluous verses for five-part settings for the Offertory during Advent or other liturgical uses. Here is an example from verses 2-3 by Palestrina.

Incipit to Psalm 85 extract for the Offertory, Advent III

Readers familiar with the BCP texts will recognise this from verse 7, used by Lassus for Advent II:

Ostende nobis, Domine, misericordiam tuam, et salutare tuum da nobis. / Shew us thy mercy, O Lord: and grant us thy salvation.

In more modern sources:

  • Everett in his notes in TEP draws attention to those important images of righteousness and peace quoted above; however he chooses verse 7, the  prayer for mercy, as his refrain.
  • No 45 in TiS would be a good choice; easy response, simple chords, interesting harmonies for SATB in the verses. However, it does not quite cover the lectionary readings and the inclusion of verses 1 and 2 is advisable to set the scene.
  • PFAS 86B is the lovely Taizé chorus Dona nobis pacem, adorned with a lilting rendition of the verse phrases in a cantor’s descant over the refrain ostinato. This is very effective.
  • Refrain and tone will be sung locally to a tune by the author that has become known as the South Woden communion chant with variations:

Psalm 99, 22 Oct ’17

Image: Wikimedia commons

‘O mighty ruler, lover of justice, you have established equity.’ (v. 4)

At last, Psalm 99! This is worth waiting for. The verse quoted above with its key words of ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ is one of the most vital and important statements in the Psalter. It says that justice and equity are pillars of creation, a fundamental element of the blueprint. This unobtrusive gem of a verse is just waiting to be noticed amongst the dazzle of the grand parade. An apparently modest but meaningful verse is tucked away in the middle of the shouting and show. What is it that the people are actually proclaiming between the earth shaking and the pillar of cloud? Not “Lift up your heads ye gates”, or “Bow low ye princes of the earth”, or “Glory glory”, but that God is holy, just and righteous (3), leading to the cited explication: “Justice, equity!” (4)

Unlike rulers of earthly nations, who not infrequently display nepotism, favouritism, vengeance, inconsistency or just plain selfish evil in their ruling, here the psalmist imagines a set of standards for human equality for rich and poor, for high-born and low, for female and male. Implicit in the creation of the universe and humankind was an intention for equity … ‘created equal’. Inequities and iniquities come from human weakness and selfishness, not from any flaws in the divine goodness that is somewhere within us all. Note the word ‘established’. Created, devised, part of the plan.

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

The long-winded Anglo-Saxon law code – issued by King Cnut, influenced by the Bible, discussed at Psalm 118 – is a foundation of English law. Here in the psalms is another cornerstone declaration on the nature of our world and our lives, an essential element of creation that is not hidden in heavy books of law nor remote and unachievable humanist theories.

Sure it’s hard to be triumphal about the inequities painfully evident in the world around us. But the psalm reveals that justice and equity were in the plan from the outset, for the creation and for humankind. We have a responsibility to both. The implication is that we are not fighting a losing battle, that spiritual support and delight are not far away. Isaac Everett comments:

Equity didn’t exist in the days of Moses and Aaron, nor in the days of Samuel, nor does it exist in our world today. There are still rich and poor, masters and slaves, oppressors and oppressed. Where other psalmists would pray for an end to such things, however, this psalmist boldly declares that they’ve already ended, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than as it is. I love it.1

For Professor Tom Wright, the ‘cosmic drama’ of Psalms 93 to 99 thus includes:

‘… the human dramas of actual injustice that produce the longing that the cosmic promises might come true in smaller human situations.’2

Our challenge is to make the vision of the psalm more real.

Music

Most settings celebrate the sovereignty of God proclaimed in the early verses. Admirable enough but, surprisingly to this author, few sources pick up this seminal verse 4 on justice to create the ringing response that it deserves. Even the reliable PFAS suggests that we ‘trembling bow in worship’; while in the redoubtable CPDL online at the date of publication, here is the only offering, an early work by Heinrich Schütz:

All rather faint. When this song offers that gem of verse 4, surely it must be the centrepiece? Isaac Everett, whose comments have been quoted above, is on the money with his antiphon in The Emergent Psalter.  He uses the now-glowing verse quoted at the outsetHis tune and chords roll nicely around B minor then D major and related progressions; but as usual for him, verses are spoken.3

Informed by the encouragement in many psalms to ‘sing a new song’, and in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the South Woden Uniting Church to be celebrated on 22 October 2017 at Pearce in the Australian Capital Territory, a new setting has been written for the occasion. (View score>)

Truly, this verse codifies a theme that should often be heard in our gatherings, a reference song in any tune in our hearts, an example for the rulers of nations.

Notes; Continue reading

Psalm 106

‘Happy are those who act with justice, who do what is right.’ (3)

Psalm 106 drawing to a close the powerful Book IV of the Psalter is related to the previous song. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. A warning against selfishness accompanies a plea for divine guidance and grace. As a good leader, Moses “stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath.” However, provocation made Moses angry and he acted in haste:

By the waters of Meribah they angered God and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (33)

Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. Verse 3 quoted above is a reminder of the insistence on the centrality of justice that runs throughout the Psalter. In the frustratingly faltering pursuit of social justice today, here also are lessons for the worker about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure. (See also Psalm 81)

Incipit to Psalm 106 by Thomas Tomkins; B and TII entries only.

As to the music, in the early 1600s Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings, including 106 for four male voices. This would be a satisfying sing and edifying contribution, probably as incidental music since it presents verse 4 alone.

In more modern sources:

  • The refrain in PFAS 106B invites us to sing: “Cast every idol from its throne”. This might be a good song if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not always appeal as timely.

  • The response in TEP is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period generally available in weekly gatherings.

  • NCH has a simple refrain but no sung verses. Use a tone.

  • PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. First, it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony if enough singers are available.

Psalm 78, 1 Oct ’17

‘With upright heart God tended them, guided them.’ (72)

This long psalm of Asaph in 72 verses covers many of the high points in the Torah, including the plagues and the exodus, subsequent trials and the calling of King David, great tales also to be found in Psalm 114 and elsewhere. Psalm 78 is a plea, a promise and a pledge to tell the old, old stories — for those who went before us, for ourselves, and for those who will follow.

God … appointed a law in Israel and commanded our ancestors to teach to their children; that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children (5, 6)

Then (12-16) come reminders of the wonderful escape through the Red Sea, the guiding pillar of cloud and fire, and the water from the rock. Imagery is a powerful aspect in the psalms. Scientists have offered various explanations on the Red Sea’s behaviour under Moses’ rod, such as local wind conditions altering the tides in the shallows so that sandbanks were revealed. The psalmist sniffs at that and, whether realistically or impressionistically, writes with bold hand:

God split open the sea and let them pass through; the waters stood up like walls. (18)

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

The image of water gushing from rock in a desert land certainly captures the attention of dwellers in the great dry south land. The outcome was superb, sings the psalmist. However, stories of folly and failure deserve to be told just as much as the heroic or the parable.

I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known; we will not hide them (2-4)

The associated Exodus 17 reading gives the full unedifying detail of Moses and the rock, including the complaints and Moses’ entreaty for guidance when the people were ‘almost ready to stone me’. It looked very much as though the wheels were falling off and there was no Plan B; just follow some sort of woolly pile of cloud and do what that old unelected leader with a walking stick said. Like being surrounded by alligators in the swamp, when you are parched in the desert it’s hard to focus on the good times, the miracle of the plagues and the Passover, the sea parting and the fall of the pursuing horse and rider. This is not intended to encourage blind faith or recklessness. We are responsible for ourselves after all, bearing our own and one another’s burdens.1 A little planning is not a bad thing but the psalm reminds us to draw faith and guidance from absorbed biblical values.

As to these ‘dark sayings’ (‘hard sentences’ in the BCP), previous posts (September 2014 and November 2014) have commented on tales like the the folly of the Berlin Wall. Few sections of this wall are still extant, most having been reinstated years after being unceremoniously pulled down. Meanwhile, however, walls are still seen by some as solutions to inequity in places like Palestine and Mexico.

This song arises twice in the Lectionary within weeks, but that only every three years. Here are some suggested refrains, mainly drawing from verses 1 to 4 of Psalm 78:

  • Give your ears to the lessons of the past (Everett)

  • We shall listen (TiS 41). [At SWUC, assured of an interesting and encouraging time together under Roger’s capable leadership, the full gathering will sing this song antiphonally.]

  • God has spoken (TiS 636 traditional Hasidic or PFAS 78c)

  • Forget not the works (NCH)

  • Linnea Good proposes this response: “Stay awake with me, listen carefully.”

Just as historical narrative is a central theme in the psalms, so this psalm is pretty much in the middle of the Psalter, which is surely just one big river of stories, tales, and reflections on the flow of history of people seeking divine blessing.

1   Galatians 2 and Philippians 2

Psalm 149, 10 Sep 17

‘God takes pleasure in people.’ (4)

Cantate Domino, from Psalm 149 in the an 8th century Psalter. Latin uncial script with Old English gloss between lines. British Library MS Vespasian A1

This is the penultimate psalm in the book, short and bitter-sweet. Four verses of praise, singing and dancing, including the important statement of love quoted above; four verses of wreaking vengeance on enemies; and in the middle, it appears, a good lie down!

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds. (5)

An odd little verse, and indeed it struck Isaac Everett to the point that he chose this for his responsive refrain. He wonders whether it implies that the people routinely slept in the Temple, that praise at home as well as in the Temple is fine, or perhaps just relishing being in bed.1

Despite its central location, the bed verse is not the key to the song and its use as the refrain seems a little idiosyncratic. Scanning for meaningful and respectful ways to praise in song, verse 1 is a better bet:

Sing to God a new song; sing praise in the congregation of the faithful.

A little further on there’s a nice statement of why psalm tragics do this:

… sing praise making melody with timbrel and lyre; for God takes pleasure in people and adorns the poor with victory. (3, 4)

The second half of the psalm is less comfortable. ‘Wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people … inflicting judgment.’ (7) Is not this just the sort of cry we, well, decry when it leads to the extremist religious violence that seems increasingly to dominate the news? Remember that the historical reference is to the Exodus and the early opposed establishment of Israel, which was a fight for survival.

Today, in the light of the New Testament modifier to love your enemies, the reader regards it metaphorically. Most commentators see it now as a fight against evil. Any enthusiasm for holy war against other people sounds bizarre. For as we just saw, God takes pleasure in people. (And by the way, what a marvellous difference it makes taking the ‘his’ out of that phrase from the RSV.)

A cautionary note on this passage in PFAS says: ‘It is, then, a psalm to handle with great care.’ However, the note continues that the psalm is instructive about the nature of faithful obedience in a world of injustice.2 The psalm again encourages the fight for justice and equity, for ‘God loves people’ as we do, and ‘adorns the poor’, as we should. Tom Wright has this insight relating to both 148 and 149:

To put it in modern shorthand, you find the political message within the ‘creational’ message. Once you summon the whole of creation to praise the maker, you can begin to see clearly where the fault lines lie within the world of human power.3

Bach wrote two impressive works on this psalm, both entitled Singet dem Herrn. BWV190 is an lengthy cantata written for New Year’s Day in Leipzig in 1724. BWV 225 is scored for double choir. Both are demanding works for amateur singers.

The Everett refrain has already been mentioned. PFAS has a nice responsive setting (149B) with a contemporary sound even though the music was written back in the 18th century.

TiS 95 has a good setting by reliably valued Sydney-born composer Christopher Willcock SJ. The response is simple, and the stacked triads of the tone (the simple tune for the verses) is enticing. It only presents half the lectionary, however, and ducks that confronting second section discussed above.

If you really want to sing of vengeance upon the forces opposing a rule of love, try a solo by Catalan composer and contemporary of Bach, Francisco Valls. Best with its original figured bass, the sharper edges are modestly veiled in Latin:

1 TEP page 275

2 Psalms for All Seasons, page 989 footnote.

3 Wright, N T, Finding God in the Psalms, page 150-1

Psalm 145, 6 Aug 17

For comment on the primary psalm reading for this week, see a previous post on Psalm 17

Thank you so much to our male voice quintet who presented Psalm 105 last Sunday. What lovely sounds. We hear the same refrain, with different verses, in coming Sundays.

Antiphon after the last verse of Ps 145; then Ps 146:1 ‘Lauda anima mea’. Note change from C to F clef at response. The Howard Psalter, British Lib. MS 83, f.89r

Psalm 145, the alternative reading for this week, is the last of the many songs attributed to David, and the first of a closing bracket of six songs of praise. The central theme is the ultimate sovereignty of God. However, each time the psalm appears in the Lectionary – five times in all but mostly as a complementary reading – different verse selections offer different points of emphasis; praise to a great power, grace, faithfulness, love and even the matter of food on the table:

The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. / You open your hand, satisfying the need of every living thing. (verses 15, 16)

So there is a time for lamentation, and a time for lamingtons. Many psalms cater for both moments. As well as the greatness of divine purposes, the power of love and that recurrent theme of justice are celebrated in this song (17).

The psalms also convey a sense of freedom from burdens, an interesting undercurrent detected in the third century CE by commentator and theologian Hippolytus of Rome, who opined:

David gave the Hebrews psalmody. This abrogated Moses’ sacrificial system and introduced a new form of jubilant praise.

Several of the classical arrangements, such as those by Lassus and Gibbons, start with verse 15 quoted above. In modern sources:

  • TEP and PFAS 145D reflect the main theme of Psalm 145, namely praise for divine sovereignty and grace.
  • In NCH, Vérne de la Peña from the Philippines University meditates on God’s ‘wondrous works’, employing both simple tune and pleasing harmonies. [This refrain, with paraphrased verses to the same or a similar tune, will be used in South Woden this week.]
  • A local composition presents a vehicle for both verses and response, depending on which selection is set: