Psalm 31, 14 May 17

Palms at Percy IsThis psalm, combining many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity, appeared in the Lectionary just last month. It was discussed in a post for Palm Sunday, a summary of which follows.

This is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay. Enduring all opposition, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words quoted by the dying Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” accounting for this reading in Holy Week and Easter.

As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

Psalm 43

Note. Psalm 43 was almost ignored when it came up last time (June 2016) since the Lectionary adds it to Psalm 42 as a combined reading — and there is a good reason for that. It appears in its own right, but only as the alternative reading, late in Year A, 5 Nov 2017. This interim post is intended to remediate a sketchy coverage so far.

Psalm 43 (text here>) is quite short at five verses, and quite like several other songs. The writer, of the Korahites, is seeking justification against nastiness of various flavours. Then, asking himself why he should mooch around gloomily, the psalmist rolls out a prayer whose frequent use in liturgies and hymns has made the lines familiar:Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. (v.3)

Taken together with Psalm 42, the song’s structure is in the form of a lament — complain (42), ask, trust, praise (43). This, plus the fact that 43 has no heading, is evidence that these two were probably written as one song. Further, both share the same antiphon:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again to the one who is my help (or saving presence, welfare, prosperity, deliverance) and my God. (v. 5)

Music

One would have thought that this inbuilt antiphon shared by Psalms 42 and 43 would be preferred for the refrain in modern sources:

  • Everett in TEP does choose this verse (43:5)
  • PFAS 43C, a nice setting from The Iona Community and Wild Goose, selects the sending of light and truth in verse 3;
  • NCH goes for a slice of verse 1.

Several classical SATBs may be found online. The name Claude Goudimel is often associated with psalm settings, particularly of the Genevan Psalter project. This French composer was born in Besançon, lived in the north-east of France for some time until forced out by religious wars, and died in Lyon in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Note in this excerpt from his Psalm 43 published in Paris in 1568 (but in Dutch) that bar lines have been added for the convenience of the modern singer.Ps43 Goudimel 1568

Psalm 102, Penitential 5

Yin YangTwo voices emerge for the reader during this extended lament. A sad David seems to be suffering from a degenerative illness. Yet in the midst of distress and weariness, his Voice 1 can yet find a peaceful and somehow comforting image for his isolation and worry:

I am like an owl of the wilderness, a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake like a lonely bird on a housetop. (vs. 6, 7)

A more optimistic David Voice 2 then asserts the endurance and longevity of the divine presence, compared with the brevity of human life.  The psalm is ‘recorded for generations to come’ so that, first, ‘people yet unborn may praise God’ (v. 18); and secondly, that ‘children shall live secure, their offspring established in your presence.’ (v. 28)

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. BL MS49999

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. The seven penitentials are grouped together in this manuscript. BL MS49999

Music

The opening verse (Domine, exaudi / Hear my prayer, let my cry come to you — see illustration) is popular with composers as a simple and neutral prayer of access. Thomas Tomkins wrote a trio (published 1668) which would please any small group. He also composed an arrangement for verse 13.

This being one of the seven penitential psalms, the fifth in fact, we find major work by early composers like the Italian Giovanni Croce, follower of Gabrieli in the grand style; and Orlando de Lassus, whose Psalmi Davidis Poenitentialis of 1584 is mentioned elsewhere.

Coversheet of Book II of the Lassus Psalms

Cover of Book II of the Lassus Penitential Psalms

For 102, as usual, Lassus has written a fleet of separate small motets, one for each verse. He captures the attention of the listener by entering with five voices in full flight for verse 1, but then rather playfully employs a duet for verse 2, a trio for verse 3, quartet for 4 and back to 5 voices for v. 5. He then proceeds through the rest of the 28 verses changing the number of singers. Verse 18 mentioned above, for example, which starts ‘Scribantur haec / Let this be recorded‘ is sung gently by a duo of tenor voices, almost like a recitative.

Ps102 Lassus amen

By the last verse, with the following Gloria Patri as a separate movement, he is back to five parts. Then the Sicut erat (As it was in the beginning) splits the cantus (treble) into two parts for a powerful 6-part finale, the voices each entering sequentially. Incidentally, in many early manuscripts, this Gloria was not written in full but signified by the last six vowels of saeculorum Amen — E u o u A e.

This technique of Lassus is worth remembering for the small group convener. Depending on how many voices you have, you can always find a mini-motet of one verse or another to suit the occasion and available resources.

Like Psalm 101, this song does not appear in the lectionary, or in NCH. In other sources:

  • The only suggestion made in PFAS is the Taizé chorus ‘O Lord hear my prayer’, which as mentioned above is a quote from v.1 — and several other psalms.
  • Everett‘s syncopated refrain in TEP combines verses 3 and 12: ‘My days pass away like smoke; you endure through the generations’.
  • TiS 63 surprises me by presenting a short, singable paraphrase, admittedly only from Voice 2 in the happy end of things, by Christopher Willcock SJ, with a simple refrain arranged by JS Bach. It also provides an attached litany for the sick and the dying. (102B)

Psalm 137, 2 Oct 16; Babylon

Note: The readings this week are from Lamentations, with the alternative choices of Psalms 137, the subject of this post, or 37. See an earlier post for Psalm 37.

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. (Ps. 137:1)

We may not remember Zion, but having often sung the 1972 reggae song made famous by Bob Marley and the Melodians, this lament of a people in exile will not be too far from the surface of our memories. To the psalm singer, however, the next verse it he one that hits home:

On the willows there we hung up our harps. For our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing a song of God in a strange land?

An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.

An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.

You would think that the singing of songs would be a powerful feature of grief and remembrance in exile. Some of our folk favourites are songs of people in another land, from the more hearty Botany Bay to a plaintive Isle of Innisfree (Dick Farrely, 1950), an oft-recorded song about Irish emigrants:

And when the moonlight creeps across the rooftops of this great city, wondrous though it be / I scarcely feel its wonder or its laughter; I’m once again back home in Innisfree.

In Babylon, it seems the Israelites could not muster the inspiration. Was it just to deny the captors? It may have sprung from an anger so strong as to banish all thought of song, generating vicious thoughts against the captors and their children. (v. 9) We may wish to dismiss this sting in the tail as classic outdated Old Testament vengeance; however it does give us a glimpse of what anger can do and how hard it is to manage. Deal with it we must if society is to avoid such dominoes of damage.

Psalm 79, 18 Sep 2016

This song by Asaph voices a communal lament for the defeat of Jerusalem, seeking safety and justice until the people can “give thanks forever from generation to generation”. It’s another “How long?” song, themes taken up by many song writers including Canadians Steve Bell and Linnea Good. The psalter is riven through with songs of the blues and forbearance — at least ten of them, such as Psalms 6, 13 and on through to 119, include this anguish.

When a footnote in one of our psalters (1) cautions that this psalm should be used “with great care”, and that it “may be appropriate … focusing of situations of extreme persecution”, you know you are in for one of those bitter cries for help in time of trouble. This note, rather than putting us off, is quite helpful. There are, and regrettably will ever be it seems, such situations — think of violence in South Sudan, Syria, Burma and so on. So the song could be used to identify with and pray for those who suffer dolorous lives at the hand of aggression or repressive régimes. That source, PFAS, thoughtfully uses the more hopeful Kumbayah (but in a minor key) as a refrain:

Someone’s crying Lord, kum-ba-yah.

A footnote in another of our regular sources (2) has this angle on the psalmist’s crying “How long?”:

In the Bible as a whole, it’s just as likely to be God who is putting the question to us, wondering how long it will be necessary to put up with our antics [then several Biblical references.]

TiS 69Music

Kumbayah is fine. But far away in another galaxy, one Clemens non Papa wrote a nice four-part setting called Domine, ne memineris / Adjuva nos, from the first and ninth verses. Non Papa? How would you like to go down in history as “Not the Pope” just to make sure we knew who you were? The Belgian composer Jacobus Clemens (c. 1515-55), who worked mainly in Bruges and Paris, is known for his psalms in French and particularly Dutch.

In yet another world, the Anglican church has a great tradition of chanting the psalter in a particular style that is a satisfying evolution of ancient Gregorian tradition into more recent polyphony. It uses, as many of us do, verses with pointing markers as clues for fitting the words into a chant. Our practice is marking the last three notes, usually three syllables or words, as illustrated above. The preceding words of the phrase are all sung on the first ‘reciting’ tone.

Anglican chant has two more notes in the second line, so the last five syllables or words are allocated their own notes. There are always four notes then six, making ten in all. Once you crack the code, it’s easy with a little rehearsal to agree on the flow of the words. The example shown below, for Psalm 79 by English organist C. Hylton Stewart (1884-1932), is a little different. It has two lots of ten notes so is a truly antiphonal song; verses are sung alternately, odds then evens, usually by two groups.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.21.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 69

Sometimes themes and verses are repeated so often in the psalms that it’s hard to find new inspiration. In Psalm 69, we hear again the laments and prayers of someone who feels enmity, opposition, slander and loneliness, the while giving thanks for merciful love and safety in divine provision.

IMG_2346.JPGFresh, however, is imagery of sinking in swirling waters — ‘up to my neck, I sink in deep mire where there is no foothold’. Another new touch is in verse 21, quoted in all the gospel stories of the crucifixion:

They gave me gall to eat, vinegar to quench my thirst.

Save me O God by John Blow (1648-1708) nicely captures these fresh ideas using a four-part chorus, with a trio singing selected verses. Lassus wrote at least three settings for verses in Psalm 69, including a trio Deus tu scis using verse 6; on verse 13 Adversum me loquebantur à5; and another trio Exaudi me on verse 17.

Amongst the few contemporary settings available for this psalm, two in Psalms for All Seasons — with different authors but the same chord sequence — appear unremarkable but should respond well to sympathetic treatment. 69C has added attraction as coming from the pen of John Bell and Wild Goose.

I enjoy the sparse introduction to a song by Australian band The Sons of Korah released on their 2005 album Resurrection. You can hear a sample on their web-site. I note, by the way, that the band has a concert in Canberra next Saturday 10 September 2016 — all psalms!

Psalm 38

The third of the seven Penitentials, this psalm is glass half empty — no, make that a quarter — through to verse 14. The opening verses mirror those of the first Penitential Psalm, 6. The singer regrets failure, inadequacy, illness and a thorough-going weariness. Then comes the half full, and an urgent request for comfort:

For in you O God I have fixed my hope; you will answer (v.15)

Do not forsake me, or be distant; make haste to help me O God, my salvation. (21, 22)

So this could be a song for Lent, or just when you are ill or feeling low.

There’s not much music to help you out in the hymn books — 38 and 39 are not included in the Lectionary. Our regular psalters give you one or two tunes. However, as other blogs have noted, the Penitential Psalms seems to have been de rigueur for the serious composers of yesteryear; Byrd, Dowland, Gesualdo and Lassus all lined for 38; and many more went to town on the middle one, Psalm 51. (Others are 32, 102, 130 and 143.) Producing a compendium of all seven won gold.

Ps38 GesualdoCarlo Gesualdo was certainly a colourful creator of classics. Music by this very expressive musician (and Prince of Venosa in the south of Italy) is very rewarding to sing.

It is also quite demanding — note the absence of bar lines and the apparent independence of individual voices in the illustration. Cadences are sometimes surprising and unpredictable, often passionate.

Gesualdo was both creative and cruel. He famously murdered his wife and lover when he caught them in the act. He was not convicted, but according to the current Wikipedia entry:

The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music.

The work he wrote for Psalm 38 confines its attention to the prayer for help in the final verses quoted above; but it sounds as though he may have felt the pull of the Penitential Psalms stronger than most.