Psalm 119E, 19 Feb 17

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


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 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 52, 17 July 2016

Psalm 52 is another of those songs that can sound vindictive and unforgiving when encountered outside its historical setting. Fortunately, the preamble refers to Doeg and Saul, thereby providing the requisite clues.

Doeg is not, one has to admit, a big name in biblical tales. A devious fellow, it seems, which is what got David so worked up. Best I quote one of the dictionaries (see box, click to enlarge):

Introducing Doeg. Bible

Introducing Doeg. Bible

The psalmist is justifiably cranky at being misrepresented. He had not yet received the policy update bulletin about love enemies, strangers and neighbours, of course — that is coming up in the gospel reading this week with the Good Samaritan.

So David wanted God to hand out the full come-upance. Having got this off his chest, he then pops in one of those little gems of imagery:

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever

Near the Pont du Gard stands an old olive tree a thousand years old, a classic example of this imagery.


Most congregations will be happy with simple sung verses and response such as those available in the usual sources.

Orland_di_LassusMore ambitiously, how nice it would be if you could roll out Orlando de Lasso‘s motet for five voices entitled Quam gloriaris. The Latin text of this incipit is rendered rather quaintly in the BCP as:

Why boastest thou thyself, thou tyrant: that thou canst do mischief; whereas the goodness of God endureth yet daily?

This two-part piece was published in Sacrae cantiones in 1566, during his time in Venice. It starts conventionally enough, the alto entering with the melody, rather than the usual tenor entry. The other voices enter in succession, cantus, tenor, then quintus and finally bass.

Lassus' Quid gloriaris, CPDL

Lassus’ Quid gloriaris, CPDL

The opening tune is essentially a rising scale do-re-mi-fa-so in F with ornamentation. Composers often used the Gregorian psalm tones as a basis. While it is not quite one of the standard psalm tones from Liber Usualis, it is close to Tone I shown here. Psalm tone IIt may also have been a popular sacred or secular song in Venice at the time.

It sounds simple at the start but gradually gets so intertwined as to make the earth move and the horizon tilt.

Detail of synchronous ornamentation in Psalm 52 by Lassus

Detail of synchronous ornamentation in Psalm 52 by Lassus

The delayed imitation continues, the parts gradually coming back together at bar 30 before separating again. The cumulative ornamentation produces those moments when two or three voices have all the fun while the others hold a nice anchoring note. These moments can be quite a thrill to the singer, whether doing the Swingle Singer frills or the anchor. They reach a heightened awareness of a satisfying musical and temporal connect between singers when the plan comes together.

The opening of the Secunda Pars Propteria Deus (verse 5) in contrast, is completely homophonic (one has to be careful with that word – beware the spell-checker). So it is at bar 8, before the voices separate into their own playful counterpoint. The assembled faithful would then have had to know the words to discern any meaning from the delightful but complex layers of notes and words.

For more on Lassus, see post 04.08.2014 or touch the Lassus tag.

Psalms 44, 53 and 55

These three psalms tell of moments of grief, fear, shame or anger caused by conflict of one sort or another. While they all on first reading have a flavour of violence, and all are omitted from the weekly lectionary readings, they should not be ignored. They actually argue for reliance on divine truth and protection rather than the sword.

Psalm 44

The psalmist first draws strength from divine guidance and support in the story of Exodus. The conquering of the promised lands is not attributed to armed force. In a precursor to Jesus’ command to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane to put down his sword, so here:

I do not rely on my bow, and my sword does not give me the victory; surely you gave us victory (vs. 6, 7)

The psalmist is aware that God searches our hearts (v. 21; both this verse and the next are quoted by Paul in Romans 8). The remainder of the song is a lament at some grievous reverses. Despite humiliation:

yet we have not forgotten you nor strayed from your covenant. Our heart never turned back (vs. 17, 18)

Settings are few in the ether but Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) used verses 5 to 9 for an attractive composition for solo bass and choir. Verses 6 and 7 quoted above are also used as the refrain in The Emergent Psalter.

Psalm 53

Little will be said about this song, as it is virtually a repeat of Psalm 14 (qv. this post>). Paul quotes these psalms in Romans 3 to emphasise grace and love, rather than justification under the law.


Utrecht Psalter, Psalm 55 illustrated. Image

Psalm 55

In this psalm, the first of seven ‘skips’ in a row, the grief is caused by false witness or betrayal by someone who was considered a friend:

My companion hurt a friend and broke a covenant with speech softer than butter — but war is in his heart. (v. 20, 21)

If nothing else, this psalm should encourage us to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph.4:15) — and then stick to it. We are also advised, as in I Peter 5:7, to cast our burdens upon God.

Several of the settings in Choralwiki use just a few verses, often 2 to 4 which are a plea to be heard in times of anguish. The show-stopper is one by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554 ‒ 1612) for 12 parts in three choirs. However, there are also four-part settings by Lassus and Mendelssohn.

Psalms 108, 109, 110

The first psalm in Book 5 of the Psalter107 is included in the Revised Common Lectionary; but then 108 is the first of three consecutive ‘skips’, all songs attributed to David. (Thirteen of the 44 psalms in Book 5 are omitted.) Unsurprisingly,  relatively few musical setting appear in our regular sources.

Psalm 108

There’s a little recycling going on here, with the opening five verses borrowed from Psalm 57:7-11 and the rest, the last eight verses, from Psalm 60:5-12, themselves also skips.

Lute tuning pegsFirst, one of those declarations beloved of cantors and musicians:

My heart is firmly fixed O God, I will sing and make melody. Wake up my spirit! Awake lute and harp; I myself will waken the dawn. (vs. 1-3)

At times like this I wish I played a lovely old lute with many strings rather than my worn old Spanish guitar. My instrument was inherited from my family and is therefore much cherished, but admittedly has a modest sound.

Finding a good responsorial setting for 108 might be problematical were it not for Everett’s refrain slipping between D minor and Bb7 (or, to be precise, a Bb7#11 — love those extensions!) Before taking up that lute, though, the eye is caught by a mysterious little tour of the political geography, :

I will parcel out Schechem … Ephraim is my helmet … Moab is my washbasin, on Edom I throw down my sandal to claim it. (vs. 7 – 9)

The nuances are largely lost on the modern reader but David’s claim for divine influence is clear enough.

Psalm 109

Yin YangThis is an extended song of prayer for justice and freedom from a serious bout of false accusation. Its omission from the RCL will trouble few readers. However, it’s worth noting that Psalm 109 sits as one of David’s dark moments between the joyful praise of 108 and 110. This juxtaposition of light and shade happens frequently within and between psalms.

In another set of three songs by David, the peace and warmth of the Shepherd psalm leavens the preceding lament of Psalm 22, used on Good Friday, and the splendour of Psalm 24 and ‘Lift up your heads O ye gates’.


Settings can be found, of course, in psalters with one song per psalm, whether Genevan, Ravenscroft or Everett. Collections like Psalms for all seasons, however, hurry past 108 to 110.

Lassus wrote a nice two-pager that might suit your sight-reading group. He follows the common path of selecting just one juicy piece of a long poem, in this case the gem of verse 20:

Monteverdi_vesperBut deal thou with me, O Lord God, according unto thy Name: for sweet is thy mercy (BCP)

Psalm 110

This short psalm, quoted by the writer of Ephesians, is one of praise for divine power and transcendence.

For some reason, Psalm 110 attracted far more composers than the previous two, save in modern collections influenced by the Lectionary. Monteverdi quoted Psalm 110 together with several others in his famous Vespers of 1610. Many of the big names like Buxtehude, Mozart, Vivaldi and Victoria bent their considerable talents to this text.

Illustration of Monteverdi Vespers;


Psalm 7

Statue at Sans Souci palace, Potsdam DEFirst, many thanks to our women who provided such beautiful singing and leadership in Psalm 30 on 10 April. A confident and inspiring crafting of words and flow of music liberate listeners to follow and respond to the narrative and spirit of the song.

Next Sunday, that old favourite the Shepherd Psalm — El Señor es mi Pastor. Iris reads the Spanish (lovely sound) while a men’s group sing the English. That afternoon, another old favourite (without psalms), Shakespeare>

Seen and not heard

A matter of balance

More jumps

Psalm 7 is the next in the series of ‘skips‘. At first glance, it’s another plea for justice and deliverance from attackers. But you can’t help wondering at the back-story. The heading goes like this:

 שִׁגָּיוֹן, לְדָוִד:  אֲשֶׁר-שָׁר לַיהוָה–עַל-דִּבְרֵי-כוּשׁ, בֶּן-יְמִינִי.

You probably won’t be any wiser when the translation is provided:

Shiggaion of David, which he sang unto the LORD, concerning Cush a Benjamite.

Modern psalm song books throw little light on what a ‘shiggaion’ is, or who Cush was. So what was going on? Was it someone attacking the tribe of Benjamin and therefore the king took it on as a national threat? Or was this a song rolling out after a few beers with his beleaguered mate Cush? [I’m not completely making this up; see one definition here>.]

St Augustine,

St Augustine of Hippo,

Dipping back into commentary by St Augustine (354-430 CE) we hear:

Now the story which gave occasion to this prophecy may be easily recognised [!] in the second book of Kings (2 Samuel 15:32-37). For there Chusi, the friend of king David, went over to the side of Absalom, his son, who was carrying on war against his father, for the purpose of discovering and reporting the designs which he was taking against his father …

Dark dealings and spies! At this stage, however, the precise circumstances do not really matter. Or, as Augustine says:

But since it is not the story itself which is to be the subject of consideration in this Psalm …

Instead, we look for some points of resonance with the modern world in which we live. Let us note briefly that they are there, including (and you will find your own) feelings of:

  • sorrow at our own failings (vv. 3-5)
  • hope that divine love provides a refuge and relief (vv. 1 and 17); and
  • much-needed justice (vv. 6-11).


As a ‘skip’, this psalm does not appear in the RCL and therefore is hardly mentioned in some modern psalters. I could not help noticing early settings by Gabrieli (SSAATBB), Hassler (SATB); and then a trio by Lassus which might be singable by a few dedicated hands if the occasion arises.

Everett in TEP chooses the refuge idea from verse 1 for his refrain. There’s no shortage of hymns, rather than our preferred responsorials, referring to Psalm 7: lists nearly 40 of them.

Psalm 6

Next up in the skip and jump series is 6, the first of the so-called penitential psalms. The author is suffering, weak and weary, seeking healing and freedom. Near the end of the song, the author declares relief; “God accepts my prayer” (v.9). Recall a line sung by our male voice quartet recently:

Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy’ (Psalm 126:5)


Orland_di_LassusThe grouping of these seven penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143) evolved over a thousand years or so ago. Many poets and composers have been inspired to build works based on them.

Foremost amongst them was a work by Orlande de Lassus, the major publication Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales of 1584 in Munich. This has been the subject of previous commentary in this blog.

Lassus, Penitential primus

Lassus, Penitential primus

He wrote an extended piece for each of the seven psalms, one in each of the eight modes in use in early times. An eighth piece was a combination of two psalms of praise (148 and 150) to complete the set. Each verse of each psalm receives a separate short motet, making in all 136 pieces that could be sung separately. In Psalm 6, illustrated, he set verse 3 for three voices, verse 4 for four voices and then five voices thereafter.

As with the key penitential Psalm 51, Lassus, Byrd and Schütz all wrote several settings for this psalm or selected verses.

At a more practical level, there are several other sources of easier refrains if it comes up outside the lectionary series. Understandably, Psalm 6 does not make it into Together in song, but Psalms for all seasons has a nice one at 6B (spoken verses), the feature catching my eye being the chord progressions Cm-Bb-Ab-Fm. Another picks up the phrase ‘how long’ that appears in many psalms, including 3, 6 and 13.