Psalm 123, 19 Nov ’17

Psalm 123 is a song of ascent. These short and hopeful songs, sometimes called degrees or Graduals, are grouped as Psalms 120 to 134. The songs of ascent have a particular fascination. They have a message and it’s economical. They challenge. This one, with only four verses, is short and bitter-sweet. Isaac Everett says of this psalm:1

The thing I love about the psalms of ascent is that they are so simple and short, yet they say everything they need to say.

Two themes are mingled: the psalmist declares (i) trust in divine love and protection, while (ii) hoping for mercy and relief from injustice from the ‘indolent rich’ and proud. (4) Unfortunately, progress against oppression is often slow. Ascent towards justice is not straight-forward or easy. Climbers are motivated by hope and belief that the effort will be worthwhile. Often it’s a long drag. 

So the psalm could just as well have been written for today’s inequalities; it uses the image of looking faithfully to a benevolent authority, seeking a time when the dominance of the proud and the rich might be at least ameliorated, if not completely countered. ‘We have had more than enough of contempt’ (3) from those who should be statesmen and leaders.

Musical settings of Psalm 123, perhaps due to its brevity, are relatively few. Together in Song skips this one; there are a couple of early settings by Palestrina and Hassler that are beyond our reach; and the Genevan and similar psalters have hymns rather than responsorials. However, some regular sources include nice congregational refrains:

  • TEP offers the penitential theme, ‘Have mercy on us’, with simple tune and chords

  • Linnea Good in a nice SATB setting concentrates on the single phrase, ‘To you I lift up my eyes’, from verse 1.

  • David Haas in PFAS takes a hopeful view: Our eyes rest on you, awaiting your kindness.

1 The Emergent Psalter, page 243

Psalm 105, 30 Jul 17

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible: Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus / Give glory to God, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise: Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus / Declare God’s deeds among the peoples. A psalm singer in the temple or perhaps by a campfire in early times would have known that his audience would conjure up a host of stories and images relating to the era, the plagues, the Passover and the escape from Egypt. By telling and repeating, singing the familiar tunes and lyrics, people learned their history, culture, lessons from tales of the past and, osmotically perhaps, values. The song goes on to enumerate these tales but even so, one of the morals of the story is all the more striking: leaders must arise who are right for the time.

Perhaps this repetitive approach is why the lectionary provides the opportunity to revisit this psalm three times, with slightly differing verse selections, in the space of a little over a month. The music leader can achieve continuity by using the same style and response for all three appearances of this psalm.

A beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 by Lassus has been mentioned previously. Lassus, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music. The full work may be beyond the resources of small churches but extracts can be useful for a thematic refrain:

Verses associated with this refrain might best be sung to a traditional psalm tome. These tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. A quick scan through the Missal published by Monks of Solesmes does not reveal any particular tone associated with Psalm 105. However, Tone VIII is used for various other sung liturgical elements.

A common approach was the use of a particular tone during one service for several psalms. The author has attended a couple of Tallis Scholars summer schools, during which the order of service for Compline — the last office of the day usually at 9:00 pm — used Tone VIII for all psalms sung each night. Singing several psalms morning, noon and night, the monks would complete the cycle of singing all 150 psalms in the space of a fortnight.

As to more modern sources:

  • PFAS suggests a refrain comprised entirely of the word Alleluia repeated several times.
  • TEP’s refrain does something similar, preceding that celebration with an invitation to sing praise.
  • Still on a joyful theme but less exuberantly, NCH uses verse 3, ‘Let the hearts of those who seek God rejoice’, set to a refrain whose 5/4 time renders it more unusual.
  • Some years ago at South Woden the Lassus quintet mentioned above was a source of great joy. This year, a home-grown refrain and verses in gospel style will be used on all three occurrences of Psalm 105.

Psalm 105, 31 Aug 14

Like other selections, the lectionary reading from Psalm 105 in this week’s return appearance repeats the first six verses (‘Sing praises’) then offers a later section that echoes the evolving tale from Genesis in the lectionary.Ancient_near_east

The second set of four verses this week briefly sketches the experiences of the children of Abraham going into Egypt, the animosity they met — and God’s answer:

God sent Moses, the servant, and Aaron the chosen. (v. 26)*

A psalm singer in the temple or perhaps by a campfire in early times would have rolled out this shorthand knowing that his audience would conjure up a host of stories and images relating to the era, the plagues, the Passover and the escape from Egypt. The song goes on to enumerate some of them but even so, the ‘answer’ is all the more striking: leaders right for the time.

Music

Our singers are not available for a return to the Psalm 105 motet Confitemini Domino by Roland de Lassus this week, but will present a reprise during September, probably Sunday 7th. The associated chant could still be used with the introit: ‘Invocate nomen Dei’ as sung previously (music and explanatory notes here>>).

Other settings in Psalms for all Seasons and The Emergent Psalter are useful, although the latter may take a little learning. In Together in song number 66 is relevant, and Lectionary Singer lists several other good songs, including TiS 755 You shall go out with joy.

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