Psalm 122

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Psalm 122 is not only a Song of Ascent (the third) but also one of pilgrimage to the centre of divine love and justice. Psalm 120 told a sorrowful tale of living afar amongst alien people; the next one 121 starts the journey to Jerusalem (“I lift up my eyes to the hills…’); and finally in this psalm the pilgrim arrives. In the Orthodox tradition and no doubt elsewhere, these three are sung together, often during Lent.

A long list of classical compositions ranges from relatively unknowns Arigoni and Bauer through to Vogel and GJ Williams, encompassing more famous names like Blow, Haydn, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Victoria and Vivaldi. Most pieces start with the familiar opening declaration, appropriate for a Song of Ascent:

Laetatus sum/I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

The psalmist continues by imagining him or herself and the people (tribes) of God ascending through the gates of the holy city to give thanks and seek justice. (v. 4-5) Other composers have spied the peaceful intent of this prayer of ascent in verse 6, no doubt applying it, as should we, beyond the physical meaning of the city named:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

Antiphon to Ps. 122 Arundel MS 83, British LibrarySignificantly, the psalmist’s motivation is altruistic:

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

This is a lovely poem with many musical settings, including a short antiphon beautifully adorned in the illustration of the Howard Psalter shown here (British Library reference Arundel MS 83 f80v). The first phrase refers to but is not identical with verse 1 of this psalm:

In domum Domini ibimus/We shall go into the house of the Lord.

The second phrase after the vertical ‘ant’ marker is a response that may refer to the incipit of Psalm 91 (90 in the Latin psalter):

Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi/He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High

Singers were expected to know the text sufficiently that such abbreviated words, indicated by superscript dots or commas, would be sufficient to jog the memory. This jogs my memory of singing Qui habitat à24 by Josquin des Prez. This is a setting of the first 6 verses of that earlier psalm for 24 voices, irreverently known amongst our Chorale members, particularly the irreverent basses, as ‘Who lives at No 24?’

Psalms for palms; 118, 31

Entry gate, Le ThoronetAfter a couple of opening verses of Psalm 118 proclaiming divine goodness and mercy, the lectionary (liturgy of the palms) cuts to the second half. As Jesus enters the gates of Jerusalem, so here:

Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them and praise God. (v. 19)

Old farm cottage museum, Moudeyres

That corner stone now appears. 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, like the entrance depicted in the first photograph, but it’s common enough.

In the next photo of an old farmhouse, the corner blocks are evidently larger and act as bonding keystones in the corner of the old building. Either way, something has a central role of chief cornerstone in holding a structure together. Several oft-quoted lines follow:Palm in Vence

This is the day that God has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it (v.24)

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God (v.26)

Give thanks to God, whose mercy endures forever (v.29

Oh! and don’t forget that it’s Palm Sunday:

Form a procession with branches (v. 27)

See also earlier discussion, including reference to King Henry VIII’s Psalter, in posts such as as 29 March and 5 April 2015.

Psalm 31

Whether we need a double helping or not, the liturgy of the passion for the same day serves up another set of readings, including Psalm 31. This is one of those cries for help in times of deep distress. I shall say no more at this stage, there being a previous post on the subject, other than to declare an allegiance to the beautiful and thoughtful two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. We sometimes sing both psalms, 118 on the way in with branches.

Music

I’ve mentioned PFAS 31C above. As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • Palms at Percy Isif the corner stone is preferred as a symbol of establishing a new regime of grace, the choice could be TiS 74 or, as we have sung many times at South Woden, The Building Block by Peter Paul and Mary
  • If the eternal goodness and love of God is preferred, the refrain from The emergent psalter would suit — as long as you don’t mind a little music with a groove.
  • And 31 is hope and help in time of trouble.

Psalm 118 is also a reading for Easter, so there are a swag of settings in Psalms for all seasons to choose from. Canberra group Polifemy will sing a varied early music program with recorders, including William Byrd’s lively setting of this psalm Haec dies this Sunday at Wesley UC, 3pm.

Psalm 126, 13 March 2016

Sower with setting sun, Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. wikiart.org

Sower with setting sun (detail), Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. wikiart.org

Psalm 126, a song of ascent, contains one of the great scriptural narratives. The sower goes out with seed, responding to the ever-changing seasons, renewing a livelihood. It’s not easy. Drought comes — or floods, birds and animals. Weeds grow to choke the good seed. However:

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (vv 5, 6)

Jesus memorably used this in one of his powerful parables (Mark 4). In a wider sense it is a metaphor for the renewal of a decidedly mixed human existence where yin and yang are evident at every turn, tears and joy never far away.

Both enter the poem from the outset, recalling the sorrows of a people in exile and their relieved delight at being restored to the freedom and familiarity of home. Essentially, it’s a song of hope. (See an earlier post for some other angles.)

Music

The default choice for South Woden, partly because it’s sitting waiting there in the files, is our (somewhat liberal) arrangement of an Orthodox chant borrowed from the Slavonian liturgy as interpreted by the monks of Chevetogne.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 9.40.However there are good songs in PFAS and other sources. Some interesting settings hide in IMSLP such as the Jean-Philippe Rameau motet shown here, as well as pieces by more obscure composers rejoicing under names like Asola, Converse and Matho.

A while ago I got excited by the congruence of the availability of the male voice quartet and the listing of a Vesper Ps 126 by Tomás Luis Victoria. But the title, Nisi Dominus aedificaverit domum (‘Except the Lord build the house’), does not match; it’s 126 in the Vulgate numbering. So it’s now salted away in our Ps 127 file awaiting its glorious moment.

In the year 1800, one Oliver Holden (1765-1844) wrote a tune for Psalm 126, a respectable little hymn, but not antiphonal so not high on our list. It is mentioned here to record the author’s name as one of the more prolific composers of psalms in the United States. He is credited with publishing around 70 psalm tunes in that one year alone, and many more.

The gentlemen’s quartet will present the Orthodox style chant. The refrain is: “And our hearts are filled with joy”.

We shall also repeat as an accessional reflection the anthem Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts, by Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Psalm 32, 6 March 2016

International Women’s Day on 8 March is an important day in many churches including South Woden, a community who has long valued inclusive and egalitarian policies and practices.

Beguinale, Brussels

Beguinale, Brussels

One cannot define the divine in terms of our own human gender. Our practice here as we sing psalm verses is carefully to paraphrase the sung text to avoid referring to God (and people) in the male terms common in most biblical translations; The emergent psalter is a favoured source for its inclusive language.

However, the psalms recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (22:9, 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. This includes the provision of shelter and care (22:9-10) as beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in many cities.

Psalm 131 sounds as though its author may well have been a woman.The author’s experience of the divine is related directly to the mother rather than the father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

On the other hand, the psalms omit some courageous women when equivalent male prophets are mentioned by name (Miriam in Ps. 99). Pity, but perhaps this just reflects the pattern of other records and writings in those early cultures when men wrote the poetry, policy and history. This is no reason to discount this ancient poetry. An inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

The Psalm

Psalm 32 itself is one of the psalms of penitence (the second after Ps. 6; this theme takes up the first half of the song), and also of refuge (vv. 6 -7; see comment above). But then it changes direction, breaks into other riffs of guidance or wisdom (8-9) and finally thanksgiving. A brief tweet by Ben Myers sweetly summarises:

When I finally got the courage to confess my sins, I discovered You weren’t even listening. You were singing to me. #psalmtweets

The music

At South Woden this Sunday there will be no sung psalm. Elsewhere, readers and singers might well draw on the guidance thread in verse 8 with a memorable and lilting Isaac Everett antiphon, chords slipping easily from minor to relative major sequences and back again in a short space:

Show me which way to go, counsel me with your eye upon me

Ps32LassusPsalms for all seasons suggests You are my hiding place, which many groups will enjoy. If a few good sight-readers are available, two short trios are worth a look:

  • Orlando di Lasso, Dixi confitebor, verse 5 only; starts simply but becomes more complex; excerpt shown in the illustration. Readers may recall that Lassus wrote a famous and much more ambitious set of Penitential Psalms, including this one.
  • Thomas Tomkins, Blessed is he, verses 1 and 2.

Psalm 63, 28 Feb 2016

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses strikes the rock, by Arthur Boyd

Just like last week, Psalm 63 for Lent 3 holds familiar words and imagery, water this time rather than light:

You are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)

The preceding lectionary reading from the Old Testament tells us it’s all free and free for all:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! (Is. 55:1)

And just in case we missed the point, the NT epistle clarifies:

Our ancestors … drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (I Cor. 10:1, 4)

It’s interesting that the title of this psalms is ‘For David when he was in the wilderness’.

Music

Henry Purcell‘s lovely anthem Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts, still ringing in our ears from last week (we shall hear it sung again by our male voice quartet on Lent 5) reminds us that he also wrote a setting for Psalm 63 titled O God thou art my God. Whereas last week’s short piece was homophonic, syllables all sung together by the four parts, this longer piece starts that way but then becomes more contrapuntal.  Hassler also wrote a nice setting for six voices a century earlier.

Still waters

Simplicity, shelter, silence

The Carers Group leads the worship with their usual accessible and thoughtful approach. This is a great psalm for them as they unobtrusively bring cool water to our people in the deserts of suffering.

No striking of rocks is involved; just listening (theme word this week) for the the cry of the dry and the sound of water. Footprints progress. The ritual of the stones continues, accompanied by that alto flute pretending to be Gabriel’s oboe.

Some options:

  • Psalms for all seasons only has one responsive setting — nice, the refrain being a little longer than our usual practice.
  • TiS has a congregational hymn rather than a responsive song.
  • Isaac Everett, commenting that the psalm ‘ … reflects a very physical, embodied and sensual sort of spirituality’, offers a simple tune in E minor.

Today we assemble a small group to support the carers by singing a simple version of our ‘Communion chant’, one that we used sometimes for the first Sunday of the month. The refrain is simple on mi-re-doh:

Ps63 SWCC cantor.doc

My soul thirsts for God, the living God.

Psalm 27, 21 Feb 2016

Light on snow

Maybe no snow here, but dark paths can be forbidding anywhere.

God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

Light the light of the world (John 8:12) and light upon the path (Psalm 119:105) — is a theme found in many psalms, in words that have become familiar by virtue of repetition and songs based on such verses.

This psalm offers encouragement, weaving together two threads of thought.

First is that of light, beauty and goodness. The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see  beauty all around and commune with that spirit.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.Second is the idea of refuge — protection, salvation and shelter. Light merging with security.

Music

Taking advantage this week of Jon’s presence at the helm, we gather a male voice quartet seeking good harmony and stretching beyond our usual weekly diet.

The Taizé round The Lord is my light and other responsorials are enticing. However, we propose to render a home-grown setting that is equally restrained for Lent but a little more challenging for the singers. The antiphon invites those gathered to make that opening declaration their own:

Cantors: God is my light and my salvation
People: Whom shall I fear?

Ps27 Hdims

I call this little piece the ‘Half-dim’ antiphon after the opening half-diminished chords — perhaps not very suitable a title when rejoicing in the bright rays of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the verses to the same tune. If the technology works, listen here:

Gradual

The male voice quartet will also sing Thou knowest Lord by Henry Purcell (1659-95) as the gradual, a prayer of access. The sentence is borrowed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Referring liberally to such psalms as 139, it begins:

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears unto our pray’rs; but spare us, Lord most holy.

Rather quaintly to the modern ear it continues, a precursor to Good Friday, with the prayer: ‘suffer us not … to fall from thee’.

Acknowledgement. Images in this post by Libby O’Loghlin, rowinggirl.com CC BY-NC-SA

More on Half-dim?  Continue reading

Psalm 91, 14 Feb 2016

A high placeThe devil took Jesus to a high place and said: “Jump! You’ll be fine…

…  it is written, ‘God will command the angels to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ (Luke 4:9-11)

Psalm 91 is where it is written. That is why this is our psalm for the beginning of Lent, at the entry into the forty days and nights of reflection in the desert.

The whole poem is really about being in a safe place in the shadow of the wings of a caring God, despite desert, dangers, devils.

Music

Josquin canonThe psalm arrangement shown here in this small corner of a page is unusual. What are the large coda markers and numbers about?

The clue is in the headers; first, Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi, XXIV vocum. The first phrase is obviously the incipit:

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty (v.1 KJ)

Then XXIV vocum, or ‘in 24 voices’. A few weeks ago we read about several psalm settings for many voices. Josquin des Près ran this one up for Psalm 91. Twenty-four parts looks pretty fierce but the work is actually a round (‘Canon à 6’ gives it away), the song being sung sequentially by six quartets. This accounts for the numbered signs for the entries of the six groups a bar apart. What fun that one would be with a big choir.

Back to reality and the beginning of Lent. Many settings revel in that safe shelter in verse 1.

  • TiS 48 (albeit neither responsorial nor coinciding with the lectionary verses) is the popular And I will raise you up on eagles’ wings.
  • PFAS 91D alternate refrain is one of the easiest, and offers a simple tune and nice standard chord progression (I-IV-vi-ii-V-I).
  • The previous PFAS91C is a nice Spanish one (the dancers seen below are Chilean but the heritage is Spanish) with a slightly longer refrain that rolls along. Best if you have SATB singers but nice without.
  • And then that 12-bar piece in the Dropbox library; blues for Lent — a bridge too far?

Latino dancers