Psalm 112, 5 Feb 17

Light rises in darkness

Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.

During a yacht delivery through the Barrier Reef a while ago, an overnight anchored in a remote cove was a welcome break. A refreshing sleep rocked by the movements of the boat in wind, wave and tide was a perfect precursor to a pre-dawn start. With anchor a-weigh, still dripping salt water and sand, the early light of dawn crept over the outcrops of the uninhabited island that was our silent but comforting host for the night. In such a tale, light and darkness are equally appreciated, necessary and used to advantage. No moral values either negative or positive are attributed.

When metaphorical dimensions arise in literature, darkness usually comes off worst by a country mile. Light is good, dark is evil. So it appears in Psalm 112 at first glance: but the implied moral values are by no means black and white. Light is valued in verse 4 but darkness is not necessarily bad, just limiting. There’s a time to sleep, and a time to pull up anchor. Illumination, as in Psalm 119:105, seems here to be a lamp to the feet and a light to the path of those who seek goodness, day or night. Translations differ. The New International Version is attractive:

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.

The paraphrase used as antiphon for a setting of Psalm 112 in Together in Song 69 is: “Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.” Strongly in its favour is the direct link to justice, a word wielding much more force in a modern context than the jargon of ‘righteousness’. The music for the opening phrase of the response rises step by step, like the sun rising from behind those dark outcrops, preparing for the final call later in the psalm to a life of justice and faith. The verses may be sung freely to the tone in the hymn book, perhaps with guitar accompaniment. A nice variation is to use the tune of the refrain as a tone, varying the pointing as desired.

Using the first line of verse 1, the refrains in both NCH and TEP say: “Happy are those who fear God”. (See remarks on ‘fear’ in the comments on the previous psalm, 111.) PFAS 112B skips fear and selects the second idea, that ‘those who delight in the law of God’ are happy. And while referring back to 111, the comment made there regarding Victoria’s vesper psalms could be repeated verbatim for this psalm, save for the title Beatus vir qui timet Dominum.Ps112 introit Victoria

Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he hath great delight in his commandments. (v.1, BCP)

Psalm 27, 22 Jan 2017

This psalm offers encouragement in difficult times, weaving together two contrasting but commanding threads. First is the imagery of light, beauty and goodness. Calling to mind references to the ‘light of the world’ (John 8:12) and ‘light upon my path’ (Psalm 119:105), it is a theme found in many psalms. Many readers will be familiar with the opening verse:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? God is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”

The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see beauty all around and commune with that spirit of love. (v.4)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

Image: E O’Loghlin, rowinggirl.com

Second is the idea of refuge — protection, salvation and shelter from danger or persecution. This second theme of heavenly care in adversity is also mentioned frequently elsewhere in the Psalter, perhaps even more often than light — maybe there was more adversity than light in those days. Here, David feels that his enemies surround him; his answer is to sing. (v.6) The psalmist thus merges illumination, guidance and clarity together with security and forgiveness.

Music

Considering that this poem is set only twice in three years of the Lectionary cycle, it has been unusually popular with musicians. Perhaps the potency of the blend of those two themes is the key. Verse 1 quoted above is clearly suitable as an antiphonal response, and many of our sources base a refrain on some variation of this idea. Looking first at modern settings, one blog suggests over 20 songs. A partial summary of some good choices follows.

  • The Taizé round The Lord is my light is appropriate in this context. A gathering used to singing these songs will relish two tunes blended together as well as the two entry points for each theme, making effectively four parts. The sound will be effective unaccompanied or with a light backing of guitar, flute or such instruments.
  • Psalms for All Seasons offers no less than ten settings, including this Taizé round. A discussion of the whole list is tempting; but since responsorial settings are preferred, suffice to note that all (27A from Taizé, B, E, F and H) rejoice in that first verse, highlighting either the ‘light and salvation’ or the ‘strength and courage’ topics, or both.
  • Everett in TEP also uses the second of these two themes.
  • A different approach, using as response a verse from Isaiah “Do not be afraid I am with you”, will be found in Together in Song no 16, a paraphrase of the verses with a beautiful setting by Christopher Willcock. Enchantment springs in part from his imaginative and unusual harmony changes, moving between Eb and EΔ tonalities accompanied by related chords, and all supporting a lilting tune.
  • The home-grown setting shown below is equally restrained but a little more challenging for singers.

Ps27 HdimsThis little piece is locally known as the ‘Half-dim’ antiphon acknowledging several half-diminished chords (minor seventh flat five, subject of longer discussion in a February 2016 post) — perhaps an unfortunate title when rejoicing in the bright rays of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the paraphrased verses to the same tune.

Psalmus David, priusquam liniretur. Dominus illuminatio mea et salus mea: quem timebo?

Ps. 27, 13th c. manuscript, Getty Museum

Turning briefly to the classical scene, remarkable in the listing online are not only the plethora and variety of settings for Psalm 27, but also the occurrence of little-known composers. Ever heard of Supply Belcher, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Sigismundo d’India or Orazio Tarditi?  More familiar and exciting names are there too, like Charpentier, Lassus and Sweelinck. But they write demanding music for five or more voices and often basso continuo. Dream on.

The illustration (click to enlarge) from an early French manuscript shows David being anointed by Samuel. The Latin version of the first verse quoted at the outset reads: “Psalmus D[avi]d, priusqua[m] liniretur (before he was anointed). Domin[us] illuminatio mea et salus mea quem timebo?”

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

Psalms 42, 43, 19 June 16

Australians, at least those who live or travel anywhere near the open dry spaces of this continent, know what thirst is all about. Indigenous plants and animals evolved to survive through hot summers and droughts. Aboriginal people were expert at finding water in dry creek beds, trees and grasses.

Kimberley landscapeFor Sooner or later in a long dry spell thirst will catch up with expert and novice alike. Elijah in the Old Testament story this week (1 Kings 19) must have felt it, as alone and fearful he fled from persecution far into the wilderness (that Jezebel must have been a real piece of work). Elijah finally came to the end of his tether, sat down under a broom tree — and even that was a ‘solitary’ broom tree — and wished for death. That’s what the psalmist has in mind at verse 1:

As the deer longs for following streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Cathedral walk in the Bungle BunglesThen follows the famous episode of the still small voice following earthquake, wind and fire. It is matched in the psalm by deep calling to deep in the thunder of cataracts; but after a day of God so demonstrating steadfast love:

… at night the song is with me (v.8)

The reading then flows smoothly on to Psalm 43, where we come across another familiar verse:

Send out our light and your truth, let them lead me; and let them bring me to the holy hill and to your dwelling (v.3)

Music

Psalm 42, especially the thirsty deers, seemed to capture the imagination of composers over the years. Mendelssohn and Luther did their own translations of the poem, and many settings exist. One of the earlier pieces (apart from early Gregorian chants in the Roman liturgy or counterparts in the Mozarbic and Gallic liturgies) crops up in a mass written by 15th century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. He calls this verse into service for times of bereavement, when surely the soul thirsts for comfort. This section is sparse, being for ‘superius and countertenor’ voices. It could be adapted, of course, but it’s not very suitable as the centrepiece for the singing of the psalm in the modern service. It’s also in Latin

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

imageIncidentally, Elijah’s despairing cry is repeated in the incipit of a popular madrigal by Monteverdi from his Fourth Book of Madrigals for five voices of 1603, ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’ (‘Yes, I’d like to die’).That’s where the parallel stops, though, as this is actually an erotic love song. It was recycled during the Counter-Reformation by re-texting with a religious message about the love of God. People would have recognised the tune and got the reference straight away. (Image; canto part book by Monteverdi, British Library)

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Psalm 97, 8 May 2016

Light in the forestThe readings this week contain an amount of shake and show.

  • Paul and Silas in prison are shaken by an earthquake, showing both them and their jailer their ways to freedom. (Acts 16)
  • In the Psalm, fire, lightning, trembling mountains — and light dawns.
  • ‘See I am coming … Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift’ (Rev. 22)
  • Jesus as the conduit to understanding and grace (John 17)

Psalm 97

In the psalm, firstly, the ruckus seems to be about:

  • a call to praise a creator who mysteriously (‘clouds and darkness’) established goodness and justice as foundational elements of the universal blueprint (vs 1, 2)
  • celebrating the escape from Egypt, with pillars of fire and such theatrical effects (vs 3-6)
  • and more generally an awareness of the power of the elements.

chinese_dragon_artA second section laments the habit during the exodus of turning to graven images for inspiration and guidance. These days, the traps are just as pernicious as we tend to be fascinated by images, youth, beauty, public profile or power. Appreciation of meaningful activity, art and beauty are important; but so is balance.

Then comes a promise to those who follow this admittedly broad instruction (what is ‘true-hearted?):

Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are true-hearted. (v. 11)

Broad instruction allows people in many different situations to consider, discern and apply. But remember the context of the Christmas readingsPsalm 97 sits in the middle of a bracket of three psalms, 96 to 98, that (like the song of Meshach and his mates in Ps. 148) call for the creation to unify in praise of the creator by singing that ‘new song’.

Music

The Crystal Ball for May gave fair warning that the Cantor’s whims might intrude. So it evolves that we shall not toss up between TEP and PFAS as foretold therein, but sing a new song using verses 11 and 12 for the refrain:

Cantor: Let us be glad.
Response: Light has sprung up for the faithful; give thanks to the holy name.

Ps97 BOL refrain tune

Sheet music here: Ps97

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 36, 17 Jan 16

bnh-206.jpg

The wicked are wicked — through and through it seems.

Compared with a couple of weeks ago when I felt that we should have started at the beginning of the psalm not half-way through, this time I don’t lament that we skip the first four verses. They tell us that the wicked are wicked. Big deal — although verse 4 about the wicked ‘thinking up evil on their beds’ is quite nice imagery: ‘Heh heh!’

Mind you, these days in modern writing (let alone the post-modern) you can’t get away with this melodrama where the goodies are pure as the snow and the villains are plain evil and get their comeuppance. Flawed heroes and almost likeable baddies are, more realistically, the norm.

Not for this psalmist. David (“Of David the servant of God” — preface to the psalm) goes on to cherish divine love in no uncertain terms. The lectionary excerpt ignores the baddies at the beginning and the end, like moth-eaten bookends, and just give us the middle verses 5 to 10 about divine love:

  • it reaches to the heavens
  • how priceless it is
  • all people (‘your people’ in some versions – is there a difference?) find refuge
  • in the shadow of your wings
  • feast and abundance
  • drinking from the river of delights

Last week I was unconvinced by such bald statements in Psalm 29. This time it’s about love, so it’s easier for us to spring up to applaud.

Music

Back on that Ps. 29 post again, I also remarked on ‘a paucity of classical settings’. Ps. 36 is in the same boat. In any case, since the baddies are excluded, I think this could do with a bit of energy and swing, or even a hint of rhythm and blues. Too radical?

Our regular books are pretty thin on Psalm 36. TiS skips it altogether and PFAS has only one responsorial — and that’s not burning with the spirit of Otis Redding. Steve Bell, Canadian singer featured on the Styles page (scroll down) sometimes grooves, sometimes more country, but his album on the psalms does not include this one.

The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett; Church Publishing .org

The Emergent Psalter; Church Publishing .org

Isaac Everett‘s refrain in The emergent psalter is suitable; a little long but it repeats a simple phrase; it has strong words – Everett points out the ‘feast’ is the same word as ‘overflows’ in the 23rd psalm; modern feel (but in 3/4), starting on and returning pleasingly to major sevenths in tune and backing chords.

But sometimes, it’s nice to write your own so you can swing it if you feel like it. I’ve used verse 7 for ours this week. Not R&B but it can be sung with a good beat or ballad/folk style. Cantor volunteers for the verses please, SWUC!

Ps36 cantor OL

For a little more on R&B,  Continue reading