Psalm 148, NYE ’17

The poetry and music of the psalms are great catalysts to imaginative interpretations, lateral thinking, flights of fancy, aspirations and yes, hopes for the coming year —  maybe even a New Year’s resolution or two.

You would have to admit that a psalm that can invoke comments about Tchaikovsky, Yoda, John Bell, whales and James Taylor supports the view that, for the year ahead, ‘Anything goes’ as the Cole Porter song would have it. Well, read all about it in the post on Psalm 148 at the very beginning of this year, 01/01/17.

This song of praise is a suitable way to wrap up the year and, accompanied by angels, sun moon and stars, monsters, fire and hail, young men and maidens — you name it — we rejoice in the creation and a creator who established an intended system of love and justice which “shall not pass away”.(6)

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 136

The immediately remarkable feature of this psalm is the antiphon inserted in each verse of the poem, which begins:

Give thanks to God who is good : whose steadfast love is eternal.

The phrase in the second half (in bold) is added to each verse, presumably in the original text.

Ps136 RoyalMs2

Ps136 in the Psalter of Henry VIII, British Library Royal Ms 2

These repeated antiphons are shown in the 16th century manuscript illustrated, known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. Personal notes in the king’s hand hand appear here and there, although not in this snapshot. Here we see the last verse of the preceding Psalm 135, followed by the words Gloria and Sicut erat, which of course are just cues for the full doxology. Then in red the psalm number 135 in the Vulgate, 136 in our English Bible. Then comes verse 1, with several abbreviations, after a decorated capital C:

Confitemini Domino quoniam bonus / quoniam in aeternum [or here, saeculum] misericordia ejus

Such short statements in each verse continue, the repeated antiphon of the second half of the line above being repeated and further abbreviated to quoniam or just qm (see lower right of the illustration) to save space.

History – with antiphon

These short statements remind the reader of all the major events related in the five books of the Torah: the wonders and sustainment of creation, the history of the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea and the conquest of various kings in taking of Canaan, the promised land. Ironically, in the following Psalm 137, the glory days have passed and they sing the lament of captive exiles, ‘By the rivers of Babylon’.

These days the facts of the story are better known than they are relevant, save as an inspiring if remote myth of divine guidance and protection. Did the Red Sea really roll back at the right moment then roll back, as Miriam sings in Exodus, to consume pursuing horse and rider? In poetry the detail is less important than the message.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested that poetry often invokes the “suspension of disbelief”, a phrase he dreamed up in 1817 for when we are happy to go along with the romantic story regardless of credibility or otherwise. Poetry that infuses a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale can entice the reader willingly to suspend logical judgement. He had his own poetry in mind, no doubt:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.

The ride is sometimes more fun than the destination. The stories of the psalms are no exception.screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-14-15

The long …

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) wins the prize for producing a startlingly grand motet on Psalm 136. Assuming the major congregations or patrons of the day had such resources to hand, he arranged the piece for up to four choirs or smaller groups of voice, brass or other instruments, together with a figured bass continuo. Illustrated here are the last few bars, in 17 staves, of the 200 bars of this piece. Each staff shown here is edited for voice with text underlay but in all probability some would be instrumental. One edition has Cantus 1 taken by trombone.

… and the short

On a more modest scale, several modern psalters provide a short tone (Psalms For All Seasons 136D) or background vamp (The Emergent Psalter) for the first phrase, then a refrain for the antiphon in each verse. They often include John Milton’s rather dated hymn Let us with a gladsome mind; interestingly, PFAS 136B updates and vamps it up a bit with new rhythm, an echo voice part and refrain — Genevan adapted.

New Century cunningly starts with the “Steadfast love …” phrase of the repeating antiphon but adapts it by adding a response that invites the congregation to participate more personally. Rather than continuing “… endures forever”, the refrain concludes ” …  surrounds those who trust in God”.

Psalm 48

This song of the Korahites is another royal moment, with Zion and the holy hill “the very centre of the world”. (2) In modern times, this is generally regarded as a non-geographic metaphor. (See also comments made in Psalm 47 regarding ‘sponsorship’.)

Time and place

As has been noted in relation to other songs wherein the psalmists long for the holy City of God as a particular place in time and history, this predated the advent of the Christian and Islamic religions. So while Zion is often mentioned, this is poetry. There is no caliphate here. The longing for mercy and safety is universal. The poem may be applied to the locus of life, love and justice in creation, or in your own experience and faith.


One can hardly be surprised if a reader is less than thrilled when coming across compositions for this psalm from publications called “The Columbian Harmonist, 1807, words by Isaac Watts, 1719″, and “Transcribed from The American Singing-Book, 1786. A simple song, apparently written for newcomers to a singing-school. Words by Isaac Watts, his paraphrase of Psalm 48.” (CPDL entry) But it’s horses for courses. The music leader is constantly challenged to make something meaningful of ideas that may initially seem too complex or too sparse.

More modern refrains in New Century Hymnal and Psalms For All Seasons (nothing in TiS) commend themselves to us more warmly, not only for simplicity and good music but also because they spotlight a key verse, whether literally geographic or not:

We ponder your steadfast love O God, in the midst of your temple. (v.9)

Psalm 48:9 in a 13C psater, British Library MS50000

Psalm 48:9 in a 13C psalter, British Library MS50000

The illustration, from the Oscott Psalter of around 1270 CE, shows the Latin script of that same verse: Suscepimus Deus misericordiam tuam in medio templi tui. Note the abbreviation, common in medieval manuscripts, marked by superscript tilde ~. Thus the third word misericordiam (mercy or loving-kindness) appears as mīam, and in as ī. The script in blue in the second column is described as a ‘metrical paraphrase’. This beautiful psalter includes no antiphon.

Everett in TEP chooses the penultimate verse, “Tell the next generation” (13) for his refrain.

Psalm 61

Capital 'E'(xaudi) of Ps. 61 in a Mozarbic psalter, 11C Spain BL MS30851.

Capital ‘E'(xaudi) of Ps. 61 in a Mozarbic psalter, 11C Spain BL MS30851. A sung antiphon of v.2 precedes the text

Divine standards of perfect love and peace seem far off and unattainable in a world full of strife, refugees, war and deceit:

As high as heaven is above the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways (Is. 55:9)

The good news in the psalms, here and in other songs like 31, is that higher and hopeful levels are not out of reach:

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower (Ps 61:2,3)

(Incidentally, it is worth reading on into the passage from Isaiah 55 for a beautifully poetic and more encouraging assurance of sustainment and fruitfulness.)

In Psalm 61 David, the author, seems to pray for himself as king, though he adds more humbly: ‘before God’ and with ‘love and faithfulness for protection’.(6, 7) This is not just self-importance; David assumed that he and his people were charged with the responsibility of not only caring for the creation (Psalm 8) but also bringing a message of divine caring to a benighted world.

This is the last in a large group of ‘skips’ from 55 to 61 that do not appear in the weekly Lectionary. Thus Psalm 61 is ignored in TiS and NCH, while PFAS offers, apart from a couple of hymns, one setting with a response, originally in Tamil to a Punjabi tune, in 61B.

PraetoriusWhilst classical settings are also fairly few, in somewhat grander style Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) produced a setting of the first four verses, Exaudi Deus for two choirs of four voices, in a collection called Musae Sioniae: Deudsche Psalmen und Geistliche Lieder (1607; see illustration).

And in the ‘little-heard’ category is a Portuguese SATB by Brazilian composer Dr Jorge Moreira (1948-) that is worth a try by your local quartet.

Note in the Spanish manuscript illustrated at the outset, an 11th century script from the Monastery of Silos in northern Spain, that the antiphon here appears to precede the psalm text. The text is drawn but diverges from the first part of verse 2:

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

A finibus terrae ad te clamavi, dum … / From the ends of the earth will I call upon thee: when my heart is in heaviness.

Compare this with another later manuscript known as the Howard Psalter which is discussed in the posts on Pss. 122 and 129. First, note that the musical notation has progressed significantly, from a line of neumes to a four-line staff with square notation. Secondly, in Howard the chant and antiphon may have been sung at the end of each psalm rather than the beginning, although this is not clear, and often uses excerpts from psalms before and after the antiphon.

Psalm 113, 18 Sep ’16 Alt.

Ps113 Harley MS603

Psalm 113 and servants rejoicing, Harley psalter in the British Library, MS 603

Many parables in the New Testament propose an inversion of social climbing rules; the first shall be last, the proud shall be humbled, the outcast preferred, all you need is love. After an introductory song of praise — in this case without invoking the usual evidence of mighty deeds — the writer of Psalm 113 recorded a poetic precursor to this ‘foolish’ value system:

God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, and give the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (vs. 7-9)

Tomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings for this psalm, a motet and a vesper psalm. Both titles (incipits) start with Laudate pueri / Praise ye servants. The title of the motet, for double choir, adds Domine. Victoria’s series of psalms specifically for vespers or evensong includes 113. Various luminaries in early times devised appointed psalmodies in the Roman rite for each of the services of the hours. Between five and more recently two psalms were to be sung in each evening service. In most such schemata, the vespers psalms were drawn from Psalms 109 to 147, with the exception of the longer 118.

However in the Jewish (especially Ashkenazi) tradition, 113 was included in the morning Shacharit (from the Hebrew for dawn) prayer as well as before the Passover meal. So maybe the first shall be last and the last first after all!

There are many enticing classical settings besides these. These vespers psalms and hymns have caught the interest of many great composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff whose vespers in the Eastern Orthodox All-night vigil has been mentioned elsewhere.

New Century Hymnal provides a lightly syncopated refrain uses verse 2: Blessed be the name of God forever. It assumes the verses are sung to one of the many tones suggested on page 620.

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!