Psalm 40, 15 Jan 2017

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year as well as this one in Epiphany in Year A, is a rich and captivating poem, said to be by David. It begins with patience, awe, thanks and song:

God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. God put a new song in my mouth. (vs 2,3)

The poem continues with the image of a parent stooping to hear and comfort a child. It then evolves like a harbinger of Mary’s song the Magnificat, before concluding with a prayer, repeated in Psalm 70 and elsewhere, for continued blessing.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.
Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

An earlier post (August 2016>) waxes eloquent (quacks on, perhaps?) about some interesting antiphonal music found in an early manuscript, the Howard Psalter from the early 1300s. Have a look at that if interested; but meanwhile the following list updates, expands (and yes, corrects) the originally sketchy treatment in that post of some of the modern settings.

  • A snappy tune in Psalms for All Seasons 40C, longish but easy and repetitive, uses the opening verses: “I will wait upon the Lord”. Paraphrased verses are set to an equally nice tune.
  • The first of the three songs in PFAS, the responsorial setting 40A, uses verses 7 and 8: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will”. Verses may be sung to the tone supplied.
  • Marty Haugen’s pleasant refrain in New Century also chooses verse 8: “I delight to do your will”
  • Together in Song No. 23 chooses verse 11, (“Do not with-hold your mercy”) and features a double tone, four phrases and bars each versicle, quite suitable for small SATB group. (Change ‘Lord’ to ‘God’ throughout for gender neutrality.)
  • Everett in The Emergent Psalter goes for the final verse 17, illustrated and quoted above. Note that Lectionary readings stop at verse 10 (in March) or 11 (Epiphany). Pointing out how much they make of two chords, he also urges consideration of the chorus of U2’s song “40”. Watch: https://youtu.be/1XzHlySYR_Y

Psalm 46, 20 Nov 16

Happy New Year’s eve to all. Well, this is the last Sunday of Year C. Year A and advent start 27 November.

[And for our local SWUC readers, at such times of cosmic transition, including of course the solstice, we are privileged to have Keith at the helm.]

www.iona.org.uk
http://www.iona.org.uk

Psalm 46 also comes up at significant calendar moments, this week and every Easter to be precise. A recent blog reviewed the many options for this psalm offered in Psalms for All Seasons. Recalling our leader’s sure touch with such themes, drawing on time spent in remote islands and the Iona Community in particular, PFAS 46D Alternate Refrain I from John Bell and Wild Goose has a head start.

The refrain has two parts, the second being an exact echo of the first one bar later. The technique of echo or imitation has been widely used as a way of harmonising a melody, especially in renaissance contrapuntal motets but elsewhere in many psalm settings. As is the requirement when composing a song that can be sung as a round, the repetition of a harmonic pattern helps. The more complex the chord structure, unless within a short cycle, the more difficult is the task of composing a tune that fits the changes throughout.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) wrote a highly imitative setting for Psalm 46 for three similar voices. The second and third are also delayed by one bar each. In this situation, the composer often has to choose to vary either the imitative melody or the chord structure. Telemann chose to keep the chords simple and repetitive — a constant cycle between tonic, subdominant and dominant with a few relative minors en passant —  leading (IMHO) to a rather lacklustre piece.

Back to Bell and his echo. His first four bars are simple enough, alternating between E and C# minor. Budding composers would have no trouble fitting a repetitive echo melody to that sequence. But try making up a tune to fit this sequence equally well regardless of whether it starts at bar 1 or bar 2:

|     A     |      E      |   F#m7   G#m7  |   AΔ   B7   |     E     |

John Bell has it down to a fine art, cleverly using a simple pentatonic scale in this case. Which came first, the chords or the tune?

Verses are sung to the Alternate Tone I attached to this option. As is our normal practice, the tone either repeats or closely resembles the refrain tune or pattern. The cantor conveniently starts on the same note as the refrain. I don’t know who wrote this tone (© 2011 Faith Alive) but it fits. I like the fact that this entry is now the leading note of an A major 7th (AΔ), reinforcing sympathetic ground in this interesting terrain. An a capella group would have a nice time tuning this major seventh interval.

Ps46 Luttrell Psalter 42130
Deus noster refugium et virtus / God is our refuge and strength’, Psalm 46:1. The Luttrell Psalter c.1340, British Library MS 42130.

Psalm 40

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year as well as Epiphany in Year A, is a rich and captivating poem, said to be by David. It begins with patience, awe, thanks and song:

God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. God put a new song in my mouth. (vs 2,3)

The poem continues with the image of a parent stooping to hear and comfort a child. It then evolves like a harbinger of Mary’s song the Magnificat, before concluding with a prayer, repeated in Psalm 70 and elsewhere, for continued blessing.

Choose your antiphons

Responsive refrains are often drawn from a key verse in the psalm being sung, or a related or derivative text from other biblical references.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.
Antiphon for Psalm 39 (40) in an English Psalter, early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83 f35r.

 

The beautiful early manuscript of the Howard Psalter in the British Library, digitised and illustrated here, reveals an interesting departure from the practice of using a verse of the psalm being sung. It takes a little unravelling. Those familiar with Latin and the medieval scribes’ habits of abbreviation in manuscripts will have a head start.

Here is my take. The decorated text at the top of the page is the final verse of the Psalm 40, the rest of the psalm appearing on the previous page:

Adjutor meus et protector meus tu es; Deus meus, ne tardaveris / Thou art my helper and redeemer: make no long tarrying, O my God. (Ps.40:17, BCP)

Then the music is appended, with its ‘antiphona‘ heading, in square notes on a four-line C clef. A close look reveals that the second staff casually switches to an F clef. That must have kept the monks alert.

Now what about the words underlying the music?

Ut non delinquam in lingua mea / (I will take heed to my ways) that I offend not in my tongue

First, the small ‘a‘ in the last line is a kind of pointing, a cue for alternating responses by groups, or answering a priest or cantor. You will not find the antiphon words in this psalm. The fist phrase, starting with the tall decorated ‘U’ and up to that a, is borrowed from the previous Psalm 38:2 in the Vulgate; our 39:1. [These words also appear in the next illustration of the Grandisson Psalter.] Then, the last little phrase beginning with a fancy S looks extraordinarily like a much abbreviated quote from the next sequential Psalm 40:5 (our 41:4):

Illustration from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter 13C. BL MS 21926 F66v
Illuminated capital and text of Ps 38 from The Grandisson Psalter, Exeter 13C. BL MS 21926 f66v

Sana animam meam Domine / Lord, heal my soul

Reaching out thus to neighbouring psalms may have been intended to help learning and to reinforce the continuity of the Psalter. Whether coincidentally or deliberately, both of these quotes from the preceding and following psalms happen to begin with Dixi / I said.

Later …

Leaping forward a century or two to 1564, Claude Goudimel writing in middle French stuck to the text of Psalm 40. Lassus (1585) then Mendelssohn (19th century) both wrote nice four-part inventions on the opening verses that they probably regarded as modest affairs. In the Lassus work, that Latin phrase ‘I waited patiently for God’ appears as the tasty title Expectans Expectavi.

And finally …

To the present day:

  • A snappy tune in Psalms for All Seasons 40C, longish but easy and repetitive, uses the opening verses: “I will wait upon the Lord”. Paraphrased verses are set to an equally nice tune.
  • The first of the three songs in PFAS, the responsorial setting 40A, uses verses 7 and 8: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will”. Verses may be sung to the tone supplied
  • Marty Haugen’s pleasant refrain in New Century also chooses verse 8: “I delight to do your will”
  • Together in Song No. 23 chooses verse 11, (“Do not with-hold your mercy”)
  • Everett in The Emergent Psalter goes for the final verse 17, illustrated and quoted above. Note that Lectionary readings stop at verse 10 (in March) or 11 (Epiphany). Pointing out how much they make of two chords, he also urges consideration of the chorus of U2’s song “40”. Listen:

Psalm 117

Ps117 BL Harley603f60
Illustration for Ps. 117 (CXVI in the Vulgate) in an English 11th century Psalter. Script Carolignian minuscule. Click to enlarge. Image: British Library Harley 603 f.60r

Psalm 117 is a surprise on several counts.

Short and sweet

First, as the shortest psalm in the bible, it consists of but two verses — and just two songs later the longest psalm 119 sports 176 verses!

These two verses are nevertheless important ones, presenting statements of the universality of all peoples or nations, and the eternal core of divine love and faithfulness. Psalms for All Seasons says they are ‘two of the most lovely and weighty images in the entire Psalter’.(p.737)

Second, even though the psalm is omitted from the Lectionary, yet the settings in our psalters and lists of classical settings online are legion — two in TiS, six in PFAS and nearly 60 online in CPDL. Brevity, rejoicing and simplicity all add to the allure of this little gem, a gift for song-writers it would seem.

So what did they write?

  • PFAS has several Taiwanese, French, Spanish and English options.
  • Together in Song has an Isaac Watts hymn and the Taizé refrain in PFAS.
  • In the more classical arena composers range from Anon. and Bach to Victoria and Vivaldi, with many names in between both famous and obscure
  • Such writers frequently chose the Latin text Laudate Dominum omnes gentes.
Ps 117 (116 in Vulgate) melismatic chant
Ps. 117 (116 in Vulgate Missal) melismatic chant, Solesmes Monastery

The long and the short of it

As might be expected, composers have resorted to various ploys to make a substantial song out of verses that take about 15 seconds to recite:

  • Medieval composers would have just resorted to melismata, singing many notes to each syllable, as does the Gregorian chant still in use today (illustration above)
  • Or their manuscript illuminators just filled in with mysterious drawings (illustration at top of page)
  • Classical composers were quite used to repetition, imitation, counterpoint, inversion and various other tricks to stretch one phrase into a page of music.
  • They could add verses from somewhere else then a few pages of Alleluias — JS Bach by this means manages 14 pages in one of his motets.
  • PFAS points out that some of the shorter choruses can be sung in different languages — how is your pronunciation?
  • Isaac Everett in TEP suggests ‘it could become a full-on jam session’, very appealing to this cantor
  • Some, including Everett’s, can be sung as a round.

Size may matter in some domains. David, by both harp and sling-shot, abundantly demonstrated otherwise.

Psalms 96, 13, 29 May 2016

Psalm 96 is another call by the psalm songster to sing, yet again, a new song.

Trouble is (quite apart from the fact the we are not actually singing the set psalm 96 this week) we actually like the old songs best. You remember words and tunes you learned as a young person, while other more recent tops of the pops are recognisable but not much else. You go to a party and someone has a guitar. Which songs can you sing? Not the latest and greatest in the weekend magazine, but the hit parade of youth, or perhaps when you were courting, perhaps the ‘standards’.

A new song?

TiS 69With a new psalm popping up each week, it’s almost impossible to get a familiar groove going. We try to do this by threading the theme of a responsive tone and refrain through our weekly singing; or using a familiar response with new words retro-fitted; or just relishing the lovely voices of our familiar singers, hardly operatic in style but all dedicated to telling the stories and presenting the songs of the psalter. We smile at familiar tunes like ‘Rivers of Babylon‘ (shades of Bob Marley) or Paul Stookey’s Building block.

The quest is to find a tune that suits the text, the message of the psalmist. Sometimes the ‘new song’ comes in to play as your Webmaster ranges around picking up something from centuries gone by, something from Latin America’s glorious rhythms, or a reworked folk and blues. So much great music, so little time.

Resilience

This week, the theme of our reflections under Trish‘s thoughtful and experienced leadership, is resilience and trust.

These themes are frequent visitor via the songs we sing each week. The psalmists often ask ‘How long must I wait?’ For justice, for deliverance, for answers or comfort…  Silence can be deafening, listening for assurance that someone cares. Try Psalm 13, or 31 or 130 (nothing to do with combinations of the numbers 1 and 3). This Sunday, it’s time to roll out Psalm 13 after two years gathering dust in the Dropbox cupboard:

How long have you forgotten me O Lord? (Ps 13:1)

Patience is an important element of resilience. And, remembering earlier comments on the subject, a blues feel is quite in order. For Steve Bell’s rendition of this song, see the Styles page and scroll right down; we won’t go quite so get-down bluegrass. Every time we reinterpret an oldie and goodie, voilà it becomes a new song.

For SWUC:  Continue reading “Psalms 96, 13, 29 May 2016”