Vespers, 26 Aug 17

Vespers psalm settings by Victoria, Lassus and Rachmaninov have been mentioned several times on this blog – see for example Psalms 103, 104, 112, 116 and 127. Canberra area readers will be interested in an opportunity to hear some of the wonderful Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil (‘Vespers’) this Saturday.

Extracts from the Vespers will be performed in the extraordinary acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop at 3 pm on Saturday 26 April 2017.

The Oriana Chorale presents haunting music of darkness and light in a program of music composers of northern European descent, curated by Music Director Peter Young. The woman with the alabaster box is one of two works by Arvo Pärt, famous for his shimmering and hypnotic choral effects.

Also included are works by three of the most interesting choral composers of today, Ola Gjeilo, Erik Esenvalds and Paul Mealor (the composer of a new piece for Prince William’s wedding).  Jazz fans will also be interested to hear evocative saxophone improvisations by prominent local musician and teacher John Mackey.

While several of the vespers psalms are omitted on this occasion, the wonderful first psalm will open the Rachmaninov sector. The concert will provide an excellent and enjoyable idea of the sonority of the Orthodox tradition, ranging from meditative moments to the explosive last movement:

South Wodens may remember that some time ago a male-voice trio presented a much-trimmed version of Rachmaninov’s Psalm 103:

Psalm 103, 21 Aug 16

Note. The primary reading for this Sunday is Psalm 71:1-6. Please see the relevant post here>. The secondary readings include Psalm 103, said to be ‘of David’.

This song is a well-rounded tour of all the ingredients for worship — praise, why we are blessed despite the brevity of human life, and the kindness inherent in the divine spirit who pardons, heals and seeks justice.

New land

One of the benefits of writing about music on a theme is coming across composers of whom you have never heard … or completely forgotten. Like Ivo de Vento whom we met in another post.

In amongst commonly appearing names like Jeremiah Clark, Lassus, Schütz and Tomkins, there are a good dozen names listed under Psalm 103 that are seldom heard. These include names like Stephen Jarvis, a sail maker from Devon who wrote a set of psalms; Henri Dumont, Flemish then Paris, 17th C; and Claudin de Sermisy in the French tradition of Luly and Couperin, whose Ps. 103 for vespers Benedic anima mea was first published in Paris in 1535.

Then we find in the Orthodox tradition that Messrs Voznesensky and Ledkovsky came up with introductory psalms, also for vespers in the all-night vigil. These are both arrangements of a popular traditional Russian and Slavonian melody. It will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with the great Rachmaninov All Night Vigil. Voznesensky gives the entry tune to the bass voice:

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 10.57. 1Rachmaninov has a sonorous alto solo sing that tune in the second movement of the Vigil, Благослови душе моя, Господа (Blagoslovi dushe moya, Gospoda; Praise the Lord, O My Soul). Listen to the YouTube clip in the post on Psalm 104 — which psalm begins with the same phrase.

Familiar territory

Closer to home, TiS and PFAS have a couple of unremarkable hymns including one by Tallis, of whom one tends to expect more adventurous scribbles. The latter source makes up for it by offering several other choices including a short Spanish responsorial setting, 103G, which comes from a longer work Sing all You Lands: Bilingual Psalms by Peter Kolar.

It also gives us at 103C a nice Taizé song using that same verse 1, Bless the Lord my soul. The congregation or a small group may continue to repeat the chorus in the background while a solo voice sings the verses. Each verse tune is a variation (and in a slightly different range) so could be sung by different soloists. The ostinato needs to be quiet and peaceful but the overall effect can be very inspiring.Entering Taizé village For South Woden:  Continue reading

Psalm 104b, 15 May 2015

Whales off Bribie

Denizens of the deep surface in verse 25 – and elsewhere, such as in Psalm 148

In this selection from Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, the poet’s eye sweeps appreciatively across the ‘manifold works’ of creation, made with wisdom and full of wonderful creatures:

Yonder is the great wide sea, with its living things too many to number. There move the ships, and there is that Leviathan which you made for sport. All of them look to you for food… You open your hand and they are filled with good things. (vs. 25-28)

Just one intimate word picture of one of those moments of wonder that strike us from time to time. With Mothers’ Day last Sunday (in some countries) still warm in our memories, the creative theme reinforces a female image of a nurturing God. Fourteenth century author Julian of Norwich is famous for her extended comparison of God to a mother:

… when [a child] is hurt or frightened it runs to its mother for help as fast as it can; and [God] wants us to do the same, like a humble child, saying, “My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my dearest Mother, take pity on me.” (1)

Lofty music

Recalling some lovely works of English composer Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), your male voice group if you have one should probably grasp with all hands and voices his motet O Lord how manifold are thy works setting for TTBB, from Musica Deo sacra (London, 1668).Ps 104 Rach vespters

And I must mention the gorgeous Russian Orthodox sounds of Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospodi from the wonderful Vsenoshchnoe bdenie (All-Night Vigil, Op. 37) by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Amen. Bless the Lord, my soul. Blessed are You, Lord. O Lord my God, exceedingly great are You. You are clothed with honour and majesty. On the mountains water stands. Your works are wonderful

But in Russian of course (see illustration above). (2) Treat your shell-pinks to this:

Local music

Our men will turn to Together in Song number 65, one of those antiphonal chants in this publication that offers a tone in four rather than two phrases, with a modulation section for each.(3)

This will be a good opportunity for singers to become more familiar and enjoy singing tones, that text with the mysterious dot three syllables from the end of each phrase or line (see also Notes for Singers). These chords (I-vi-iii | I-iv-V-I) are not as ‘colourful’ as one could wish — read modern, jazz-influenced harmonic structures such as Δ or 9th, 13th or tri-tone sub. (4) However, that avoids a whiff of anachronism I guess; and singers, as always, will enjoy stretching into the four-part journey of ‘psalms in tones’.

Notes:  Continue reading

Psalm 90, 26 October 2014

This Sunday we enjoy another visit by our good friends in The Gospel Folk ably led by stalwart friend, supporter and Psalm Team singer Brian. The energy and swing of Gospel singing will be most welcome.

Hang on; for months I have been cooking up an arrangement of the set psalm, 90 (text here>), quite without reference to the African-American sounds. Indeed its grand vision:

‘For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night’ (Ps 90:4)

schrist_mosaiceems to call for a grand historical perspective drawing on some rich early Orthodox harmonies.

So we are set up for what Rev. Rachel has now graciously and adaptively termed a ‘dialogue of musical traditions’. What a blessing to have such an accommodating approach at South Woden.

The African-American tradition is no stranger to us, but what about the Orthodox piece?


Rulers of the worldByzantium. The very word conjures up thoughts of the ancient rule of empires — Greek, Roman, Latin and Ottoman. The Greek city of Byzantium became the capital of the Roman empire under Constantine, taking his name. It became Istanbul in 1453 but regardless of the label it has long been a centre for cultural and religious influence throughout the eastern Med. and Russia.

From that cultural centre, the Eastern Orthodox Church has spread in its various forms, largely through south-east Europe, Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Russia, now rejoicing in some 250 or 300 million adherents. So there are a lot of psalm singers out there drawing on a rich historical culture going back to the commissioning of the apostles.

The music is particularly rich. Think Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s All-night Vigil (the ‘Vespers’; if you don’t know it, do listen sometime — here for example > is one movement of this lovely work). Surely we have much to gain from listening to and savouring this ancient spiritual and musical stream?



Tucked away in Chevetogne in Belgium is a Catholic monastery that devotes considerable effort to bridging the gap (eg. different calendars, traditions and observances) between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. There are many differences but many shared beliefs and practices. The monks have recorded some great songs of the Slavonian and other Orthodox liturgies. I have transcribed one of their pieces (originally used as a setting for the Beatitudes — but this has its own magic) for Psalm 90, which I thought particularly suited for the male voice group who sings on this fourth Sunday, 26 October.

After an enjoyable sing at the musos’ lunch at Farrer on Sunday 19th (a rollicking mélange of Gregorian chant and African-American styles), members of the men’s group look forward to presenting this beautiful Slavonian setting (music here>) on Sunday.

Coming up

Saints: Augustine Museum, Freiburg

Saints: Augustine Museum, Freiburg. Click images to enlarge

On 2 November we have a congruence of the baptism of lovely little miracle mite Thea, and All Saints’ day. The photo at left is of large 15th century carvings of some of those saints — note the figures of living saints in the background for a sense of scale. These wearied statues were removed from the cathedral of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany, restored and preserved in the nearby Augustine Museum.

But wait, there’s more: Psalm Singers are invited to gather in strength to lead Meet me in the middle of the air, lovely song combining ideas from Thessalonians, Psalm 23 and all saints, by one of my favourite atheists Paul Kelly.

And thank you all for a rousing call for those scarce commodities, justice and equity, last Sunday. Continue reading