Psalm 79, 18 Sep 2016

This song by Asaph voices a communal lament for the defeat of Jerusalem, seeking safety and justice until the people can “give thanks forever from generation to generation”. It’s another “How long?” song, themes taken up by many song writers including Canadians Steve Bell and Linnea Good. The psalter is riven through with songs of the blues and forbearance — at least ten of them, such as Psalms 6, 13 and on through to 119, include this anguish.

When a footnote in one of our psalters (1) cautions that this psalm should be used “with great care”, and that it “may be appropriate … focusing of situations of extreme persecution”, you know you are in for one of those bitter cries for help in time of trouble. This note, rather than putting us off, is quite helpful. There are, and regrettably will ever be it seems, such situations — think of violence in South Sudan, Syria, Burma and so on. So the song could be used to identify with and pray for those who suffer dolorous lives at the hand of aggression or repressive régimes. That source, PFAS, thoughtfully uses the more hopeful Kumbayah (but in a minor key) as a refrain:

Someone’s crying Lord, kum-ba-yah.

A footnote in another of our regular sources (2) has this angle on the psalmist’s crying “How long?”:

In the Bible as a whole, it’s just as likely to be God who is putting the question to us, wondering how long it will be necessary to put up with our antics [then several Biblical references.]

TiS 69Music

Kumbayah is fine. But far away in another galaxy, one Clemens non Papa wrote a nice four-part setting called Domine, ne memineris / Adjuva nos, from the first and ninth verses. Non Papa? How would you like to go down in history as “Not the Pope” just to make sure we knew who you were? The Belgian composer Jacobus Clemens (c. 1515-55), who worked mainly in Bruges and Paris, is known for his psalms in French and particularly Dutch.

In yet another world, the Anglican church has a great tradition of chanting the psalter in a particular style that is a satisfying evolution of ancient Gregorian tradition into more recent polyphony. It uses, as many of us do, verses with pointing markers as clues for fitting the words into a chant. Our practice is marking the last three notes, usually three syllables or words, as illustrated above. The preceding words of the phrase are all sung on the first ‘reciting’ tone.

Anglican chant has two more notes in the second line, so the last five syllables or words are allocated their own notes. There are always four notes then six, making ten in all. Once you crack the code, it’s easy with a little rehearsal to agree on the flow of the words. The example shown below, for Psalm 79 by English organist C. Hylton Stewart (1884-1932), is a little different. It has two lots of ten notes so is a truly antiphonal song; verses are sung alternately, odds then evens, usually by two groups.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 10.21.

Notes:  Continue reading

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 77 again, Solstice

Solstice in the south

The shortest (and longest) day has just passed (as has the Solstice reference at South Woden last Sunday — but here are a couple more ideas anyway.) It’s cold in Canberra but from now on, those dark evenings will gradually lighten.

Fire and waterPreviously at the Solstice we have picked up a common theme in the psalms of relief after stress, peace after conflict, safety after danger. In Psalm 77, sure enough, it comes up right at the start of the selection for this Sunday 26 June:

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. / I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old / I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. (vs 10 – 12)

Note verse 11 is the one Isaac Everett uses in his refrain, as pointed out in the previous post. For the Solstice refrain used two years ago The psalm was 86, with a tune that dips to a slow low then rises to greet the spring:

However, a rework for Ps 77 is easy enough. Refitting with a selective paraphrase of the verses quoted above, it goes:

Cantor: In our troubles | we seek God || People: We meditate on | all your work re- | membering your mighty deeds.

A chord is omitted there, I see; insert G7 after the third chord Eb. A full SATB arrangement, with a parallel tone for chanted verses, is in our library.

ListenersNorthern light

The majority of followers and readers of this blog are, in fact, in the northern hemisphere,  where it’s summertime and, for the most part, the livin’ is easy.

Jorge Portuguese bass voiceIn many of the lively evening streets in Berlin last night a festive air was quite palpably abroad. The Fête de la Musique (not sure why the title is in French) was in full swing. I am told it is held on the same date each year to coincide with the summer solstice. Crowds were out late to celebrate. The recognition is not religious but clearly follows an ancient spiritual awareness in the community of our being connected to the life cycles of creation.

Duo in BerlinThe Turkish market was bustling. Musicians sang in the streets. A group of spirited young women sang on the banks of the canal, accompanied by clapping and listeners joining in familiar folk tunes. Young people in baggy tie-dye and dreads sat chatting, drinking and listening to the music and the song of the solstice spirit.

The concave tune shown above does not fit so well in this context, at least to the degree that shape matters a jot. Someone will have to rewrite to a concave rise and fall tune to suit the joy of a rising summer and the prospect of a fruitful autumn before the winter frosts. Perhaps the succeeding verses of Psalm 77 would be better:

Your way, O God, is holy. You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples (vs 14, 15)


And behind it all is the symmetry of human experience in north and south, east and west, as cycles repeat, generations follow. The creative spirit is pervasive and infectious.

Psalm 5; 12 June 16

Recognise this?

Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness,
make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou, Lord only,
that makest me dwell in safety.

It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 5:8 by Samuel Wesley, sometimes used as a short sung prayer. Both words and tune are compelling, although in the original Eb it can soar a little high for lower voices in the last line. The harmony of this song is particularly pleasing in a simple but flowing way.

The central idea of being guided towards upright ways in life is found frequently throughout the Psalter. That is equally true of verse 1:

Hear my words, O God; listen to my cry

I was instantly reminded of a lovely setting by Henry Purcell, Hear my prayer O Lord. It’s actually quoting Psalm 102:1 but could be from several places. Being written for eight parts, Purcell’s motet will not be common repertoire for most small congregations but it’s a beautiful piece.Purcell Hear my prayer

The selection above of the top three voices is included since it shows how Purcell introduces an innovative and effective device to create an interesting and captivating lilt to the prayer. Where the word ‘crying’ appears — shown here in bars 4 and 5 but recurring throughout the work — the voice rises a full tone from the minor third to the fourth degree before sinking back half a tone to the major third. These successive shifts from minor to major create a memorable and distinctive sound (a little like a sprinkling of tierces de Picardie, although this sequence normally adorns the final cadence.)

There are several nice classical settings of these and other verses by big names like Tallis, Monteverdi, Lassus and so on. If you want a real challenge, try the 6-part Verba mea (1603) by Carlo Gesualdo. I’ve not sung it but it looks, shall we say, ‘interesting’.

StolpersteinePsalm 5 also reminds the reader that divine goodness opposes all forms of wickedness, and this following hot on the heels of the OT reading from Kings, in which one in power and his wife have Naboth killed for the sake of a convenient veggie garden. Hardly the same situation but the same wickedness is remembered in the Stolpersteine (illustrated) on the pavement near our apartment in Berlin, one of many small memorials to Holocaust victims.

Psalms 74, 75

Book 3, as mentioned previously, is the home of the songs of the musician Asaph. His first five are not included in the lectionary, the next five are.

Psalm 74

Psalms for all seasons offers but one setting, the well-known O come, Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL 88.88 with refrain). This is an interesting choice, since it uses ancient antiphons rather than the text of the psalm. In particular, it draws on the ‘O Antiphons’, named for the invocations:Male voices Vézelay

  • O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • O Adonai (O Lord)
  • O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

In the Catholic tradition, these antiphons are sung at vespers during Advent. Here, the call upon God’s various names reflects the communal despair and lamentation of Psalm 74, particularly at the destruction of the temple, which leads Asaph to turn to God on behalf of the people.

PFAS usefully suggests using both verses and refrain of this hymn as congregational song, with the sections of verses spoken or chanted in between.(1) A combination of the haunting early French plainsong (2) and the early antiphonal references thus provide a conducive ‘music space’ in which to contemplate the messages of words and music.

15C clock, Basel museumJohn Blow (1648-1708) wrote a motet O God wherefore art thou absent, drawing on the ‘How long?’ theme in the first few verses (see also Psalm 13). It’s arranged for SSATB and basso continuo, so won’t be heard in many halls.

Psalm 75

This short psalm is one of thanksgiving for divine justice, with a reminder to the proud and powerful not to rely on their own achievements for prominence or praise. That justice, pictured as a common draught of mixed wine from which all shall drink, will be a great leveler.

The thoughtful approach of Psalms for all seasons mentioned above is continued here in the suggestion that the psalm is quite like the Magnificat (Luke 1). So PFAS includes a nice traditional Irish version of this song, My soul cries out, to the tune Star of County Down.

Notes: Continue reading

Psalms 9 and 10, skips

Psalm 10 never makes it into the weekly Lectionary readings, but 9 just sneaks in: “Year B, ordinary time, June 19-25 (if after Trinity)”. Sounds iffy indeed. But still, 9 does not qualify as a ‘skip‘. So on to 10.

But wait! In the early Septuagint translation and the original Hebrew, these two songs were one. (1)  Isaac Everett says:

It’s clear that they form a single unit because the combined text is acrostic, with the first letter of each forming the Hebrew alphabet: Psalm 9 is roughly A-K and Psalm 10 is roughly L-Z.(2) So 9+10=a big fat psalm.

9 10 henThey were split because they have a different theme. First is joy and thanksgiving, then a lament. Convention would have it the other way around. But in the ship of fools, the first shall be last; so forget the labels and ‘Nine, ten, sing it again’. (3)

Nine. As in history, here David is thankful that his many enemies have been defeated. The modern reader gets little from triumphalism except as an example of faith in adversity, or as an allegory of our struggling with our own demons or the ‘Dark Side’. Throughout, we are reminded:

God will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. (v. 9)

Ten. The mood changes to waiting, praying and a little hand-wringing while those enemies play their nasty tricks:

Why do you stand so far off O God, and hide yourself in times of trouble? (v. 1)

Not all about me

In Psalms for all seasons No 10A, a plainsong melody, the translator has nicely emphasised a social justice angle:Image: Wikimedia commons

From every plan which harms the poor,
from schemes to victimise the weak,
from those who snare the innocent,
Lord your defence, your help we seek. (4)

That certainly brings it up to date in a world of growing divide between rich and poor. Big fat hen or goose, maybe there’s the golden egg?

Notes: Continue reading

Psalm 150, 3 April 2016

Panel Psalm 150At last, here is the last psalm in the book. It only appears once in the three year cycle, Easter Year C. So here we are, and pleased to welcome this short joyful, musical finale.

The psalm

Band in ParisThe six short verses of Psalm 150 call us to praise God in creation. No specific reasons are adduced, because there are plenty of them mentioned throughout the Psalter. We are then called to take up trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, strings, pipe and cymbals — clashing cymbals indeed.

[By the way, the Vulgate text in Latin is slightly different:

Laudate eum in tympano et choro; laudate eum in chordis et organo. = Timbrel and choir, strings and organ.

PercussionHere the choir and organ get a mention. And those ‘clashing cymbals’ are described in the Latin as ‘cimbalis benesonantibus’ and ‘jubilationis’, which looks more like well-sounding and joyful than clashing. Another direct translation from the Hebrew says ‘loud-sounding’. OK, end of rambling aside.]

Even if you did not graduate with quals in cymbals, the psalmist then spreads the net even wider in the final verses — everything that breathes, song and dance please. So ignore the detail, grab whatever is handy and join in.

Words and music

This song of praise reminds us that the psalms were written to be sung, and this one with lots of good accompaniment. The power of music to lift words, thoughts and hopes to a higher level in human experience is manifest. As the calligraphy here says, words and music together are something wonderful.

Words music together

Words, music: together beautiful

A recent blog on Good Music Speaks points out that it’s hard to say why it’s important to us, but it certainly is. That post also notes that music has a special way of bringing people together. This psalm clearly anticipates such a situation.

The Psalter opens at Psalm 1 with instruction for our journey and ends with this vibrant song of praise. However, it’s not the end, a full stop: it’s a semi-colon inviting us to keep singing.


Well after all that build-up, what about that music? There are settings by the dozen in the Choralwiki on the web, including pieces by Bach, Byrd and Monterverdi. Closer to home, a couple appear in The emergent psalter and in Together in song.

Psalms for all seasons offers an interesting musical miscellany, ten settings in all. It’s worth a closer look to see the variety of ways in which composers for congregations around the world have imagined this song of praise — and they are not all embellished by those clashing cymbals. Here’s a summary:

A. Tuneful verses in unison followed by ‘Halle, Hallelujah!’ in a two-part, repetitive refrain. From Singapore; the reason for mentioning this will become clear as we read on.
B. A similar pattern with shorter and simpler verses and refrain. Alternates quite pleasingly between keys of D for the refrain and Bb for the verses. For pleasure and ease of learning, this one is a good choice. It’s by great scholar of African-American songs, J Jefferson Cleveland
C. A Punjabi melody next, unaccompanied save for finger cymbals and drums!
D. And now one from Mexico, with a nice swing, good chords and eminently singable. A little long to learn but the rewards would be there.

Remind me again; where was this port call?

Remind me again; where was this port call?

E. Then a sedate English-style chant, not in the ‘Anglican’ tradition but fully arranged homophonic chant
F, G. a couple more hymns, to tunes like HELMSLEY and EASTER HYMN
G. has an alternate refrain from the Caribbean, the familiar Halle. halle, halle-lujah!
H. is an ancient French tune (not responsorial)
I.  is a Wesley hymn, and
J. is for Genevan.

So that’s once around the world for you!

Bottom line. We’ll go with B, the children assisting with percussion. Anyone else is welcome to join in!