Psalm 23, 22 April 18

IMG_1067Following the desolation of Psalm 22 (“Why have you forsaken me?”), the restoration and peace in this next psalm is a comfort. How sweet is resolution after a time of conflict, oppression or depression. The Psalter does not say ‘No pain, no gain’. This would be inconsistent with the concept of grace. But its songs often reflect on the coexistence of suffering and joy, and the power of divine love to transform one into the other:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. (Ps 23:4)

Some say that the image of the shepherd is meaningless in modern times. The pic above right taken in a market place says otherwise. Most people still understand the idea of caring for a flock.

🎵

This poem in many minds may be irrevocably tied to Jessie Irving’s famous tune CRIMOND (TiS 10). However, many other fine choices are available to the enterprising music group, while still respecting the much-loved phrases of this psalm.

One excellent choice to sing tranquillamente is a setting in the beautiful Spanish language from Psalms for All Seasons 23I, written in 1975 by Ricardo Villarreal. The people’s refrain is as follows: “El Señor es mi pastor; nada me puede faltar / My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.” This is sung in G minor, the root chord alternating with its dominant seventh D7. The verses, best sung with feeling by a small group (in South Woden in recent years it has often been by male voices) slip into the related major key of Bb, before quite rapidly modulating smoothly back to that G minor again. Neat and effective. (It’s a powerful but not unusual progression, similar to the attractive pattern in Show me which way to go which we encounter with Psalm 32, though the changes come in a different sequence.)

Some other modern settings follow:

  • If building a Spanish theme, Santo santo, an anonymous tune from Argentina which may be found in TiS 723 would nicely supplement this psalm as incidental music.
  • TiS also has a Gelineau setting at No. 11
  • PFAS offers ten other settings including a two-part responsorial setting by Marty Haugen at 23G
  • Carolyn Jennings in NCH uses verse 2 in a simple singable melody and harmony for the refrain. Choose your own tone for the verses.
  • Finally, don’t overlook the Paul Kelly song Meet me in the middle of the air, which draws on Psalm 23 and I Thess.4:17. Lovely song, good simple harmony.

Tempting classical music for contemplation includes J S Bach’s cantata BWV112 based on this psalm. One short section, 112e which is verse 5 for example, would grace any worship gathering. Another nice setting for a trio is Der Herr ist meine Hirte, by G P Telemann.

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

Psalm 16, 23 Apr 17

Like the twenty-third, this is a psalm of trust and protection in divine presence, the source of goodness and guidance. David describes God as his portion and cup, evoking familiar imagery in themes that connect well with daily life. Less familiar but interesting are some other phrases that might easily pass unnoticed in a quick reading.

First, in verse 6: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in (or enclose) pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” Most of us in the developed world can rejoice in having been dealt good cards — a well-favoured estate, physical and otherwise, as inherited by the psalmist. We seldom think of our situation as defined by boundary lines, but limits are implicit in our inherited circumstances. What we do with them is up to us.

Secondly, in the next verse, we find a point of contact with many meditative and mindfulness observances practised in many cultures around the world: it is by listening reflectively to our own hearts that we may often find divine guidance. There are several other ideas floating around; for example the apostle Peter quoted the later verses of the psalm in Acts 2, declaring that David was foretelling Christ and the resurrection. David concludes the song by affirming: “You show me the path of life. … there are pleasures for evermore.

Music

Of the four settings in Psalms for All Seasons, three follow our preferred format of a refrain with sung verses. All of these three emphasise the theme of refuge and protection:

  • 16B has a slightly longer refrain and verses set to a lively tune
  • 16C introduces a simple refrain by Christian Strover (© 1973) with an equally simple but effective chord line of Gm-EbΔ-Dm7-Gm.
  • 16D uses the same refrain as 16C but verses are sung to a tone.
  • 16D Alt (a new tune which departs from the protection theme, and might therefore have been better listed separately as 16E) also follows that familiar pattern of verses sung to a simple tone, with a refrain quoting verse 9. This could be sung as call and response if desired:

Cantor: My heart is glad and my spirit rejoices
People: My body shall rest in hope.

The Emergent Psalter also uses this verse 9 quoted above in an easy refrain; find your own verse treatment as usual in this source. The New Century refrain, this time by Carolyn Jennings, quotes the final phrase: “In your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” A home-grown setting by the author also uses these closing phrases.

There are a couple of songs in the ether that are highly suitable for male voices. A good example is Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by Orlando di Lasso (1532 – 1594). It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.

 

Psalm 130, 2 April 2017

This psalm is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). It’s also the sixth of seven penitential psalms: not that it matters greatly, as the idea of ascent captures the imagination more powerfully. The song is a statement of the mystery not only of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations, but also of our access to grace. The first verses, if you have not already looked it up, get right to it. In Sinead’s version:

Whales off Bribie
Whales playing off Bribie Island

Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord; don’t let my cries for mercy be ignored.

Arising from the depths surely adds a new dimension to ‘ascent’. The poem recognises that despite our efforts and capacity for good, we will never reach divine standards in behaviour or nature. The psalmist just waits upon God ‘more than those who watch for the morning’, trusting that divine power will bless with hope (v. 5), love (v. 7) and redemption for Israel (read ‘the people’; vv. 7, 8). Turn up this text next time you are in the doldrums.

Life in many places has often been pretty rough over the years; people fight, wars arise over land, resources or power grabs. Days are very dark for ordinary people feeling the consequences of conflict. When things fall apart like that, community rulers try new ways of patching them up and preventing recurrence.

Schwych CharterThe charter shown here is one such attempt. It’s a page of a 16th century Book of Alliances of Schwyz, in the middle of Switzerland, a transcript of an earlier treaty between confederations or cantons, the Sempach Charter of 10 July 1393. This document sought peace by agreeing that military force would only be used in defence against external threat not between the valley communities. Amongst other things, it laid down rules of conduct:

Feuds are prohibited between the confederates and unity should reign in all military campaigns. The proceeds of war must be divided, monasteries and women spared. Plundering is only permitted after victory.

All well and good — as long as you are the victor!  On the whole, however, treaties don’t have a great track record. They look good but are often ignored in the interests of expediency, greed or control. At such times, the common people suffer again and again. (The celebrated Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary slipped by recently, left an important marker for human rights. But the treaty itself was much repealed within a few decades.) No wonder the writers of the psalms were doubtful about trusting in princes (Psalm 118) or great armies (Psalm 33). This psalm provides quite a different focus. The peoples’ cry from the depths continues:

Hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications… For there is hope of steadfast love and forgiveness. (verses 2-4)

The tone of the psalm thus encourages confidence in divine forgiveness and help. However, it wisely counsels patience:

My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning (v.6)

Music

Verse 1 delivers such a strong image that it features prominently in many of the songs and antiphons associated with Psalm 130:

  • In PFAS, for instance, six of seven suggested music options are titled in those words or the idea. (The first by the way, 130A, goes back to one by Martin Luther in 1524.)
  • In the hymn book TiS No 81 for Psalm 130 begins the verses the same way, but chooses the theme of mercy and redemption for the antiphon. It’s quite a nice setting and should not be overlooked.
  • A favourite version by Sinead O’Connor works well, lending itself to a solo or supported singer presenting words more closely following the psalm text than the Sinead song. Her opening lines quoted above make a good responsive refrain.

Classical settings abound for the enthusiastic choir or quartet. Michael Praetorius alone wrote more than ten motets drawing on this text. JS Bach, Des Prez, Lassus, Sweelinck, Tallis, Wesley, Weelkes … the list of rich pickings goes on. Again, many of these composers were obviously captivated by the imagery of those first few verses, imagining what ‘Out of the depths’ might really look like. Whatever works.

Psalm 23, 26 March and 7 May ’17

IMG_1067The Shepherd psalm arises again in another of its frequent appearances.

Following the desolation of Psalm 22 (“Why have you forsaken me?”), the restoration and peace in this the next psalm is a comfort. How sweet is resolution after a time of conflict, oppression or depression. The Psalter does not say ‘No pain, no gain’. This would be inconsistent with the concept of grace. But its songs often reflect on the coexistence of suffering and joy, and the power of divine love to transform one into the other:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. (Ps 23:4)

This poem in many minds may be irrevocably tied to Jessie Irving’s famous tune CRIMOND (TiS 10). However, many other fine choices are available to the enterprising music group, while still respecting the much-loved phrases of this psalm. One excellent choice to sing tranquillamente is a setting in the beautiful Spanish language from Psalms for All Seasons 23I, written in 1975 by Ricardo Villarreal. The people’s refrain is as follows: “El Señor es mi pastor; nada me puede faltar / My shepherd is the Lord; nothing indeed shall I want.” This is sung in G minor, the root chord alternating with its dominant seventh D7. The verses, best sung with feeling by a small group (in South Woden in recent years it has often been by male voices) slip into the related major key of Bb, before quite rapidly modulating smoothly back to that G minor again. Neat and effective. (It’s a powerful but not unusual progression, similar to the attractive pattern in Show me which way to go which we encounter with Psalm 32, though the changes come in a different sequence.)

Some other modern settings follow:

  • If building a Spanish theme, Santo santo, an anonymous tune from Argentina which may be found in TiS 723 would nicely supplement this psalm as incidental music.
  • TiS also has a Gelineau setting at No. 11
  • PFAS offers ten other settings including a t wo-part responsorial setting by Marty Haugen at 23G
  • Carolyn Jennings in NCH uses verse 2 in a simple singable melody and harmony for the refrain. Choose your own tone for the verses.
  • Finally, don’t overlook the great Paul Kelly song Meet me in the middle of the air, which draws on Psalm 23 and I Thess.4:17. Lovely song, good harmony.

Tempting classical music for contemplation includes J S Bach‘s canatata BWV112 based on this psalm. One short section, 112e which is verse 5 for example, would grace any worship gathering. Another nice setting for a trio is Der Herr ist meine Hirte, by G P Telemann.

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965
Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, Psalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

William Shakespeare, who died around 400 years ago, was around and writing when the Authorised or King James Version was prepared and published (1611, also the year when Tomás Luis Victoria died). Despite some speculation about the words ‘shake’ and ‘spear’ appearing in Psalm 46, there’s no known connection between the writings of Bard and Bible. The purposes and intended audiences of William and David were quite different. How fortunate we are, though, to have two such rich contributions to our heritage, culture and literature.

Psalm 29, 8 Jan 2017

The voice shakes the wilderness and strips the forest

The voice of God is a constant and powerful theme in this psalm — thundering over the mighty waters, shaking the wilderness, breaking cedars or flashing forth in flames. The psalmist (said to be David) assures us that through all the elemental turbulence of life, the divine spirit reigns supreme.

A familiar voice from someone well-known but out of sight is often easy to recognise and identify. There is no need to analyse the pattern of frequencies, the combination of harmonics, or the different degrees of resonance. The subconscious sifts. The psalms, poetic and mystical though they may be, are full of voices. The fact that we do not always immediately identify them suggests lack of familiarity. However, it’s also of course because of that poetical and mystical nature. Take the voice of divine influence. In the business of daily life we seldom pull up short and say: ‘That’s a heavenly voice speaking.’ Psalm 29 says the voice of God is to be found in many ways:

  • over the waters
  • full of majesty
  • breaks the cedars of Lebanon
  • flashes forth flames of fire
  • shakes the wilderness
  • causes the oaks to whirl
  • strips the forest bare

John Greenleaf Whittier‘s prayer was: “Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!” All this suggests the need to be attuned to the environment, natural, social and cultural, not just the flow of our internal thoughts. Then, the psalmist seeks more than just hearing. The final verse of Psalm 29 is a prayer:

May God give strength to the people! May God bless them with peace!

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall
A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Music

This concluding prayer for peace suggests a familiar and beautifully harmonised Taizé chant as the antiphon: “Dona nobis pacem cordium, give to us peace in our hearts”. Sing it twice as a refrain. The text of this psalm falls into place easily using the same chords and basic tune of Jacques Berthier’s nice little melody. This is very effective presented  by a soloist acting as story-teller.

Everett in TEP also homes in on this very relevant prayer for the modern world, in a  lilting refrain over one of his typically inventive chord progressions.

A more lively song in PFAS 29B, by Lorenzo Florian 1985, is one of those attractive Spanish tunes with good plain harmony, including a few surprise chords, and a little swing. (Is everything Spanish so much fun to sing and play?) Definitely worth a try if you have any Spanish heritage represented in your group. A more conservative (and less inclusive) double tone and refrain (Willcock) is to be found in TiS 17 for the plain vanilla treatment if preferred.

Although Brahms wrote a nice motet drawing on Psalms 22 and 29, he calls for a double choir. Few easier classical settings recommend themselves to a small group of singers. Remember you can always grow your own.