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


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.

Psalm 80, 18 Dec 2016

80 signNote: Previous posts on this psalm (see index) were limited by a selective local music agenda for the day. This post broadens and integrates those comments for more general applicability.

At South Woden this year, we decided that Psalm 80 would be displaced by other Advent readings and carols. Pity in a way, since coincidentally we celebrate two 80th birthdays on this Sunday in a special celebration.

Psalm 80 by Asaph is a cry for restoration by the ‘Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock’. As strife continues all around, the singer seeks a more peaceable zone, perhaps by the still waters and safe pastures of other familiar psalms. The psalmist invokes the Creator’s strength and justice to intervene and bring safety to the people. A promise of faithful obedience (verse 18) concludes the song before the final repetition in verse 19.

The modern reader might be mystified by the historical references that come up early in the song; you might dig Israel and Joseph but why do Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh get a mention (v.2)? Leaving the intricacies of tribal history in the north and south kingdoms to expositors, this can be taken as a prayer that all tribes will be equally blessed. The message of the first few verses is pretty plain:

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel … Restore us; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (verses 1, 3)

This follows a nice throw-away line in an associated reading from Micah, using that same image of the shepherd feeding the flock:

He shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:5)

Both writers trust that preservation from a raft of trials and tribulations is assured, and that it may be both individual and collective. They both use another archaic reference, that of the shepherd and flock.

IMG_1067It’s often said that this recurring biblical idea has lost its punch in modern urban life, especially in this wide brown land. Maybe, but coming once across a couple of modern shepherds wending a path through a busy market street in Bruges, complete with band and children’s play castle, the action was instantly recognisable. Even if you had never seen it before, the shepherd’s role was evident.

Looking again at the psalm, verse 3 quoted above appears again verbatim in verse 7. After a change of imagery to the vineyard, that same line returns in the final verse 19. This is clear internal evidence that the poet had a responsorial plan in mind from the beginning. So it’s easy to pick a line to use as a sung response.


Complete with black sheep

A flock in Turkey, complete with black sheep.

Besides several SATB classical settings, there are two rather more demanding ones by Purcell and Mendelssohn.

  • The former is in English but in eight parts. Purcell has not conceived the setting as two SATB choirs like much of the music of the Venice school of the 17th century, of which more later. Sometimes Purcell has the singers in close harmony, almost homophonic. At other times he playfully weaves selected parts around individually. At other points, two halves act as high then low voice choir almost antiphonally.
  • Mendelssohn‘s work is for TTBB, so may be well within the reach of even some smaller choirs and groups. However, the original envisages continuo accompaniment and it would lose something without that.
  • There are several other SATBs on the web, including the rich Slavonian Orthodox ‘Cherubic Hymn’, a Latin gradual for Advent Qui sedes Domine from the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom by Dmitri Bortniansky (1751-1825)

Modern settings are equally rich and varied. The choice of an antiphon is easy with verses 3, 7 and 19 forming that recurring prayer of supplication:

Restore us O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved.

Psalms for All Seasons uses this verse in the responsorial setting 80A. This antiphon may be taken as usual as a single response: it also lends itself to division between two or three groups of voices in call and reply. Separate phrases could be allocated to good effect to small groups, solo voices and the congregation:

A: Restore us again (instrumental bar follows)
B: O Lord God of hosts, (instrumental bar follows)
C: and show us the light of your face and your grace,
All voices: and we shall be saved.

PFAS also provides a tone for the singing of the verses. However, a scanned version of the words can be written and sung to the tune of the response — a common practice at South Woden:

Hear Shepherd of Israel, leading your flock / shine from on high upon Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin

Rather surprisingly, the refrain in New Century Hymnal ignores the internal antiphon, preferring the second half of verse 2: “Stir up your might and come to save us”. Everett uses it in his nice lightly syncopated refrain in TEP.

Double trouble

After introducing the idea of antiphon within antiphon, we must refer to the St Mark’s 11th century church in Venice. The early choirmasters at St Mark’s in the 16th century took warmly to the idea of double choir works, writing in 8 parts or more. Masters like Willaert and Schütz, encouraged by the independent nature of Venice as the second most important city in Italy, as well as by the presence of two organs and two choir lofts, were innovative and free in their exploration of the form and wrote many rich masses and anthems in that style.

StMark's Venice

Under Giovanni Gabrieli, according to A history of Western music (Grout and Palisca, Norton, p. 300),

… the performance forces grew to unheard-of proportions.

The choirs may sing alternate repeated phrases, sometimes overlapping, sometimes echoing, sometimes developing to a new theme, sometimes coming together at a dramatic moment or an important part of the text.

Psalm 131

Like most songs of Ascent, this is brief and to the point. Three verses extolling simplicity, honesty and humility, with a fourth calling for Israel, or the people of God, to wait in reverence. And as one of the songs of ascent (120 to 134), the poem is said to be one of pilgrimage (see also the comment on 122 regarding the pilgrimage series of 120 to 123) though such a construct is not obvious from the evidence of this text alone.

Child at peaceWhat is more obvious is that the song uses maternal images of divine love. While it is said to be by David, again from the text it sounds as though it may have been written by a woman. This feminine touch is regrettably rare in the psalter. Such were the times.

Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter paraphrases this into a nice refrain using his characteristic syncopation and modern chord voicings, in this one with lydian mode atmospherics based around Cmaj#11:

I have taught myself to be content. I am like a child with its mother.

The responsorial setting in PFAS 131C by Loretta Ellenburger — again on verse 2 and the quiet child — is more conventional, but creatively adds ATB parts in a different rhythmic pattern behind the refrain melody. The setting in NCH, despite its female authorship, skips the maternal theme in favour of ‘Hope in God’ from verse 4.

Equally pleasing but in a different style and more demanding are rather lengthy classical settings by Schütz, Lassus and White, for four to six voices. Schütz wrote a motet for each of the first three verses.

Psalm 46

This is one of those short songs studded with some quite memorable lines, such as:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble (v.1)
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God (v.4)
Be still then, and know that I am God (v.10)

It also has its own inbuilt antiphon, repeated in verse 7 and 11: “The God of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” That is frequently a key theme and the refrain in the antiphonal arrangements. However, Psalms for All Seasons generously offers seven in all, including two hymns, displaying excellent variety of style to suit many tastes:

  • 46A is to a Scottish hymn tune better known as a Christmas carol regarding a midnight clear.
  • 46B Dios es nuestro amparo is Spanish, with verses and refrain all in characteristic rhythm and three-chord harmony in E minor. It does have one little touch very common in Spanish songs of getting from the tonic minor to the sub-dominant minor via a transitional major on the tonic; i-I7-iv. However, it only happens once; and being on the whole less adventurous than much Latino music, particularly that with South American influences, it could lapse into the soporific.
  • 46D, the next one of interest, is a repeat of an Isaac Everett setting from The Emergent Psalter. As such, it’s definitely worth a close look. PFAS adds an additional tone to sing the verses, verse 7 and 11 being sung as the refrain (music here). Everett’s sensitivity for creating an interesting and unique backing leads him to use E minor and E diminished as alternating chords throughout. It’s quite short so is not in danger of lapsing into the soporific, especially with a rocking bass line and that unusual diminished chord that implies an A7 flat 9 on a syncopated E pedal.

  • 46D Alternate Refrain 1 is also attractive, coming from the Wild Goose stable and John Bell. He creates a simple two-part tune using verse 10 quoted above with a second echo voice. Many such songs just use a couple of chords so that the two parts jive: not so  in this case, with clever chord progression joining both. The associated tone follows the flow and feel of Bell’s refrain tune.
  • Finally, 46E uses a translation from the Book of Common Prayer, with the music of Ein Feste Burg by Martin Luther adapted to a chant. (See also Psalm 45) The text is fitted to the notes as underlay, rather than a separate text with pointing. This music is also in the exact form of a double Anglican chant with ten notes to each verse, four for the first phrase and then six for the second. More will be said on this topic in the forthcoming post on Psalm 79.

This poem is attributed to the Korahites. An Australian group taking the name of The Sons of Korah make a meal of Psalm 46 by writing three separate songs with but a few verses for each. These may be found on the 2014 album ‘Refuge‘.

Psalm 20

Psalm 20 appears only once in the three years of the Lectionary — and I probably missed it when it came up last year because we were in Berlin again.

After a gracious prayer for safety and prosperity in time of trouble, the psalmist (this song is attributed to David) goes on to warn against relying on chariots, weapons and warfare in achieving victory. And what is the nature of that victory? David just prays for the ability to ‘arise and stand upright’. (v.8) It would be easy to sing this little throw-away line without really noticing its importance.

Psalms for All Seasons again comes up with nice choices. (There’s nothing in TiS). We look briefly at 20A and B before the classics.

Latino dancersSpanish time

For some reason, anything Spanish is likely to exhibit, besides great music and harmonies, engaging rhythmical foundations. PFAS 20A, El nombre de Dios te ampare/May God’s holy name uphold you, is a fine example.

15C clock, Basel museum

Complex time

The harmony by Homero Perera relies on fairly conventional changes; a modest ii-V-I in C for starters, but then slipping in some nice substitutions, Ab-Bb-Eb-C. The rhythm is the winner, alternating between bars of 6/8 and 3/4 (2×3 then 3×2), as we saw recently in a much older Schütz Psalm 33. Simple enough once you get it and not uncommon, but so effective.

The PFAS performance notes are, to my mind, rather poorly placed in fine print in pages at the back of the book. However, once you find them they have this good suggestion:

TimbrelsIt would be helpful to the singers to have some percussion instrument, such as a woodblock, keep the 3/4 pulse, with other percussion instruments, such as shakers and triangle, marking the 6/8 rhythm. (p.1078)

And while we on the page, we note the comment on the next arrangement 20B (responsorial setting to the simple tones of a Byzantine chant) that the refrain and verses would form a nice blessing at a baptism or on other occasions.

But wait! By way of contrast, the Alternate Refrain is an equally promising Afro-American spiritual. Plenty of both riches and variety in those few pages.

Classic time

I recall singing music by the English composer Robert White (1538-74) in a Tallis Scholars Summer School in Sydney a few years ago. The main agenda of that week was the Lamentations of Jeremiah according to Tallis and Victoria. White wrote a similar work. (It appears with Tallis, Palestrina, Ferrabosco and Brumel on the  Gimmel 1997 release Lamenta by the Tallis Scholars.)

This is a rather long-winded way of introducing White’s rather long, demanding setting of Psalm 20, Exaudiat te Dominus.

Ps20, Robert WhiteIt’s written for 8 voices but not the usual double-choir SATB.SATB. The first few pages are carried by a trio of SAB. At verse 5, when the text says ‘rejoice and magnify’, White magnifies the rejoicing to five parts for a while, before changing gear again.

Unusually, the second half of the psalm is presented by two groups not of SATB but SSBB (illustrated) then AATT, with everyone in for the finale of course.

Rich pickings. Innovation maintains interest.

Psalm 120, Ascents

The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect

This is the first of a group of fifteen psalms from 120 to 134 called the Songs of Ascent.

Most of them are quite short, between 5 and 8 verses; one (132) is longer but is surrounded (131, 133, 134) by poems of just three verses each. Originating perhaps as pilgrim songs, they are sometimes called a gradual and used as a processional or song of approach.

The psalmist paints a picture of himself living afar, amongst alien and truculent tribes. He regrets human tendencies to deceit and to warfare. Without excluding himself from these tendencies he asks for peace, while those around call for war.

Two offerings, quite contrasting, must suffice in our musical meanderings for this song.

TimbrelsSeven beats of the drum

First, we look at an example of the innovation and broad world-view taken by the compilers of Psalms for All Seasons. 120B is a demanding but rewarding song from the Philippines, When my trouble arose. You know your troubles have just arisen when you look at the opening bars to see no time signature, a tutti ostinato, drum beats and notes that don’t seem to add up.

The congregation, acting as a quiet accompaniment, sings a constant rhythmic ‘Go forth — ‘ to an insistent 3+2+2 rhythm. The time signature is not 7/8 however, because there’s a sneaky 3/4 coming up. Fun. This is surely enough to catch the eye of anyone looking for something different and engaging.

A solo voice overlays the verses. It would be quite a trick to sing this in such a way that the words can be fully comprehended, absorbed and cherished by all. A few well-rehearsed lead singers and drummers are needed to hold this restrained but insistent drive, keeping the sevens, giving energy to the soloist but quiet enough not to drown the message.

Full many a flower

Turning to the classical arena, we run down the list of the usual suspects — Lassus, Morales, Palestrina, Tomkins.  All good stuff, but an unusual name at the very bottom of the list catches my eye.

It is one Ivo de Vento, who turns out to have been an active Flemish singer and organist who learned his trade in Italy. Ivo (or Yvo) then moved to Munich, perhaps with, or as a student of, Orlando de Lassus. He died there having reached the ripe age of about 30+ in 1575.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 17.53.

Psalm 120, Ad Dominum, de Vento. Liber Mottetum, 1571, National Library of Denmark

Several points are notable in this illustration:

  • First, by the 16th century the five-line staff is standard. A century earlier it might be on four lines.
  • Those lines are not quite continuous, indicating a mechanised printing process. It is, after all, more than a hundred years since Gutenberg invented his printing press.
  • A rudimentary treble clef sits on the G; earlier manuscripts would show only a C or an F clef. But since there are no bar lines and the C just happens to sit where the C clef sign would normally sit, this may be an additional key C rather than a time signature.
  • Dotted notes have appeared to indicate note values. (The figure 4 is just a page number)
  • Finally, that little squiggle at the very end of the line, a hangover from very early manuscripts, indicates the next note to be sung on the next line. This little cue can be found in many manuscripts of early music, as a valuable hint for those singers who rely on recognising intervals rather than singing the notes in perfect pitch. In this case, it tells the singer that the first note on the next staff of music is sung at the same pitch.

Ivo de Vento? We know little of this musician. Such brief biographies as we have attest to his creative productivity and influence, while noting how little he is remembered or studied. One commentary says:

He was conservative in taste … avowing a ‘Pythagorean’ preference for pure music over madrigalian conceits. []

Red and green for the seasonHow sad that this obscure composer died so young and was so little recognised and remembered. Did he, like Thomas Gray‘s rustic flowers, blush unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air?

Though his name may be last in the list and little known, yet he made sweet harmony and no doubt lifted many souls on their daily path. Gray’s Elegy continues:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[I think I snuck that in purely for that madding crowd. Or was it the noiseless tenor? … now there’s a thought!] No, we can hardly say that Munich, home of the Oktoberfest, was either desert air or far from the madding crowd, even in de Vento’s day. However, the continuity of sincere, unsung lives with preferences for ‘pure music over madrigalian conceits’ — just like the ‘restrained but insistent drive’ of our PFAS 120B from the Philippines — is often much more valued than we imagine.

Psalms 76, 77, 26 June 16

Psalm 76 makes a strong plea for a peaceable world where divine power and justice are the forces to be revered. In the city of God:

… God broke the flashing arrows, the shield, the sword and the weapons of war … none of the warriors can lift a hand. (v.3, 5)

Just as we saw in Psalm 44.6:

I do not rely on my bow, and my sword does not give me the victory; surely you gave us victory (vs. 6, 7)

Psalm 77 goes on to emphasise how powerful divine love and influence are — the psalmist cites not only elemental forces evident in creation, but also the miracles and guidance on display during the escape from Egypt.

The sword

When the psalms seem violent and vindictive, they reflect the outpourings of a soul in anguish and in times of conflict, a lament like the blues. However if the pen is mightier than the sword, so is love. The insistent and unmistakable message of the psalter is of a creator who loves justice, equity and peace.

An F-86 Sabre with a DH Vampire

Coincidentally, the ‘sword’ was the nickname for the F-86 Sabre, the aircraft your Webmaster flew in a first Air Force posting after graduation from university and pilots’ course. Also quite coincidentally, 76 and 77 are the numbers of a couple of the Air Force squadrons which flew the Sabre and then Mirage III aircraft (pictured below with an F-4 Phantom high over the Arafura Sea).

Mirage III and Phantom F4 returning to DarwinAll the aircraft I flew are now in museums, of course. Without undervaluing this military career, or denying the importance of a strong national security policy in this uncertain world, we can still wish that all such swords should be in museums or beaten into ploughshares. Untrained, uncontrolled and undisciplined, humans with guns are dangerous, as we see in the news all too frequently.

The psalms indicate that in a regime where divine love dominates, weapons are be discarded as useless. They will win no lasting peaceful victory. The psalm points out that the shield is broken too; so the same rule applies to attacker and defender alike; giving people more guns in defence is no answer. Unfortunately, until society values justice, equity and love as key values, we must keep locking our doors and controlling guns.


These two psalms appear little in the Lectionary; 76 is a ‘skip’ and 77 makes it once into Year C. Classical settings are rare, so the value of our modern psalters and collections is underlined.

Gregorian peaceFor Psalm 76 a peace prayer, also appropriate with Psalms 50 and 120, would be relevant. The illustration shows one in the Roman tradition from Corpus Christi Watershed,(1) who suggest that the Gregorian chant will serve to unify people in this cause.

For Psalm 77, Everett in The Emergent Psalter offers a simple refrain:

I call to mind your deeds, remembering your wonders of old. (2)

Fishing into the Dropbox library, I find (I had quite forgotten — it was three years ago) that I have written a paraphrase to facilitate singing the text to the same tune as the refrain (Everett assumes you will read the words to a background vamp, but this seems to miss the idea that the psalms are fundamentally songs.) The singer can use this as a guide but improvise the tune as inspired by the words of each verse. This is easier if you accompany yourself, of course.

Otherwise, here’s a good chance to write your own.

Notes: Continue reading