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.

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.

Music

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‘.