Psalm 86, Solstice

There’s no hint of it in the text of Psalm 86 but the Lectionary occasionally (Year A) trots this song out at around the time of the solstice. For those in ‘the South’, this is the winter solstice, shortest day in the southern hemisphere calendar. [Readers in the northern hemisphere might have to find a point of entry more relevant to the height of summer.] Down under, the lament resonates since David is here at a low point again, “poor and in misery”. But as usual, in such a slump he calls on divine support. (vs 4-7)

The Solstice itself has no particular significance in the Christian year. No, not true: we did borrow it in the days of the old Julian (and northern hemisphere) calendar for the pivotal festival of Christmas. However, the metaphor of reaching the nadir of cold times, be they astronomical, physical, social, emotional or spiritual, is obvious. Psalm 86 somehow reflects these circumstances, providing comfort and inspiration. With this in mind, in the following home-grown song (an SATB arrangement is available) the tune, in both verse chants and refrain, falls gradually to a low point before rising in hope. An obvious device, no doubt, yet undeniably in harmony with the liturgical concept.

People of every race and any century have long pondered on the cycles of heaven and earth, sometimes seeing spiritual significance, sometimes just in awe. In the early 16th century and a long way from the Greenwich Observatory, a Polish medic, cleric and astronomer named Copernicus hesitated for years before finally being pushed into publishing irrefutable evidence that the ancient Greek and Egyptian observers including Ptolemy (who lived not long after Jesus) were wrong in one major premise. The earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe and creation. It actually rotated in orbit around the sun, not the other way around. Galileo agreed.

Final bars of the nine-part ‘Incline thine ear’ by Lassus

The established church opposed them, under pain of excommunication and worse. Some were actually burned at the stake for espousing such views. Galileo recanted, Copernicus kept his head down. The church fathers were stuck in the Ptolemaic system based on some very dubious and over-literal readings of biblical texts – including psalms such as 19 and 93 saying the earth shall not be moved –  for fear that science would undermine belief in the inherited wisdom and authority of the church.

When Copernicus was finally convinced to publish, just before he died mid-16th century, Rome sniffily placed his book on a banned list. It stayed there for more than a century. Regrettably then as now, targeted or random, extreme interpretations in any faith are hard to reform and can lead to foolish attacks on innocent, thoughtful people.

Music

For the ambitious there are many larger classical settings, such as a Morales 1541 motet in three parts, Inclina Domine aurem tuam.  An even more demanding piece for nine voices [illustrated] under the same incipit was published by Orlando di Lasso (1530 – 1594) in 1604, in what turned out to be a very productive early decade for fine music.

Apparently is it possible to conduct from an assembly of many challenging parts. Not a bar line in sight.

This structure, two small choirs or quartet and quintet groups of soloists with or without accompaniment, was not uncommon. The author had the pleasure of hearing a Vecchi mass for 9 voices and early instruments, including psalm settings, performed near Den Haag by Musica Antica recently.

All musicians were reading from the original published music, not at all an easy task to the modern musician. It was conducted by Kate Clark, an Australian baroque musician, professor and lawyer resident in Amsterdam.

Period instruments, violi da gamba and bass viol

Modern music

Psalm 86 is frequently absent in hymn books like TiS. However, TiS 725, the Taizé song In our darkness, is suitable in this context, under the Southern Cross at least.

The psalters, naturally, have settings. PFAS 86B is a responsorial setting whose words paraphrase the theme of the psalm, rather than a particular verse: “Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.” A simplified version of the same refrain may be found at 91D a few pages on.

Everett in TEP homes in on one of the few verses in the collection that mentions a female role-player:

Give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your handmaiden (16)

We are not sure whether this is David referring to his mother as the handmaiden, or it is indeed a prayer by the woman author herself.

Alternate Psalm

The alternate set of readings includes Psalm 69. See previous posts such as that on 4 Sep 2016> Coincidentally, a featured refrain therein offers northern hemisphere readers a tune that rises, rather than falls, to match the summer solstice pattern.

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 32, 5 March 2017

Psalm 32 is one of the psalms of penitence (the second after Ps. 6; this theme takes up the first half of the song), but also of refuge — “You are my hiding-place” (vv. 6 -7). Then it changes direction, breaks into other riffs of guidance or wisdom (8-9) and finally thanksgiving. Of the seven traditional penitentials, David in this song is particularly conscious of personal failings, confession and forgiveness. A tweet by Ben Myers summarising the psalms captured it cleverly with a positive twist:

Psalm 32: When I finally got the courage to confess my sins, I discovered You weren’t even listening. You were singing to me. #psalmtweets

A woman’s touch

Ideas herein other than penitence are worth consideration. Never far from the psalmists’ pens are thoughts of refuge, wisdom and guidance. Sometimes, refuge is presented as a shelter from violent conflict. Here, David says: “You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble”, (verse 7) then goes on to relish divine guidance, (8) and understanding. (9) More often in the highways and byways, relief from hunger, poverty, oppression and homelessness are far more relevant. There’s no vector in this psalm to point us directly to International Women’s Day which will be celebrated about the time this psalm arises in the Lectionary. However, women have often been primary agents for refuge and guidance to the young, penitents and destitute over the centuries.

Beguinale, Brussels

The psalms give little prominence to women. However they do recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (22:9, 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. This includes the provision of shelter and care (22:9-10) as beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in older European cities. Psalm 131 sounds as though its author may well have been a woman. Her experience of the divine is described as relating directly to a mother rather than father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

On the other hand, the psalms omit some courageous women when equivalent male prophets are mentioned by name (Miriam in Ps. 99). Pity, but perhaps this just reflects the pattern of other records and writings in those early cultures when men wrote the poetry, policy and history. This is no reason to discount this ancient poetry. An inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

Music

Modern sources (other than TiS, whose setting in No 20 can not be recommended for its hymn format and dated language and style) recognise that ‘Penitential’ is just a label obscuring many more varied ideas which, while not overtly feminist, support themes of strength, nurturing, guidance and shelter:

  • Psalms for All Seasons suggests You are my hiding place, which many more demonstrative groups will enjoy.
  • The guidance thread in verse 8 emerges in The Emergent Psalter, a very memorable and lilting Isaac Everett antiphon that will easily conjure up a mother’s watchful coaching: “Show me which way to go, counsel me with your eye upon me.” Everett has the chords slipping easily from minor to relative major sequences and back again in a short space.
  • NCH, commended for its broadly inclusive approach, offers a simple antiphon from a woman’s pen (Emma Lou Diemer, 1994) that emphasises surrounding love.

If a few good sight-readers are available, two short trios are worth a look:

Ps32Lassus

  • Orlando di LassoDixi confitebor, verse 5 only; starts simply but becomes more complex; an excerpt is shown in the illustration. Readers may recall that Lassus wrote a famous and much more ambitious set of Penitential Psalms, including this one.
  • Thomas Tomkins, Blessed is he, verses 1 and 2.

Note for SWUC: no sung psalm as we enjoy a Shaker song, ‘Simple gifts’.

Psalm 51, 23 October 2015

A note for the locals

This Sunday with Arto at the helm, we turn not to the set psalm (65) but to one of the popular and prominent penitential psalms, 51, often used on Ash Wednesday. This song reveals a contrite David after the prophet Nathan courageously confronted him over his lapse of appropriate behaviour with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 11)

Many verses are familiar by virtue of their frequent use in liturgies and prayers. This, for example, from the first 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, still in use in the rite for morning prayer:

Officiant: O Lord, open thou our lips.
People: And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

Then there is the hyssop in verse 7. In the Latin it begins: Asperges me. (see the chant extract shown from the Liber Usualis). This is not an admission by David that he has an unusual personality condition, but:ps51-aspergesme-lu

Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

The keen reader will find several previous posts on this song, such as this one in 2015. (see also the Index Books 2-4.)

Psalm 65

For those who wish to review the set psalm 65, there is much to be enjoyed. Just home from a ten day yacht delivery from the Whitsundays complete with some ‘challenging’ winds, for example, I was struck by these lines:

You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Saviour, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas … who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. (Ps 65:5, 7)

For more, see the post for when we sang Psalm 65 three years ago, 27 October 2013.

Music

However, back to Psalm 51, for which there are dozens of settings. As mentioned previously, there are some lovely motets from years gone by, such as those by Lassus (who wrote four for this psalm or bits of it), Byrd, Praetorius and Victoria. However, singers will probably not be available at short notice to render these songs as they should be.

So we turn to a responsorial setting in Psalms for All Seasons 51G. The first refrain is a simple but pleasant tune that has the advantage that it is easily adaptable as a vehicle for the cantor’s verses. The alternative refrains are also interesting but again, need a little preparation. One is a traditional Urdu song with characteristic tonality and ornamentation. Peaceful moonlight at seaAlternative 2 is South African.

So overall there is plenty of scope and variety for those who enjoy it, from early music to exotic sounds. Therein one frequently finds peace from the raging winds.

Psalm 102, Penitential 5

Yin YangTwo voices emerge for the reader during this extended lament. A sad David seems to be suffering from a degenerative illness. Yet in the midst of distress and weariness, his Voice 1 can yet find a peaceful and somehow comforting image for his isolation and worry:

I am like an owl of the wilderness, a little owl of the waste places. I lie awake like a lonely bird on a housetop. (vs. 6, 7)

A more optimistic David Voice 2 then asserts the endurance and longevity of the divine presence, compared with the brevity of human life.  The psalm is ‘recorded for generations to come’ so that, first, ‘people yet unborn may praise God’ (v. 18); and secondly, that ‘children shall live secure, their offspring established in your presence.’ (v. 28)

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. BL MS49999

Psalm 102 in the De Brailes Hours. The seven penitentials are grouped together in this manuscript. BL MS49999

Music

The opening verse (Domine, exaudi / Hear my prayer, let my cry come to you — see illustration) is popular with composers as a simple and neutral prayer of access. Thomas Tomkins wrote a trio (published 1668) which would please any small group. He also composed an arrangement for verse 13.

This being one of the seven penitential psalms, the fifth in fact, we find major work by early composers like the Italian Giovanni Croce, follower of Gabrieli in the grand style; and Orlando de Lassus, whose Psalmi Davidis Poenitentialis of 1584 is mentioned elsewhere.

Coversheet of Book II of the Lassus Psalms

Cover of Book II of the Lassus Penitential Psalms

For 102, as usual, Lassus has written a fleet of separate small motets, one for each verse. He captures the attention of the listener by entering with five voices in full flight for verse 1, but then rather playfully employs a duet for verse 2, a trio for verse 3, quartet for 4 and back to 5 voices for v. 5. He then proceeds through the rest of the 28 verses changing the number of singers. Verse 18 mentioned above, for example, which starts ‘Scribantur haec / Let this be recorded‘ is sung gently by a duo of tenor voices, almost like a recitative.

Ps102 Lassus amen

By the last verse, with the following Gloria Patri as a separate movement, he is back to five parts. Then the Sicut erat (As it was in the beginning) splits the cantus (treble) into two parts for a powerful 6-part finale, the voices each entering sequentially. Incidentally, in many early manuscripts, this Gloria was not written in full but signified by the last six vowels of saeculorum Amen — E u o u A e.

This technique of Lassus is worth remembering for the small group convener. Depending on how many voices you have, you can always find a mini-motet of one verse or another to suit the occasion and available resources.

Like Psalm 101, this song does not appear in the lectionary, or in NCH. In other sources:

  • The only suggestion made in PFAS is the Taizé chorus ‘O Lord hear my prayer’, which as mentioned above is a quote from v.1 — and several other psalms.
  • Everett‘s syncopated refrain in TEP combines verses 3 and 12: ‘My days pass away like smoke; you endure through the generations’.
  • TiS 63 surprises me by presenting a short, singable paraphrase, admittedly only from Voice 2 in the happy end of things, by Christopher Willcock SJ, with a simple refrain arranged by JS Bach. It also provides an attached litany for the sick and the dying. (102B)

Psalm 143, penitential 7

Note: the set readings for 9 October 2016 are Psalms 66 or 111. Both have been discussed in previous posts which can be found via Library & Index in the list of pages.

Ps143 Lassus

The seven so-called penitential psalms (more>) start at 6 and are sprinkled throughout the psalter, running to the fourth —  the great Psalm 51 (recipient of many settings by many composers and featured prominently in previous blogs) — through to this last Psalmus Poenitentialis VII – Psalm 143 (text here>). The Latin title quoted here is that used by Orlando de Lasso for his major collection of all seven. He rounded it up to eight by adding a composite of some songs of praise.

The opening chord of Psalm 143 Domine exaudi / Hear my prayer shown above looks quite harmless; no sharps or flats, a G major chord leading immediately to the C major triad.

Be not deceived, nor lulled into complacency. Lassus very soon diverges into all sorts of relative minors and progressions to a rich five-part song. And that’s just verse 1; remember that he wrote a section for each verse with differing voice selections. Interestingly, verse three is for three voices (another of his tricks). In this case they are for male voices and might well suit a male voice group such as ours at South Woden. It starts with a simple rising scale of an octave of C major in quintus and bass:

Ps143-lassus-trio-entryLassus has featured frequently in comments on this blog, probably to the extent of bias. I plead guilty: but in my defence I must quote Isaac Everett, a self-confessed modernist and author of many rock and jazz-inspired antiphons in The Emergent Psalter, who says of the Lassus Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales:

Even if you don’t have a choir, you should find a recording and give them a listen — it makes great ambience for a service of meditative prayer. (p. 265)

Other settings:

  • Everett’s own refrain in TEP emphasises the prayer that divine judgement be merciful (v.2).
  • The responsorial refrain in Psalms for All Seasons is an excerpt from a melody called ‘Wondrous love’, a lilting tune that is attributed to W Walker’s Southern Harmony 1835. I recall from playing it when living in the US that it is drawn from a native American traditional tune, one which stays hauntingly in the mind.
  • New Century has another simple one by Marty Haugen using verse 6, My soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Incidentally, note the peaceful contemplation in the previous verse, where the psalmist says:

I remember time past; I ponder all your deeds; I consider ….’ (Ps 143:5)

Psalm 38

The third of the seven Penitentials, this psalm is glass half empty — no, make that a quarter — through to verse 14. The opening verses mirror those of the first Penitential Psalm, 6. The singer regrets failure, inadequacy, illness and a thorough-going weariness. Then comes the half full, and an urgent request for comfort:

For in you O God I have fixed my hope; you will answer (v.15)

Do not forsake me, or be distant; make haste to help me O God, my salvation. (21, 22)

So this could be a song for Lent, or just when you are ill or feeling low.

There’s not much music to help you out in the hymn books — 38 and 39 are not included in the Lectionary. Our regular psalters give you one or two tunes. However, as other blogs have noted, the Penitential Psalms seems to have been de rigueur for the serious composers of yesteryear; Byrd, Dowland, Gesualdo and Lassus all lined for 38; and many more went to town on the middle one, Psalm 51. (Others are 32, 102, 130 and 143.) Producing a compendium of all seven won gold.

Ps38 GesualdoCarlo Gesualdo was certainly a colourful creator of classics. Music by this very expressive musician (and Prince of Venosa in the south of Italy) is very rewarding to sing.

It is also quite demanding — note the absence of bar lines and the apparent independence of individual voices in the illustration. Cadences are sometimes surprising and unpredictable, often passionate.

Gesualdo was both creative and cruel. He famously murdered his wife and lover when he caught them in the act. He was not convicted, but according to the current Wikipedia entry:

The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music.

The work he wrote for Psalm 38 confines its attention to the prayer for help in the final verses quoted above; but it sounds as though he may have felt the pull of the Penitential Psalms stronger than most.