Psalm 68, 28 May 17

IMG_3012In the ‘bookends’ at beginning and end of this long psalm, the psalmist calls for the great kingdoms of the earth, their flags proudly flying in the national capitals of the world, to recognise the divine supremacy of ‘the rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens’ and invites us to lift songs of thanks and praise. Between these bookends of praise for divine power and ubiquity comes a recitation of providence and caring for people over the centuries:

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in a holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in, and leads out the prisoners to prosperity. (vv. 5 and 6)

Such verses are followed by others emphasising care for the needy, homeless and destitute. (v.10)  As Jesus, that quintessential observer of human nature observed, regrettably the poor are always with us. (Mark 14:7) So how does a government, or political or religious group that aspires to govern, honour that call and at the same time deny the homeless, refugee and persecuted; withdraw education and basic rights of freedom to women and girls; or weaken the social safety-net and leave these things to market forces? As discussed in Psalm 2, 119 and others, the aim is to recognise and rule by ethical standards outlined in ‘theWord’. An outcome is suggested in the final verse:

Ascribe power to God … who gives power to the people. (vv. 34-5)

Music

An easy option is a cantor singing the verses to a tone, answered by a people’s refrain:Ps68 Antiphon Tune 1Jun14

Sing to God O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God who rides the ancient skies above. (vv 32-33)

The tune is a simple ascending and descending major scale that may be sung as a round against a simple repetitive harmonic pattern. The congregation sings two parts, part 2 starting at bar 2, while children can repeat just the first phrase in a simpler and more easily learned part.

As usual, there are good alternatives in the other sources, such as PFAS 68B, which is repeated from Everett’s TEP with a tone added for chanted verses.

 

Psalm 66, 21 May 17

This psalm is a cry of joy for divine guidance and deliverance.

Come and hear, you who fear our maker, as I tell how God rescued my soul. I cried to God and was answered; God’s praise is ever on my lips (vv. 8, 9)

The psalmist feels that he has been pulled through the briar bush backwards, expressing that experience somewhat more elegantly as being ‘tried as silver is tried’, rescued, refined. In another image we have encountered previously, he feels downtrodden and ‘went through fire and water‘ (v. 12) – two of the elemental foundations of our existence as seen by Aristotle. After that ordeal, God led him to ‘a spacious place’. This is an enticing phrase – we relish somehow the idea of entering a spacious place. Architects live and breathe this idea, not because they are architects but because people feel comfortable and open in such a space. Other translations say ‘a place of refreshment’.

And for an off-the-wall take on Psalm 66 from Australian theologian Ben Myers in his #psalmtweet summaries of the Bible:

The water lifted itself up in a heap and gave a bow, and all Your people marched across on dry land.

Music

Music to suit this poem could be from a thousand angles. One source suggests songs as widely spread and as loosely related as ‘O little town of Bethlehem‘ and ‘All hail the power‘. Many sources of sung responses for this week’s psalm refer to the idea appearing especially in the last lines of the Lectionary selection verse 12, that of restoration after trials:

We went through fire and water; but you brought us out into a spacious place (NRSV) – or ‘a place of refreshment’ (Everett)

The first half of the psalm is in the form of a communal thanksgiving, while the second half moves to a more personal note. The full psalm is too long for us to enjoy fully the value of this juxtaposition. One writer summarises the theme of our psalm for this week as:

Make a joyful noise, God’s brought us through some rough stuff.

In slightly less exuberant tone, if not substance, Psalms for all seasons number 66A antiphon goes like this:

E              D               E
 Cry out to God in joy all the earth
 Give glory to the name of the Lord

Simplicity has its own power, and this is manifested in this response by overlaying a simple tune over alternating chords. The tune for the verses expands on this slightly.

FIRE_01

Far more cogently, Isaac Everett as usual in The Emergent Psalter has fresh ideas. He firstly invites us to sing one of his characteristically syncopated swings about the fire and water experience – an attractive option. Then another off-the-wall idea with Buffy the vampire slayer’s Walk through the fire.  (Tempting: but innovation and recency appeal more that its emphasis on burning.)

Psalm 40, 15 Jan 2017

Psalm 40, which comes up in March each year as well as this one in 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.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

Antiphon for Psalm 39(40) in psalter early 1300s; BL MS Arundel 83.

An earlier post (August 2016>) waxes eloquent (quacks on, perhaps?) about some interesting antiphonal music found in an early manuscript, the Howard Psalter from the early 1300s. Have a look at that if interested; but meanwhile the following list updates, expands (and yes, corrects) the originally sketchy treatment in that post of some of the modern settings.

  • 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”) and features a double tone, four phrases and bars each versicle, quite suitable for small SATB group. (Change ‘Lord’ to ‘God’ throughout for gender neutrality.)
  • 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”. Watch: https://youtu.be/1XzHlySYR_Y

Psalm 95

Note: Psalm 95 appears infrequently in the Lectionary (Lent and November in Year A). This post updates the rather scant coverage of a 2014 post.

This psalm rewards the reader with new dimensions upon each reading. The first half starts with a song, indeed a shout, of praise and thanks to the creator of a fantastic world; and not just any old song but:

let us come before God with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout with psalms (v. 3)

Writing a psalm that urges us to sing psalms seems a bit like blowing your own trumpet; but we assume many of these songs were familiar as part of the culture of the children of Israel from the days of the exile in Egypt.

Wilderness

So the song dips back in time to remind the reader of those trying days in the wilderness that form the backdrop to Lent, after Pharaoh let the people go – into freedom from slavery, sure, but also into the wilds, deserts and privations. When read in Lent, the preceding Old Testament reading is from Exodus 17, the people complaining of their wilderness thirst. Similarly, Australia’s heartlands can be both impressive and fearsome. The psalmist goes on to remind us that trials and hardships pass; do not to take the short view, for in the long run we shall find peace. The song is an encouragement not just to be thankful but also to be humble and not to ‘harden our hearts’.

Praetorius

Books of psalms, Michael Praetorius

Music

 

Two lively options for Psalm 95 are available in ‘the red book’:

  • TiS 52 is “Let us sing to the God of salvation”
  • TiS 53 is the Calypso Carol.

A simple refrain from The Emergent Psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice: “Come let us sing, let us shout for joy”.

Three settings in PFAS also invite attention:

  • The first, 95C (Come let us sing), is a chant by William Boyce in the form of an unusually long double tone. This would suit more traditional tastes very nicely. While the harmonies are not adventurous, it can be sung in SATB to rich effect.
  • Over the page, PFAS 95E (O that today) is a lilting tune in E minor by Andrew Moore, with a choice of two tones for the verses. A couple of features make this refrain attractive. First, it flows up and down nicely to finish on the tonic major. Next, both bass note and chord sequence follow a loose stepping pattern down then up, in either a single or double-step (thirds) fashion. This means little when written thus but the musical effect is pleasing. You have to be there.
  • Finally, an oboe descant part featured in “Let not your hearts be hardened” at 95I promises a nice song, including refrain and sung verses.

For the more adventurous, a swag of classical setting of 95 may be found in the public domain, including a smaller but still impressive swag of tunes from a shoe-maker, Thomas Clark (1775 – 1859). Clark, who according to his obituary “received but a scanty education, but was an incessant reader”, was also an incessant composer. You get the picture when, while scanning page upon page of titles by this director of music in Canterbury, the eye falls on A Twelfth set of Psalm Tunes. Being in the form of rather conservative hymns, they do not earn a prominent place in our repertoire.

Elsewhere in the big swag, a piece by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), impressively entitled “Venite exultemus Domino: In festo Natalis Resurrectionis Ascensionis” (being the incipit and seasonal use), is remarkable for its arrangement for nine parts in three trios. Each voice was published in 1607 as a separate book. As is his way, he directs that these parts may be for voices, instruments or organs.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius. Danish Royal Library.

Psalm 148, 1 January 2107

This post builds on three previous entries on this psalm, which is set for the first Sunday after Christmas. Psalm 8 also arises this day in readings for New Year’s Day.

IMG_2394

Praise God from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind

This popular psalm is in the middle of the final group of half a dozen songs of praise which bring the Psalter to a climax. Notable for its broadly imaginative evocation of the whole universe in praise of the creator, such poetic flights are a hallmark of the psalms. Psalm 148 echoes Psalms 96 to 98, also set readings for Christmas, and is incorporated into the canticle of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego whose story in the book of Daniel, incidentally, is also a source of the phrase ‘feet of clay’. The poet is intent on sweeping up the whole creation; the word ‘all’ is sprinkled liberally throughout:

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! (Ps 148:9-11)

Psalm 96, Christmas 2016

Psalms 96 to 98Bonsai tree

Psalms 96 to 98 appear often in the Lectionary, particularly at Christmas but also at other ordinary times during the year. The triplet forms a joyful package for a joyful occasion: these three songs for Christmas sing out in praise of the creator, the source of goodness, and imagine a responsive jubilant creation.

Psalm 96

Ps96 illustr HenryVIII Psalter 1540

Illuminated capital of Cantate Domino in the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540. British Library.

The fine old manuscript shown in this digital reproduction (click to enlarge) is known as the Psalter of Henry VIII. It opens with a dedicatory letter by Jean Mallard, who wrote and probably illuminated the manuscript, incipit: ‘Regium istud Davidis’, a prefatory reference which likens Henry to King David. This Psalter, which includes three Canticles, was very much a personal reference. The British Library says:

As indicated by the many marginal notes added in the King’s own hand, the volume became Henry VIII’s personal copy of the Psalms.

So it seems that the psalms had high profile in earlier times. And since Henry was also a respected musician and singer, he may also have sung his psalms. The illustration appears in Psalm 97 folio 118r (our 96) showing angels singing within an ornate golden initial capital of Cantate Domino – ‘Sing unto the Lord’.

The words ‘sing’ or ‘song’ appear in about half of the 150 psalms, evidence enough that these are poems to be sung. Psalm 96 begins with that oft-repeated call to sing a new song. Like Psalm 98, it calls for joyful thanks and praise:

O sing to God a new song; sing, all the earth. Sing to God and bless the name; tell of this salvation from day-to-day. Declare God’s glory among the nations, the marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is God, and greatly to be praised; to be revered above all gods. (Ps. 96:1-4 alt.)

The rest of the poem brings in more rejoicing in a universal sense, to include the earth, seas, heavens and all living creatures and peoples. Some verses are repeated from other psalms such as 29, 93 and (relevant in this clutch of readings) 98:7-9. It’s also the source of that sweet phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’.

New songs

For such an important occasion everyone wants to sing a new song, it seems. Sure enough, there are dozens of settings ancient and modern of this psalm, or at least the opening phrases. Nearly all classical settings confine their scope to the first two or three verses starting with Cantate Domino.

  • Bach conceived a great piece called Singet dem Herrn (BWV225), a lovely sing that needs to be taken at a lively clip for full effect (listen>>)
  • Claudio Monteverdi, Orlandus Lassus, Heinrich Schütz and Jan Sweelinck  produced some similarly demanding works.
  • However, there are also several other nice songs within reach of amateur groups. A trio by Lassus (last system of Prima Pars shown) would be a strong contender.Ps96 Lassus à3

Modern settings

  • There are eight in Psalms for All Seasons alone. One of them (96G) even stretches the text to: “Sing to the Lord no threadbare song, no time-worn toothless hymn, no sentimental platitude, no empty pious whim.” OK, we get the message.
  • The straight-up three-chord harmonies of the third setting PFAS No 96C roll along sweetly, suggesting an easy first choice. The choice of refrain assumes we have indeed got the new song message and have moved on; it reminds us of that universal vibrant response sparked across the whole creation:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let all that is in them sing to the Lord (v. 11)

  • Together in song, albeit characteristically ignoring some verses (and gender inclusiveness), does at least cover all these psalms in song numbers 54 to 57, mostly in our favoured responsorial style.
  • New Century has another simple refrain but with a hidden surprise. The tune by Jane Marshall, 1994, is nice enough. No chord symbols are added but on closer inspection of the harmonisation, an unusual twist can be seen. The chords all behave themselves with due modesty, clustering mildly around the root Eb major, the sub-dominant and related minors. Then at the end, Jane sends us an unexpected rising swell to lift us to a final III chord, G major. Good one.
  • And while we are riding the wave, Everett in TEP provides his usual innovation with a two-part canon. He draws on verses 7-8 but, as he says: “mimicking the rise and fall of the seas mentioned in verse 11”.
  • This easy home-grown tune has also been sung at South Woden:

Sing a new song

In many churches, Psalm 96 is read on Christmas Eve, for example at midnight mass, while the next two psalms are listed for the great day itself. The ancient psalmists would assume that you will bring your own lyre, timbrel or sackbut to join in!

Psalm 122

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Dormitory for monks and pilgrims, Fontenay Abbey

Psalm 122 is not only a Song of Ascent (the third) but also one of pilgrimage to the centre of divine love and justice. Psalm 120 told a sorrowful tale of living afar amongst alien people; the next one 121 starts the journey to Jerusalem (“I lift up my eyes to the hills…’); and finally in this psalm the pilgrim arrives. In the Orthodox tradition and no doubt elsewhere, these three are sung together, often during Lent.

A long list of classical compositions ranges from relatively unknowns Arigoni and Bauer through to Vogel and GJ Williams, encompassing more famous names like Blow, Haydn, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Victoria and Vivaldi. Most pieces start with the familiar opening declaration, appropriate for a Song of Ascent:

Laetatus sum/I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

The psalmist continues by imagining him or herself and the people (tribes) of God ascending through the gates of the holy city to give thanks and seek justice. (v. 4-5) Other composers have spied the peaceful intent of this prayer of ascent in verse 6, no doubt applying it, as should we, beyond the physical meaning of the city named:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”

Antiphon to Ps. 122 Arundel MS 83, British LibrarySignificantly, the psalmist’s motivation is altruistic:

For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

This is a lovely poem with many musical settings, including a short antiphon beautifully adorned in the illustration of the Howard Psalter shown here (British Library reference Arundel MS 83 f80v). The first phrase refers to but is not identical with verse 1 of this psalm:

In domum Domini ibimus/We shall go into the house of the Lord.

The second phrase after the vertical ‘ant’ marker is a response that may refer to the incipit of Psalm 91 (90 in the Latin psalter):

Qui habitat in adjutorio Altissimi/He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High

Singers were expected to know the text sufficiently that such abbreviated words, indicated by superscript dots or commas, would be sufficient to jog the memory. This jogs my memory of singing Qui habitat à24 by Josquin des Prez. This is a setting of the first 6 verses of that earlier psalm for 24 voices, irreverently known amongst our Chorale members, particularly the irreverent basses, as ‘Who lives at No 24?’