Psalm 27, 22 Jan 2017

This psalm offers encouragement in difficult times, weaving together two contrasting but commanding threads. First is the imagery of light, beauty and goodness. Calling to mind references to the ‘light of the world’ (John 8:12) and ‘light upon my path’ (Psalm 119:105), it is a theme found in many psalms. Many readers will be familiar with the opening verse:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? God is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”

The psalmist asks but one thing, to dwell in that divine aura forever, to see beauty all around and commune with that spirit of love. (v.4)

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

Image: E O’Loghlin, rowinggirl.com

Second is the idea of refuge — protection, salvation and shelter from danger or persecution. This second theme of heavenly care in adversity is also mentioned frequently elsewhere in the Psalter, perhaps even more often than light — maybe there was more adversity than light in those days. Here, David feels that his enemies surround him; his answer is to sing. (v.6) The psalmist thus merges illumination, guidance and clarity together with security and forgiveness.

Music

Considering that this poem is set only twice in three years of the Lectionary cycle, it has been unusually popular with musicians. Perhaps the potency of the blend of those two themes is the key. Verse 1 quoted above is clearly suitable as an antiphonal response, and many of our sources base a refrain on some variation of this idea. Looking first at modern settings, one blog suggests over 20 songs. A partial summary of some good choices follows.

  • The Taizé round The Lord is my light is appropriate in this context. A gathering used to singing these songs will relish two tunes blended together as well as the two entry points for each theme, making effectively four parts. The sound will be effective unaccompanied or with a light backing of guitar, flute or such instruments.
  • Psalms for All Seasons offers no less than ten settings, including this Taizé round. A discussion of the whole list is tempting; but since responsorial settings are preferred, suffice to note that all (27A from Taizé, B, E, F and H) rejoice in that first verse, highlighting either the ‘light and salvation’ or the ‘strength and courage’ topics, or both.
  • Everett in TEP also uses the second of these two themes.
  • A different approach, using as response a verse from Isaiah “Do not be afraid I am with you”, will be found in Together in Song no 16, a paraphrase of the verses with a beautiful setting by Christopher Willcock. Enchantment springs in part from his imaginative and unusual harmony changes, moving between Eb and EΔ tonalities accompanied by related chords, and all supporting a lilting tune.
  • The home-grown setting shown below is equally restrained but a little more challenging for singers.

Ps27 HdimsThis little piece is locally known as the ‘Half-dim’ antiphon acknowledging several half-diminished chords (minor seventh flat five, subject of longer discussion in a February 2016 post) — perhaps an unfortunate title when rejoicing in the bright rays of divine light on our meandering path. Cantors sing the paraphrased verses to the same tune.

Psalmus David, priusquam liniretur. Dominus illuminatio mea et salus mea: quem timebo?

Ps. 27, 13th c. manuscript, Getty Museum

Turning briefly to the classical scene, remarkable in the listing online are not only the plethora and variety of settings for Psalm 27, but also the occurrence of little-known composers. Ever heard of Supply Belcher, Giovanni Paolo Cima, Sigismundo d’India or Orazio Tarditi?  More familiar and exciting names are there too, like Charpentier, Lassus and Sweelinck. But they write demanding music for five or more voices and often basso continuo. Dream on.

The illustration (click to enlarge) from an early French manuscript shows David being anointed by Samuel. The Latin version of the first verse quoted at the outset reads: “Psalmus D[avi]d, priusqua[m] liniretur (before he was anointed). Domin[us] illuminatio mea et salus mea quem timebo?”

Psalm 61

Capital 'E'(xaudi) of Ps. 61 in a Mozarbic psalter, 11C Spain BL MS30851.

Capital ‘E'(xaudi) of Ps. 61 in a Mozarbic psalter, 11C Spain BL MS30851. A sung antiphon of v.2 precedes the text

Divine standards of perfect love and peace seem far off and unattainable in a world full of strife, refugees, war and deceit:

As high as heaven is above the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways (Is. 55:9)

The good news in the psalms, here and in other songs like 31, is that higher and hopeful levels are not out of reach:

Lead me to a rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower (Ps 61:2,3)

(Incidentally, it is worth reading on into the passage from Isaiah 55 for a beautifully poetic and more encouraging assurance of sustainment and fruitfulness.)

In Psalm 61 David, the author, seems to pray for himself as king, though he adds more humbly: ‘before God’ and with ‘love and faithfulness for protection’.(6, 7) This is not just self-importance; David assumed that he and his people were charged with the responsibility of not only caring for the creation (Psalm 8) but also bringing a message of divine caring to a benighted world.

This is the last in a large group of ‘skips’ from 55 to 61 that do not appear in the weekly Lectionary. Thus Psalm 61 is ignored in TiS and NCH, while PFAS offers, apart from a couple of hymns, one setting with a response, originally in Tamil to a Punjabi tune, in 61B.

PraetoriusWhilst classical settings are also fairly few, in somewhat grander style Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) produced a setting of the first four verses, Exaudi Deus for two choirs of four voices, in a collection called Musae Sioniae: Deudsche Psalmen und Geistliche Lieder (1607; see illustration).

And in the ‘little-heard’ category is a Portuguese SATB by Brazilian composer Dr Jorge Moreira (1948-) that is worth a try by your local quartet.

Note in the Spanish manuscript illustrated at the outset, an 11th century script from the Monastery of Silos in northern Spain, that the antiphon here appears to precede the psalm text. The text is drawn but diverges from the first part of verse 2:

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

A finibus terrae ad te clamavi, dum … / From the ends of the earth will I call upon thee: when my heart is in heaviness.

Compare this with another later manuscript known as the Howard Psalter which is discussed in the posts on Pss. 122 and 129. First, note that the musical notation has progressed significantly, from a line of neumes to a four-line staff with square notation. Secondly, in Howard the chant and antiphon may have been sung at the end of each psalm rather than the beginning, although this is not clear, and often uses excerpts from psalms before and after the antiphon.

Psalm 57

Psalm 56: the Lord attended by eleven men (above), while angels attack his enemies and the Psalmist is saved by an angel from falling into a pit; a lion nearby. BL Harley603 f1r

Ps 56 (57) in a 12C psalter: angels and enemies, the Psalmist in the cave; a lion (v.4) nearby. BL Harley 603, f31r

As in Psalm 1439 and so many others — David asks for mercy and sings the blues when he hid in a cave from enemies ‘with sharp tongues’ who ‘dug a pit’ for him. As he hides in the cave, David imagines the parallel of divine love as refuge for the soul. If you think you have seen this elsewhere, it’s probably Psalm 142 also written in a cave. Whether this is the same occasion or another we cannot tell. It may have been the occasion (1 Sam. 22-24) when his vicious persecutor Saul came into the cave where David was hiding. David crept up to the unsuspecting king and cut off the corner of his garment, a subtle but powerful message.

An easy refrain by Julie Howard and Vera Lyons, PFAS 57B, draws from verse 1: “I rest in the shadow of your wings”. While pointing out that it may not have been part of the original composition, Everett in TEP uses the inbuilt antiphon in verses 5 and 11:

Be raised over the heavens; be raised over all the earth.

His tune is also simple and accessible but as usual features a more modern harmonisation: slipping between Bb minor and Gb major seventh, it even finishes on the leading note of that second chord just in case you missed the up-beat point.

Verses 7 and 8 are repeated in, or borrowed from, Ps. 108:1, 2:

My heart is firm. I will sing and make melody. Wake up my spirit! Awake lute and harp. I will wake the dawn.

Psalm 129

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

The tenth of the Psalms of Ascent (text) regrets the oppression of the people of God. The psalmist recognises that God is the source of goodness but seeks shame on the oppressor. At the distance of some millenia, it’s easy to suggest sniffily that he or she should have been more forgiving of Israel’s enemies. However, the psalm was probably written in the midst of dire threats to the very survival of the nation and the people. Nevertheless, the poet urges their downfall in quite a poetic, if not forgiving, manner, by imagining the enemy as withered grass on the housetops

… which does not fill the hand of the reaper, so that passers by do not say so much as “God prosper you. We wish you well in the name of God” (vs. 7, 8)

This final blessing, Benediximus vobis in nomine Domini, is repeated in the antiphon in the early manuscript of Psalm 129 illustrated. (The last phrase of the antiphon appears to be a shorthand reference to the incipit of the next psalm 130: De profundis / Out of the depths.) The blessing quoted here seems to have been a customary greeting between workers in the fields, as Augustine points out in his commentary on the psalms:

For ye know, brethren, when men pass by others at work, it is customary to address them, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” And this was especially the custom in the Jewish nation. No one passed by and saw any one doing any work in the field, or in the vineyard, or in harvest… without a blessing.

The two sentences in the psalm may have been a type of call and response, as when Ruth met Boaz:

A light burdenJust then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “God be with you.” They answered, “The God bless you.” (Ruth 2:4)

Psalm 129 does not appear in the Lectionary so is not likely to be often sung. If it is, that reapers’ blessing should surely be the focus of the song, as it is in The Emergent Psalter. Sung as a reciprocal blessing of the people by the people it would grace any gathering.

Sweelinck Psaumes coverOtherwise, this is something of a musical orphan that has attracted little compositional interest. However, the mention above of 130 reminds me we recently heard The Song Company perform in the purest tones two psalms by the Dutch composer Sweelinck. (1562-1621) The familiar lines of Pss. 130 ‘Out of the Depths‘ and 24 ‘Lift up your heads‘ took on quite a new character at the hands of Sweelinck and Song Company and in Latin. (This encounter gave added delight since, while these works are found in many versions on YouTube and IMSLP, no score appears in CPDL, which boasts toward ninety other settings of Psalm 130 alone.)

Thus inspired, I include a fragment of a short piece on Psalm 129 emanating also from the Low Countries but a hundred years earlier, by Josquin des Prez:

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez. http://www.psalmen.wursten.be/

A setting of Psalms 128 and 129 by Josquin des Prez. http://www.psalmen.wursten.be/

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‘.

Psalms 42, 43, 19 June 16

Australians, at least those who live or travel anywhere near the open dry spaces of this continent, know what thirst is all about. Indigenous plants and animals evolved to survive through hot summers and droughts. Aboriginal people were expert at finding water in dry creek beds, trees and grasses.

Kimberley landscapeFor Sooner or later in a long dry spell thirst will catch up with expert and novice alike. Elijah in the Old Testament story this week (1 Kings 19) must have felt it, as alone and fearful he fled from persecution far into the wilderness (that Jezebel must have been a real piece of work). Elijah finally came to the end of his tether, sat down under a broom tree — and even that was a ‘solitary’ broom tree — and wished for death. That’s what the psalmist has in mind at verse 1:

As the deer longs for following streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Cathedral walk in the Bungle BunglesThen follows the famous episode of the still small voice following earthquake, wind and fire. It is matched in the psalm by deep calling to deep in the thunder of cataracts; but after a day of God so demonstrating steadfast love:

… at night the song is with me (v.8)

The reading then flows smoothly on to Psalm 43, where we come across another familiar verse:

Send out our light and your truth, let them lead me; and let them bring me to the holy hill and to your dwelling (v.3)

Music

Psalm 42, especially the thirsty deers, seemed to capture the imagination of composers over the years. Mendelssohn and Luther did their own translations of the poem, and many settings exist. One of the earlier pieces (apart from early Gregorian chants in the Roman liturgy or counterparts in the Mozarbic and Gallic liturgies) crops up in a mass written by 15th century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. He calls this verse into service for times of bereavement, when surely the soul thirsts for comfort. This section is sparse, being for ‘superius and countertenor’ voices. It could be adapted, of course, but it’s not very suitable as the centrepiece for the singing of the psalm in the modern service. It’s also in Latin

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

imageIncidentally, Elijah’s despairing cry is repeated in the incipit of a popular madrigal by Monteverdi from his Fourth Book of Madrigals for five voices of 1603, ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’ (‘Yes, I’d like to die’).That’s where the parallel stops, though, as this is actually an erotic love song. It was recycled during the Counter-Reformation by re-texting with a religious message about the love of God. People would have recognised the tune and got the reference straight away. (Image; canto part book by Monteverdi, British Library)

For South Woden Continue reading

Psalm 5; 12 June 16

Recognise this?

Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness,
make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou, Lord only,
that makest me dwell in safety.

It’s a paraphrase of Psalm 5:8 by Samuel Wesley, sometimes used as a short sung prayer. Both words and tune are compelling, although in the original Eb it can soar a little high for lower voices in the last line. The harmony of this song is particularly pleasing in a simple but flowing way.

The central idea of being guided towards upright ways in life is found frequently throughout the Psalter. That is equally true of verse 1:

Hear my words, O God; listen to my cry

I was instantly reminded of a lovely setting by Henry Purcell, Hear my prayer O Lord. It’s actually quoting Psalm 102:1 but could be from several places. Being written for eight parts, Purcell’s motet will not be common repertoire for most small congregations but it’s a beautiful piece.Purcell Hear my prayer

The selection above of the top three voices is included since it shows how Purcell introduces an innovative and effective device to create an interesting and captivating lilt to the prayer. Where the word ‘crying’ appears — shown here in bars 4 and 5 but recurring throughout the work — the voice rises a full tone from the minor third to the fourth degree before sinking back half a tone to the major third. These successive shifts from minor to major create a memorable and distinctive sound (a little like a sprinkling of tierces de Picardie, although this sequence normally adorns the final cadence.)

There are several nice classical settings of these and other verses by big names like Tallis, Monteverdi, Lassus and so on. If you want a real challenge, try the 6-part Verba mea (1603) by Carlo Gesualdo. I’ve not sung it but it looks, shall we say, ‘interesting’.

StolpersteinePsalm 5 also reminds the reader that divine goodness opposes all forms of wickedness, and this following hot on the heels of the OT reading from Kings, in which one in power and his wife have Naboth killed for the sake of a convenient veggie garden. Hardly the same situation but the same wickedness is remembered in the Stolpersteine (illustrated) on the pavement near our apartment in Berlin, one of many small memorials to Holocaust victims.