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 2, 26 Feb17

Psalm 2 complements the first psalm as a joint introduction to the Psalter with the assurance that the divine Spirit, with inevitably associated moral and behavioural constructs inferred from the Torah, is supreme above temporal rulers of the world. While this theme has ancient roots in the stories of creation and the establishment of the tribes of Israel, it also has a very modern message, as:

… nations conspire and people plot in vain; the rulers of the earth set themselves and leaders take counsel together … ‘Let us break their yoke, let us cast their cords from us’. (v.1-3)

Rulers then and now conspire to throw off the ‘bonds’ or ‘yoke’ of benevolence, truth and justice. There is a lot to be said for separation of church and state, especially given human tendencies to bend religious dogma for selfish purposes, power or control. That is not the same as governments ignoring or running counter to ethics and values recognised by humanists, Christianity and most major religions of the world. Does it matter that leaders base decisions and policies on ‘alternative facts’, declare history false, or ignore the law? Of course it does. Words have consequences, sometimes quite unpredicted and unintended. People without power suffer.

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

The nations, 1698. Image: Wikimedia commons

Maps drawn by the great navigators of the seventeenth century show how spheres of influence and fiefdoms spread around the world. Planted flags and place names reveal just a little of the manoeuvring and politics of exploration and possession, sometimes in the name of God, sometimes in that of nationalism, empire or commerce. Today, rulers change or ignore constitutions to gain or stay in power, use or abuse the church according to their ends, and take little heed of any moral compass. The psalm is a good reminder to dictators and democracies alike.

In amongst the sheep going astray, feeding of the flock and the hallelujahs of The Messiah by George Frederic Händel (1685 to 1759, a contemporary of J S Bach), behold this psalm text turns up in full force. Handel inserted some of this rage into his oratorio in a bass solo air Why do the nations? (quoting v.1), and the furious chorus Let us break their bonds asunder (v. 3). This latter is one of the show-stoppers, sometimes omitted since it’s not an easy sing when taken at full gallop.

Such atmospherics are nevertheless appropriate for Transfiguration Sunday, for which this psalm is scheduled. But Händel’s great music is not a likely choice for a light Sunday morning antiphon. Fortunately, much easier responses are to be found in modern sources (although there is no setting in TiS).

  • PFAS 2D is a simple tune. Two refrain text are provided. The first (“You are my son …”) is only relevant when associated with the Transfiguration. The alternative general text (“The Lord is King, with trembling bow in worship”) is a good admonition for wayward leaders, but may engage neither the average listener nor singer.
  • However, PFAS also recognises the turbulence and danger of the situation and provides both a ‘Dramatised reading‘ (2B) and a ‘Liturgy for Responsible Exercise of Authority‘ (2E). This latter title sounds a rather cumbersome but there’s no doubting it’s right on theme.A light burden
  • Another in The New Century Hymnal by Carolyn Jennings has much milder but more comforting words from the final phrase (v. 12) which refers us back in full circle to the beginning in Psalm 1: “Happy are all who take refuge in God”, whose bonds, according to Matthew 11: 30 and another chorus in The Messiah, are anything but onerous: “My yolk is easy and my burden is light.”
  • Everett’s singable refrain in TEP notes that the rulers of the world have set themselves against God.

Note: The alternative Lectionary reading is Psalm 99. For commentary on this song, please review the post on 7 Feb 2016.

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‘.