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The modern reader might be mystified by the historical references that come up early in the song; you might dig Israel and Joseph but why do Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh get a mention (v.2)?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.


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 23, 17 April 2016

Still waters

Still waters

On Good Friday we noted that, in the midst of darkness of Psalm 22 (why have you forsaken me?), the restoration and peace in the next psalm was not far away. So here they are, those pastures green and cup overflowing of Psalm 23.

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, as we heard last week:

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)

The Music

The popularity of Psalm 23 ensures its appearance several times in the cycle, thrice in year A alone. This is the fifth appearance in three years of this blog (see index). We shall revisit PFAS 23I, El Señor es mi pastor. A small men’s group leads the singing. Iris reads the mellifluous Spanish language selections.

This lovely song follows a familiar pattern in Ibero-Latino community music, switching between minor and major tonalities. Often it is the major and minor of one key, such as G and Gm; this one moves between G minor and Bb major, relative keys with the same key signature but different feel.

Shakespeare concertThe Bard

23 April is the 400th anniversary of the death of the great playwright William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare 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.

Those who love Shakespeare may hear a concert performance of readings and songs by The Oriana Chorale at University House on Sunday 17th at 5pm.

Psalms 130 and 23, 9 August 2015

Out of the depths

Out of the depths

Psalm 130 pops up again this Sunday, just 6 weeks after we listened to Sinead’s Out of the depths. We are going to repeat that same song — its beautiful simplicity sustains the message perfectly.

The visit by The Gospel Folk brings not only their inspiring songs but also the excuse to focus the gathering on music. This will include a segment of about ten minutes when we take the opportunity to reprise some of the psalms we have sung in the past, including those featured on previous TGF visits.

Another benefit of this sampling will be to taste of just a few of the many varied ways the psalms can be sung, ranging from classics to modern — and of course gospel.

Shepherd with the spice of life

So many styles, so much beautiful music: so little time, so few singers.

However, after the folk-song style of Out of the depths sung by Jo and backed by the Singers in the South, we leave Psalm 130 and pick another popular psalm, the well-known Shepherd Psalm as a vehicle to hear a variety of different styles, truly spice to our lives.

Seen recently at Pergamon in Turkey – complete with a black sheep

As a reference point, we hear first the opening lines of that familiar old setting, CRIMOND. Moving quickly along, the Singers will present another modern folk song, Meet me in the middle of the air by Australian singer song-writer Paul Kelly.

With references to Thessalonians as well as Psalm 23, the song demonstrates the value of a fresh take in the long-standing tradition of cross-over between secular and sacred. Again, we accompany a solo female voice with guitar and backing singers.

Music from the Iberian peninsula has influenced many cultures around the world, not least in South America where rhythm and feeling rule. Psalm 23 finds its way into Spanish in the lovely El Señor es mi pastor, from Psalms for all seasons.

If time and talent allow, we shall insert this or a short excerpt form a deeply sonorous chant from the Eastern Orthodox tradition before we enjoy a little gospel to finish off.

Regrettably, time will not allow us to fill some notable gaps:

  • we sang the blues a couple of years ago for a TGF visit; more …
  • remember Georg Phillip Telemann’s setting of Psalm 23, Der Herr ist meine Hirte, a trio for TTB. We sang this, together with El señor es mi pastor, in April; more…
  • and dozens more, Bach, Lassus, the Genevan Psalter in French and so on.

Psalm 23, 26 April 2015

Still waters

Still waters

Well, who needs an intro to Psalm 23 and the still waters? Over the years this Blog has taken several angles, from the quiet waters to the light-hearted. Do you remember Things that comfort me?

Two previous entries on this lovely psalm appeared in 2014, and it’s tempting on this year’s appearance to just say: ‘Yep, the post for 30 March 14 says it all.’

Except that it never does. There’s always a new insight, a new thought and a new stage of life against which to shine the psalm’s melifluous phrases.

So we should not make too light of this beloved text and its key phrases that have entered into our very cultural landscape — the Lord is my shepherd, green pastures, still waters, you prepare a table, my cup overflows.

The gospel reading then checks in right on cue with:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)


We shall repeat the Spanish setting we sang a year go (PFAS 23I). It’s also another 4th Sunday so we might expect the esteemed male voice group to stir hearts again this week.

Other tempting music for contemplation includes J S Bach‘s canatata BWV112 based on this psalm. I hope we might do one short section, say 112e which is verse 5.

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

Initial decorated capital D and text (Dominus regit me) of PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. The British Library MS 62965

There’s another nice setting à3, Der Herr ist meine Hirte, by G P Telemann; and of course dozens of other settings around. So much music, so little time.

Unfortunately, school holidays and hall closures are coincident so who knows who might turn up and what will actually happen on the day of the race — not that this is an unusual circumstance for the patient Psalm Team who manage to produce excellent music in the face of all arisings.

Psalm 23, 11 May 14

Still waters

Still waters

The ‘Shepherd Psalm‘ needs no introduction or commentary here, so none is offered.

If you have the vague feeling that you  have read that somewhere previously, it’s just the post for 30 March, unashamedly copied almost holus-bolus.


You may imagine this psalm to be irrevocably associated with Jessie Irving’s famous tune CRIMOND.

This week however, not the last Sunday of the month but delayed quinze jours due to school hols, we once more assemble a fine male voice quartet for a different tune.

Remaining respectful to the much-loved phrases of this psalm we repeat that beautiful Spanish language setting from Psalms for all seasons 23-I, 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 a minor key alternating with its dominant seventh. Listen, however, as the cantors then slip down a modal tone into a major key for the verses, before modulating back to that minor for the refrain. Neat and effective.  Quiet waters 2


Psalm 23, 30 March 14

Still waters

Still waters

The ‘Shepherd Psalm‘ needs no introduction or commentary here, so none is offered.


You may imagine this one to be irrevocably associated with Jessie Irving’s famous tune CRIMOND.

This week however, being the last Sunday of the month, we take advantage of the presence of a male voice quartet to do something different.

Remaining respectful both to the much-loved phrases of this psalm and to the spirit of Lent, we sing tranquillamente a setting in the beautiful Spanish language from Psalms for all seasons 23-I, 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 a minor key alternating with its dominant seventh. Listen, however, as the cantors slip down a tone into a major key for the verses, before modulating back to that minor for the refrain. Neat and effective. (Coincidentally, it’s similar to the attractive pattern I commented upon when we sang Show me which way to go a few weeks ago, though the changes come in a different sequence.)

But wait …

… there’s more. Quiet waters 2

We don’t do things by halves; so we hope also to sing a second Spanish song from Argentina (TiS 723) later in the service as either meditation after the ministry of the word, or during communion.