Psalm 135

Like Psalm 136, to which the reader should turn for more commentary, this psalm (text here>) is a sort of history lesson or song of praise for the main events in the Torah from creation onwards. Verse 14 promising goodness and justice even repeats a verse of the song that Moses sang after handing over to Joshua.(Deut. 32) The complaint against idolatry (vs. 15 ff) is a repeat of Ps. 115:3-8. The idols of those times are said to be of silver and gold — and nothing much has changed.

Music

Since Psalm 135 is a ‘skip’ and not in the lectionary, three of our four regular modern source books follow suit — skip, and leave us to our own devices. Online, three tunes appear on psalter.org, fine and traditional but all straight 87.87 hymns. None grabs my eye, admittedly through the very inconsistent and unpredictable prism of my itches for this or that idea in music, not least of which is singable, tuneful verses with a good refrain. The classical selections on sites like CPDL and IMLSP offer very interesting historical perspectives but infrequently a song either antiphonal or easy.

This is one of the reasons I often remark on what Isaac Everett is offering in The Emergent Psalter. Sometimes his choice of verse for the refrain may not suit the message of the day but his music is never enervating, always interesting and slightly different. While he leaves the leader to read the verses or to find a tone for the verses, no arduous demand, his refrain for Psalm 135 is characteristically short and tuneful. Free to download from Churchpublishing.org, it has as usual a pleasant chord progression. This one is less syncopated than his normal style and thus easy to sing following a cantor:

Ps135 Everett

Psalm 58

FIRE_01David is certainly angry in Psalm 58, primarily against rulers who are wicked, unjust and violent. Although this poem does not appear in the Lectionary, this feature alone makes it entirely relevant in today’s world as an expression of indignation and as a prayer for improvement in the rule of law and equity.

However, anger can lead to intemperate raging, often later regretted. David’s outburst, which he may or may not have later retracted, is the charge that the wicked are perverse from the womb. This is surely no more true of ‘the wicked’ than any human being. We all have our weaknesses but no one is thoroughly bad from the beginning. In the same mood, David desires that their fangs be pulled and worse, a sentiment we heard about way back in Psalm 3. Anger against evil is justified. But thank God for the balm of the New Commandment. The magnanimous interpretation is that David was really asking that the fangs to be extracted are those of wicked words and behaviour.

This and the next two psalms, 59 and 60, are all skips which continue the tirade against evil, its source and its perpetrators. Online and hard copy sources both classical and modern largely ignore these three psalms or treat them cursorily. If you want to sing this one, use a tone in a minor key, of which there are many in most books, and use Everett’s refrain in TEP based on verse 1:

Rulers what do you  decree? Do you judge with equity?

Sixteen hundred years ago, Augustine in his commentary said of this first verse:

But hear ye the Psalm. “If truly therefore justice ye speak, judge right things, you sons of men.” Be it not a justice of lips, but also of deeds. For if you act otherwise than you speak, good things you speak, and ill you judge.

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 101

King David and harpKing David shown here with his harp, assuming he was in fact the poet and songster of this psalm, determines to ‘sing of loyalty and of justice’. (v.1) He adds a powerful proviso. Recognising that he himself is not there yet, he intends to ‘study the way that is blameless’, (v.2) seeking that vague but enticing quality called ‘integrity’, then continuing with a manifesto of the attributes of a good ruler. This early admission of personal inadequacy avoids a tone of boasting. In a broader modern context, singers might well view these aspirations as social goals for increasing justice in the community.

In a way, if Psalm 1 is an introductory call to an upright way, this is a sort of version 1.01 — the next lesson, expanding the call to a good life by adding a few practical dimensions for reformist attention.

The classical composers stayed away from this one in droves, a little surprising given the somewhat grand declarations. Since this is a ‘skip’, not in the Lectionary and thus seldom sung, our usual sources — NCH, TiS and PFAS — also skip or give it cursory treatment. The last psalter mentioned has just one setting with antiphonally spoken verses, the refrain tune being drawn from an old hymn. Everett in TEP uses verse 2 mentioned above.

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 94

Amidst robust language calling for vengeance and discipline, the psalmist impatiently (another “How long?”) laments injustice and social degradation that society — people — can inflict on the poor, unlucky or disabled. The target of his or her anger is ‘the wicked’ who in turn cause ill to widows, migrants and orphans:

They crush your people O God, they murder the widow and the stranger and put the orphan to death. (vs 5, 6)

The psalmist, feeling thankful for the sure support and protection of divine love, (18, 22) asks who will stand up against such evil. This alone would be enough to keep the psalm relevant in all ages.

Abbé de Fontenay, FranceFrom time to time this blog features an obscure composer. So here is Tiburzio Massaino (c.1550 – 1608), an Italian composer and Augustinian monk. This fine but forgotten musician lived in places like Cremona, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Prague.

Massaino’s setting for Psalm 94, one of many pieces for seven to 12 voices, has the rather obscure title of Intelligite insipientes à7. This is no slight on anyone’s intelligence but the injunction in verse 8: Take heed, ye unwise.

For a more familiar composer from the same period, try Domine secundum multitudinem by William Byrd (c.1540-1623). This is a short motet à5 of verse 19 alone:

In the multitude of the sorrows that I had in my heart: thy comforts have refreshed my soul. (BCP)

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.