Psalm 147, 4 Feb ’18

This psalm, like others in this final handful in the Psalter, is a song of praise, calling us to rejoice in the creation and the ubiquitous evidence of divine love and care.

‘Starry Night’ by V van Gogh. Wikimedia commons

With sudden shifts of focus, a visionary sweep of the universe, the selected text (verses 1 to 11 in Year B) alternate between the earthbound to the heights, the present day to the distant past, from the stars to personal reassurance of the exile and outcast:

God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God counts the number of the stars; and calls them all by name. (3, 4)

We are encouraged to pull out our lyres again in order to sing those praises (7).


Being a vespers psalm and therefore appearing frequently in evening prayer services in the Roman and other rites, classical settings abound. Guerrero, Lassus, Monteverdi, Victoria and others wrote several settings. In the vespers liturgy and the Anglican Compline, up to five psalms were accompanied by the Magnificat or other Marian verses.

Tomas Luis de Victoria‚Äės setting of this psalm would be appropriate if singers were available. Lauda Ierusalem, Salmo de V√≠speras No. 6 (illustrated) is a series of short sections, one for each of the odd verses. It would have been sung antiphonally by a choir in the vespers service, the priest chanting the even verses. This motet is in Latin rather than the preferred English; so in the modern environment it could be used to inspirational effect as incidental music or anthem. It could also be interposed as reflective antiphons between readings or prayers.

If relishing that idea of naming each of the myriad stars, a refrain by Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter would be an excellent choice: ‘Jehovah with immeasurable wisdom calls each star by name’.

PFAS rolls out several responsive options, frequently just picking the ‚Äėhallelujah‚Äô theme. One (147A alt.) is even a familiar tune by Mozart. Mozart‚Äôs music is supposed to soothe the troubled breast: this is a canon in three parts, so it will keep the congregation awake and alert as they learn and enjoy their woven harmony.

Together in Song No 92 covers most of the set verses and, being by John Bell, is reliably tuneful and easy to learn. Although the composition includes a chorus it is presented, and will be sung at South Woden, as a congregational hymn rather than a responsorial psalm with cantor.

Psalm 149, 10 Sep 17

‘God takes pleasure in people.’ (4)

Cantate Domino, from Psalm 149 in the an 8th century Psalter. Latin uncial script with Old English gloss between lines. British Library MS Vespasian A1

This is the penultimate psalm in the book, short and bitter-sweet. Four verses of praise, singing and dancing, including the important statement of love quoted above; four verses of wreaking vengeance on enemies; and in the middle, it appears, a good lie down!

Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds. (5)

An odd little verse, and indeed it struck Isaac Everett to the point that he chose this for his responsive refrain. He wonders whether it implies that the people routinely slept in the Temple, that praise at home as well as in the Temple is fine, or perhaps just relishing being in bed.1

Despite its central location, the bed verse is not the key to the song and its use as the refrain seems a little idiosyncratic. Scanning for meaningful and respectful ways to praise in song, verse 1 is a better bet:

Sing to God a new song; sing praise in the congregation of the faithful.

A little further on there’s a nice statement of why psalm tragics do this:

… sing praise making melody with timbrel and lyre; for God takes pleasure in people and adorns the poor with victory. (3, 4)

The second half of the psalm is less comfortable. ‚ÄėWreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people ‚Ķ inflicting judgment.‚Äô (7) Is not this just the sort of cry we, well, decry when it leads to the extremist religious violence that seems increasingly to dominate the news? Remember that the historical reference is to the Exodus and the early opposed establishment of Israel, which was a fight for survival.

Today, in the light of the New Testament modifier to love your enemies, the reader regards it metaphorically. Most commentators see it now as a fight against evil. Any enthusiasm for holy war against other people sounds bizarre. For as we just saw, God takes pleasure in people. (And by the way, what a marvellous difference it makes taking the ‚Äėhis‚Äô out of that phrase from the RSV.)

A cautionary note on this passage in PFAS says: ‚ÄėIt is, then, a psalm to handle with great care.‚Äô However, the note continues that the psalm is instructive about the nature of faithful obedience in a world of injustice.2 The psalm again encourages the fight for justice and equity, for ‘God loves people’ as we do, and ‘adorns the poor’, as we should. Tom Wright has this insight relating to both 148 and 149:

To put it in modern shorthand, you find the political message within the ‘creational’ message. Once you summon the whole of creation to praise the maker, you can begin to see clearly where the fault lines lie within the world of human power.3

Bach wrote two impressive works on this psalm, both entitled¬†Singet dem Herrn. BWV190 is an lengthy cantata written for New Year’s Day in Leipzig in 1724. BWV 225 is scored for double choir. Both are demanding works for amateur singers.

The Everett refrain has already been mentioned. PFAS has a nice responsive setting (149B) with a contemporary sound even though the music was written back in the 18th century.

TiS 95 has a good setting by reliably valued Sydney-born composer Christopher Willcock SJ. The response is simple, and the stacked triads of the tone (the simple tune for the verses) is enticing. It only presents half the lectionary, however, and ducks that confronting second section discussed above.

If you really want to sing of vengeance upon the forces opposing a rule of love, try a solo by Catalan composer and contemporary of Bach, Francisco Valls. Best with its original figured bass, the sharper edges are modestly veiled in Latin:

1 TEP page 275

2 Psalms for All Seasons, page 989 footnote.

3 Wright, N T, Finding God in the Psalms, page 150-1

Psalms 96, 13, 29 May 2016

Psalm 96 is another call by the psalm songster to sing, yet again, a new song.

Trouble is (quite apart from the fact the we are not actually singing the set psalm 96¬†this week) we actually like the old songs best. You remember words and tunes you learned as a young person, while other more recent tops of the pops are recognisable but not much else. You go to a party and someone has a guitar. Which songs can you sing? Not the latest and greatest in the weekend magazine, but the hit parade of youth, or perhaps when you were courting, perhaps the ‘standards’.

A new song?

TiS 69With a new psalm popping up each week, it’s almost impossible to get a familiar groove going. We try to do this by threading the theme of a responsive tone and refrain through our weekly singing; or using a familiar response¬†with new words retro-fitted; or just relishing the lovely voices of our familiar singers, hardly¬†operatic in style but all dedicated to telling the stories and presenting the songs of the psalter. We¬†smile at familiar tunes like¬†‘Rivers of Babylon‘ (shades of Bob Marley) or Paul Stookey’s Building block.

The quest¬†is to find a tune that suits the text, the message of the psalmist. Sometimes the ‘new song’ comes in to play as your Webmaster ranges around picking up something from centuries gone by, something from Latin America’s glorious rhythms, or a reworked¬†folk and blues. So much great music, so little time.


This week, the theme of our reflections under Trish‘s thoughtful and experienced leadership, is resilience and trust.

These themes are frequent visitor via¬†the songs we sing each week. The psalmists often ask ‘How long must I wait?’ For justice, for deliverance, for answers or comfort… ¬†Silence can be¬†deafening, listening for¬†assurance that someone cares. Try Psalm 13, or 31 or 130 (nothing to do with combinations of the numbers 1 and 3). This Sunday, it’s time to¬†roll out Psalm 13 after two years gathering dust¬†in the Dropbox cupboard:

How long have you forgotten me O Lord? (Ps 13:1)

Patience is an important element of resilience. And, remembering earlier comments on the subject, a blues feel is quite in order. For Steve Bell’s rendition of this song, see the Styles page and scroll right down; we won’t go¬†quite so get-down bluegrass. Every time we reinterpret an oldie and goodie, voil√†¬†it becomes a new song.

For SWUC:  Continue reading

Victoria’s Requiem, 28 May 2016

Acclaimed early music performer Jordi Savall once wrote:

Culture, art, and especially music, are the foundation of an education that allows us to realize ourselves personally and at the same time, be present as a cultural entity, in an increasingly globalized world. I am deeply convinced that art is useful to society, contributing to the education of young people, and raising and strengthening the human and spiritual dimension of human beings.

He went on to urge that all Spaniards, and by extension anyone, should be able to:

… listen to live music from the sublime Crist√≥bal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero and Tom√°s Luis de Victoria

Tomas-Luis-Victoria-300x300I mentioned Morales in a recent post on Psalm 18. The last named composer, however, has long been a firm favourite of your Webmaster.

Victoria wrote a huge amount of sacred work. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he wrote no secular music. His Lamentationes Ieremiah and Officium Defunctorum are particularly compelling works, transporting to the listener, thrilling to the singer.


Amongst his many works are a dozen or so psalms, including vesper psalms. Many of these are setting for alternate verses, either odd or even. The cantor would sing the other set of verses in antiphonal style, the choir responding. This call and answer style is implicit in many psalm texts (for example 136) and therefore is still widely used.

The Requiem

With a ‘masterpiece’ workshop¬†and performance of the 1605 Requiem coming up on 28 May 2016 (hosted by The Oriana Chorale at 2 pm at RMC Duntroon,¬†details here>),¬†a little more on this magical work is in order.

The Requiem was written upon the death of the Dowager Empress Maria, daughter of one emperor, wife of a second, and mother of two more. As originally structured, it was preceded by a reading from Job entitled Taedet animam meus, set beautifully for four voices rather than the six of the rest of the mass. Together with a couple of other additions, the Requiem then forms the full Officium Defunctorum.

CDGIM-012Peter Phillips, director of the acclaimed group The Tallis Scholars (with whom The Oriana Chorale has sung in recent years), says in the program notes of their 1987 recording of the Requiem (

Victoria’s ‘Requiem’ Mass has for many decades and for many people typified Spanish Renaissance music. Its mystical intensity of expression, achieved by the simplest musical means, obviously sets it apart from contemporary English and Italian music, and has led to comparisons with it of the equally intense paintings of Velasquez and El Greco.

Singers who would like to participate in this experience should contact the blog author or Oriana Chorale. Or just come to the performance at:

5:30 Saturday 28th May, chapel of RMC Duntroon.

Psalm 144, a gross skip

While we have the bookmark at Psalm 148 for 24 April 2016, let’s pick up Psalm 144 (text>), the nearest ‘skip’ or omission from the Revised Common Lectionary.

144gridGross? Young readers, if any, may not realise that way back in pre-metric times (excuse me Americans), 144 or a dozen dozen was called a gross. [Quiz of the day: how many sheets in a ream, imperial and metric?].¬†The skip may be¬†thought gross because it’s a pity to miss one so solid, a heavyweight amongst psalms by virtue of some important themes.

First, some get stuck on the first verse; ‘Blessed be God, my rock, who trains my hands for war’. It has been misused¬†to justify the¬†Crusades. Some take it as a concept of spiritual warfare. But this is a psalm of David,¬†so¬†we can also¬†take it as a simple declaration of thanks for support in the many battles David had to face. A strong balancing theme throughout the Psalter is divine preference¬†for¬†justice, peace and reconciliation.

Second is the temporary nature of our lives. A puff of wind, a passing shadow (v.4) — these are common¬†themes in poetry and philosophy that touch us all. At the Shakespeare concert last¬†weekend (after a beautiful rendition that morning of Psalm 23 in Spanish by our men — thanks gentlemen!) we sang again that sonorous setting by Ralph Vaughn Williams of Those cloud capp’d towers, from The Tempest:

Towers and palaces

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and …
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. ¬†‚ÄĒ¬†The Tempest, act iv, sc. 1.

With a sense of wonder the psalmist, looking for an additional dimension to this evanescence, reaches out for connection with the creator:

What are humans, that you regard them? Bow your heavens, O God, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke. Stretch out your hand from on high; rescue me. (vv. 3-7)

Third, another demonstration that the psalms were songs:

I will sing a new song to you O God, upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you.

Hurdy-gurdyWell, the Singers in the South have sometimes sung¬†a cappella¬†with not a string in sight — and, it must be said, with great beauty. They have sometimes¬†been¬†accompanied by instruments. These have ranged from the hurdy-gurdy,¬†ukulele and double-bass with but few strings, through guitar to 8-string mandolin and, of course piano. The accompaniment, if any, is¬†a matter for creative choice; keep singing them, and note the last phrase¬†—¬†they are played¬†to heaven.

Fourth, perhaps recalling the earlier reference to our transience, David sings a prayer for heritage and children in delightful and powerful, perhaps surprising, imagery:IMG_0235

May our sons be like plants nurtured from their youth,

and our daughters like sculptured cornerstones cut for the building of a palace.

Fifth¬†and finally, there’s a little twist in the tail regarding the name of God. Verse 15 evidently includes both Hebrew words elohim¬†(gods) and YHWH. So Isaac Everett puts¬†both in his refrain:

Happy are those whose God is Yahweh.

There’s much more to be said on this issue (read his notes in The emergent psalter) but that’s beyond the scope of this slight reverie. In aggregate,¬†Psalm 144 is truly weighty, the whole¬†being greater than the sum of parts.

Schutz PsDavid1619

Cover page of Psalmen Davids, Heinrich Sch√ľtz, 1619


We don’t even have a folder in the music library¬†for this skip and, by definition, are not likely to need one.

Composers often cited in these pages are largely silent; apart from complete psalters such as Ravenscroft’s¬†Whole book of Psalmes or that¬†by Archbishop Parker, I have had no calls¬†from the usual suspects like Bach, Victoria, Lassus or Sch√ľtz (see illustration), though they may well have drawn on this text here and there.

Having quoted Everett above, I’d have to go with his refrain that uses this last verse. It’s nice … and the choices are slim.

Cloud-capp’d towers

You won’t find that little¬†phrase in the psalms: but poetic imagery is there in spades.¬†Part of the fascination of the psalter is the special place in our lives of poetry set to music. As noted previously, the synergy of music and word is somehow magical — a¬†classic case of the sum being greater than the parts.

A second attraction is that through the ages they have been widely accepted across cultures and different faiths as a broadly inspirational heritage.

Anoher Bard

That can be said of the works of William Shakespeare, of course, from whom the title phrase is culled:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. ¬†—¬†The Tempest, act iv, sc. 1.

Towers and palaces


This text was used in 1951 by Ralph Vaughn-Williams in his¬†Three Shakespearian Songs. This one comes to our attention, if you have read this far, through the late Andrew Sayers, artist and former curator and director in¬†galleries. This piece was chosen (by him) for inclusion in his memorial service this Sunday afternoon 6 December 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, of which he was the¬†inaugural¬†director (more …).¬†The Oriana Chorale¬†directed by Peter Young will offer this lovely piece for¬†the occasion.

Interestingly, this text has been excised from the middle of a longer ramble late in The Tempest, about visions and spirits dissolving and resolving with the trajectory of the tale. Context is important. Drop these lines with music into a time of commemoration or reflection and the moment assumes a new more universal and powerful atmosphere.

In this case, the song¬†may be more existential than inspirational: but we can do with more moments of feeling the unity of humankind. Sometimes it’s in times of sadness, but remembrance is also¬†thankful for our ‘little life rounded by a sleep’; for the power of poetry with music; for artistry, imagination and grace. These are the¬†reasons why we sing the psalms. Here’s one of many versions on YouTube of this¬†poignant reflection:

Benedictus (Zechariah), 6 Dec 2015

The lectionary in some seasons substitutes a canticle or other reading for the psalm. We can hardly feel short-changed: we sing most of the psalms over the three-year (weekly) cycle, compared with less than 10% of the rest of the Bible. Anne Richardson, of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, writes:

All three of the non-Psalm options in Advent of Year C are in the format of one of the groups of Psalms referred to as the individual thanksgiving Psalms or Songs of Praise.

Accusation or anunciation

The annunciation, 16th C carving, Toulouse

So this week, the second Sunday in Advent, we find the Benedictus or Song of Zechariah in the psalm spot. The Latin name comes, as usual, from the first few words of the text:

Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel / Blessed be the Lord God of Israel


Psalms for all seasons suggests two chant-style settings.

  • The first (page 1013) is pure simplicity — two notes, two chords throughout, in Gregorian tradition but even less adorned — which has its own beauty.
  • And the second is like unto it (quiz; where did this little phrase come from?) but with more of a flourish.
  • Additionally, a third option, again similar but with variations, is a home-grown setting to the SW Communion Chant.

However, this week at South Woden we are privileged to be treated to a session in which Len and Sue will report their experience at a recent modern theology conference in the USA. We will sing not this canticle but the other NT reading from Philippians. Sue has chosen a tune by Father Frank Anderson MSC, with verses by a cantor and a chorus:

I thank my God each time I think of you
And when I pray for you, I pray with joy (Phil. 1:3,4)

All singers welcome, meeting a little early on Sunday.

Next Week

Another canticle, this time the First Song of Isaiah. We return to a lovely song by John Bell to which we have moulded the words to make a great children’s song, complete with uke and Hallelujah for evermore!¬†Our good friend Jonathan Barker leads us.