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.

Resilience

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, voilà it becomes a new song.

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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 Cristóbal de Morales, Francisco Guerrero and Tomás 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.

Psalms

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 (www.gimell.com/):

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.  — 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 Schütz, 1619

Music

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 Schütz (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

Remembrance

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

Music

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.

Psalm 96, Christmas Day

Bonsai treeIn many churches, Psalm 96 is read on Christmas Eve, for example midnight mass, while the next two psalms are listed for the great day itself.

Psalm 97 uses fiery image to proclaim God’s sovereignty.

Psalm 98 is a burst of joy:

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. … All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to God with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. (Ps. 98:1-5)

The whole world

Let the earth be glad, let the sea thunder (v.11)

Last time we sang Psalm 98, it was to a jazz-inspired 12-bar piano blues. There were, I admit, a few surprised looks; perhaps it was pushing the envelope of my desire to include a wide range of styles and traditions from around the spiritual cultures of the world.

I don’t think we should stretch tradition so far as to pull this on Christmas Day, despite the expansive magnanimity within the gathering flock as they observe the slightly chaotic atmosphere of welcoming visitors and families rolling in with children bearing — or wearing — their new gifts.

And anyway, we are going ahead for our Christmas Day celebration with Psalm 96, almost indistinguishable in spirit from 98 in its call for joyful thanks and praise:

O sing to God a new song; sing, all the earth. Sing to God and bless the name; tell of this salvation from day to day.

Declare God’s glory among the nations, the marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; to be revered above all gods. (Ps. 96:1-4 alt.)

Music

So no more blues as we sing the straight-up harmonies of Psalms for all seasons No 96C:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let all that is in them sing to the Lord (v. 11)

Cantors will sing the verses for us as usual, the people responding with this refrain.

End-notes

1. We are the delighted beneficiaries of a bequest of a dozen new copies of Psalms for all seasons. Dedicated with three generations of the family present last Sunday, they will be well used, serving to keep the memory of good friend Ralph Tolson warm in our hearts as we sing.

2.  This is our beloved minister’s last service with us. Rev. Rachel will hit the road for Melbourne immediately after this joyful Christmas Day celebration. We have greatly appreciated and been enriched by her years of fruitful, inspired and inspiring ministry at South Woden. She is going out in style: the final hymn that we will share with her will be a lively rendition of ‘Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere’. Sure enough, it echoes the call of the psalm:

Go tell it to the nations … then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O Lord.

The ancient psalmists would assume that you will bring your lyre, timbrel and sackbut to join in!

Black Mountain

Psalm 139, 20 July 2014

Bike in lakeWhat you see and what you think you see are not always the same thing. Is this an image of smoke-rings, a bicycle or a piece of post-modern art?

Have you ever thought you knew someone well only to find out they have a very different side to them from that which you have known?

This may be true of ourselves too. We don’t always analyse our own character and behaviour as objectively as we might.

This, according to Psalm 139, is why we need to submit ourselves to the spotlight of God’s loving but frank scrutiny:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (verses 23, 24)

Fine, but it’s not as simple as that, is it? It’s not as though you have a direct line or interactive web-site to fill in a survey form, get instant feedback.  Psalm 13 that we sang  a couple of weeks ago (Brian and I loved singing this Steve Bell song for you) still rings in my head. It was all about that frustrating silence from the heavens. How long do we have to wait to get some sort of answer, comfort, guidance or voice on our doubts and dilemmas, let alone a personal report card?

How long, O God, will you turn your face from me?

Who is God anyway?

Lurking behind these apparently conflicting poetic ideas is the question of how personal is your God. Is YHWH a powerful but vague force out there somewhere, a spirit moving upon the face of the waters sweeping silently in grand scale across the vast universe, unconcerned by a Western preoccupation with individualism yet benevolent toward the aggregate fate of a flawed humanity?

Or an intimate and individual God whose eye instantly notices the fall of the sparrow, numbers the hairs of your head, and knows when you sit or stand? And somewhere in the middle is that still small voice of calm.

Maybe like the bike in the water, our perspective will change with the light and times?

Only you can answer that but the god’s-eye view, it would seem from the psalms, is crystal clear and all of the above, yesterday, today, forever. We trust that reflecting on the psalms from week to week —  How long? in Psalm 13, You see me in Psalm 139 and many other songs — will somehow clarify the picture.

Music

Bruce has found a nice setting of this psalm by Michael Card and will sing it for us on Sunday 13 July. The response, repeating a couple of bars of the tune after each verse, is:

Search me O God, and know my heart

Ps139 RefrainThe lower line is a plain pedal note on g that  you can sing in harmony if the upper note is too high.

And if you got this far and are still interested…

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