Psalm 20

Psalm 20 appears only once in the three years of the Lectionary — and I probably missed it when it came up last year because we were in Berlin again.

After a gracious prayer for safety and prosperity in time of trouble, the psalmist (this song is attributed to David) goes on to warn against relying on chariots, weapons and warfare in achieving victory. And what is the nature of that victory? David just prays for the ability to ‘arise and stand upright’. (v.8) It would be easy to sing this little throw-away line without really noticing its importance.

Psalms for All Seasons again comes up with nice choices. (There’s nothing in TiS). We look briefly at 20A and B before the classics.

Latino dancersSpanish time

For some reason, anything Spanish is likely to exhibit, besides great music and harmonies, engaging rhythmical foundations. PFAS 20A, El nombre de Dios te ampare/May God’s holy name uphold you, is a fine example.

15C clock, Basel museum

Complex time

The harmony by Homero Perera relies on fairly conventional changes; a modest ii-V-I in C for starters, but then slipping in some nice substitutions, Ab-Bb-Eb-C. The rhythm is the winner, alternating between bars of 6/8 and 3/4 (2×3 then 3×2), as we saw recently in a much older Schütz Psalm 33. Simple enough once you get it and not uncommon, but so effective.

The PFAS performance notes are, to my mind, rather poorly placed in fine print in pages at the back of the book. However, once you find them they have this good suggestion:

TimbrelsIt would be helpful to the singers to have some percussion instrument, such as a woodblock, keep the 3/4 pulse, with other percussion instruments, such as shakers and triangle, marking the 6/8 rhythm. (p.1078)

And while we on the page, we note the comment on the next arrangement 20B (responsorial setting to the simple tones of a Byzantine chant) that the refrain and verses would form a nice blessing at a baptism or on other occasions.

But wait! By way of contrast, the Alternate Refrain is an equally promising Afro-American spiritual. Plenty of both riches and variety in those few pages.

Classic time

I recall singing music by the English composer Robert White (1538-74) in a Tallis Scholars Summer School in Sydney a few years ago. The main agenda of that week was the Lamentations of Jeremiah according to Tallis and Victoria. White wrote a similar work. (It appears with Tallis, Palestrina, Ferrabosco and Brumel on the  Gimmel 1997 release Lamenta by the Tallis Scholars.)

This is a rather long-winded way of introducing White’s rather long, demanding setting of Psalm 20, Exaudiat te Dominus.

Ps20, Robert WhiteIt’s written for 8 voices but not the usual double-choir SATB.SATB. The first few pages are carried by a trio of SAB. At verse 5, when the text says ‘rejoice and magnify’, White magnifies the rejoicing to five parts for a while, before changing gear again.

Unusually, the second half of the psalm is presented by two groups not of SATB but SSBB (illustrated) then AATT, with everyone in for the finale of course.

Rich pickings. Innovation maintains interest.

Psalm 91, 14 Feb 2016

A high placeThe devil took Jesus to a high place and said: “Jump! You’ll be fine…

…  it is written, ‘God will command the angels to protect you; on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ (Luke 4:9-11)

Psalm 91 is where it is written. That is why this is our psalm for the beginning of Lent, at the entry into the forty days and nights of reflection in the desert.

The whole poem is really about being in a safe place in the shadow of the wings of a caring God, despite desert, dangers, devils.


Josquin canonThe psalm arrangement shown here in this small corner of a page is unusual. What are the large coda markers and numbers about?

The clue is in the headers; first, Qui habitat in adjutorio altissimi, XXIV vocum. The first phrase is obviously the incipit:

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty (v.1 KJ)

Then XXIV vocum, or ‘in 24 voices’. A few weeks ago we read about several psalm settings for many voices. Josquin des Près ran this one up for Psalm 91. Twenty-four parts looks pretty fierce but the work is actually a round (‘Canon à 6’ gives it away), the song being sung sequentially by six quartets. This accounts for the numbered signs for the entries of the six groups a bar apart. What fun that one would be with a big choir.

Back to reality and the beginning of Lent. Many settings revel in that safe shelter in verse 1.

  • TiS 48 (albeit neither responsorial nor coinciding with the lectionary verses) is the popular And I will raise you up on eagles’ wings.
  • PFAS 91D alternate refrain is one of the easiest, and offers a simple tune and nice standard chord progression (I-IV-vi-ii-V-I).
  • The previous PFAS91C is a nice Spanish one (the dancers seen below are Chilean but the heritage is Spanish) with a slightly longer refrain that rolls along. Best if you have SATB singers but nice without.
  • And then that 12-bar piece in the Dropbox library; blues for Lent — a bridge too far?

Latino dancers


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 133, 17 Aug 2014

How good and how pleasant it is when kindred live together in harmony.IMG_0728.JPG

That’s it, folks. That’s the message of this psalm. Like most of the psalms of ascent, it’s short and sweet. There are a couple of images thrown in to help us savour the psalmist’s message — and they are typical of the psalms, images that stir your imagination, make you think:

  • Fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard, upon the collars of Aaron’s robe. The pristine state of the high priest’s fine robes just don’t count against the value of a holy blessing.
  • The dew of Hermon flowing down upon the hills of Zion. Familial harmony is a blessing spreading gently down from the snowy heights upon the villages and streets of everyday dwellings in the foothills.

All quite cosy? The scene gets more complex if, like Jesus (Matt. 12:49, 50), you open the question of who is kin, who is your brother or sister? Do you have to be Tutsi, Jewish, Sunni, Russian, Protestant  … ? However we define the tribe, we have a long way to go.


An interesting mix of styles can be found for Psalm 133, ranging from a William Byrd’s Ecce quam bonum to Samuel Wesley’s Behold how good it is, for male voices in three parts. Many of them present just verse 1. (Together in song skips this psalm altogether.)

However, during our current series of Renaissance music by Roland de Lassus and Gregorian chant, we are leavening these historical delights with songs from different cultures and styles.

The children’s orchestra  two weeks ago did a fine job on what I might call Evolved Everett. An African-American tune will appear in a couple of weeks. This week, we turn to a nice Spanish song, Miren qué bueno, found in Psalms for all seasons 133D.

All singers invited for this SATB arrangement which will sound great with many voices and a little energy.Latino dancers Continue reading