Psalm 48, 5 Jul 15

Mountain of God

There’s something mysterious about high mountains. As Philip Marsden writes:

Sacred mountains crop up in most traditional cosmologies… Olympus, Tabor, Sinai, Ararat, Fuji … it’s hard to think of a great mountain that is not linked with the gods or even a distinctive hill that has at some stage generated a local belief. (1)

A song of ascent
Our local Mount Taylor in Ngunnawal territory.

Marsden was writing from Cornwall, but it certainly rings true of the traditional owners of the land in this ancient Australian continent.

Psalm 48 features one, the ‘holy mountain of God, beautiful in elevation’ (verse 1). It’s on the one hand:

the joy of all the earth,

but at the same time, a fearful prospect to opponents of divine goodness:

Then the kings assembled. As soon as they saw it they were astonished; they were in panic, they took flight. (vv. 4, 5)

The psalm weaves a song of praise around this main theme, the vision of a lofty yet immediate presence. The psalms often speak of divine ‘power’ and the fear of a supreme being. Australian theologian Ben Myers, reflecting on the Trinity, provides useful grammar to have in mind whenever you read this language [emphasis added]:

The “power” of God is not domination but God’s infinite capacity to achieve love’s purposes

Two additional themes

A second idea in the middle of the psalm, a brief sparkle, picks up Myers’ point:

We ponder your steadfast love in the midst of the temple (verse 9)

Thirdly, there’s succession planning. The twist at the end is an exhortation to become fully familiar with ‘Zion’ —  the figurative city of God, love-space central — and to tell the next generation of those who will follow.

Pick and choose

Psalm 48 provides a good case study in picking your music and response from the many sources. As I point out on the Styles page and elsewhere, words are important. We are not really here for the music, which should serve the message. So the worship leader might pick from those three themes mentioned above whichever response best suits the chosen theme of the day.(2)

This has to be balanced with musical judgements, in particular the art of the possible and style of music that will best inspire and energise those gathered.

Just working on a few of the many settings available, here’s a sample matrix:

Theme Sources Music style
1. ‘Great is the Lord’ Settings by Elgar and J. Smith; TiS 626 Traditional SATB, 18-19th century; Hymn
2. Love in the temple PFAS and NCH(3) Simple responsive
3. Tell the next generation TEP(4) Modern

Notes: Continue reading “Psalm 48, 5 Jul 15”

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 90, 26 October 2014

This Sunday we enjoy another visit by our good friends in The Gospel Folk ably led by stalwart friend, supporter and Psalm Team singer Brian. The energy and swing of Gospel singing will be most welcome.

Hang on; for months I have been cooking up an arrangement of the set psalm, 90 (text here>), quite without reference to the African-American sounds. Indeed its grand vision:

‘For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night’ (Ps 90:4)

schrist_mosaiceems to call for a grand historical perspective drawing on some rich early Orthodox harmonies.

So we are set up for what Rev. Rachel has now graciously and adaptively termed a ‘dialogue of musical traditions’. What a blessing to have such an accommodating approach at South Woden.

The African-American tradition is no stranger to us, but what about the Orthodox piece?


Rulers of the worldByzantium. The very word conjures up thoughts of the ancient rule of empires — Greek, Roman, Latin and Ottoman. The Greek city of Byzantium became the capital of the Roman empire under Constantine, taking his name. It became Istanbul in 1453 but regardless of the label it has long been a centre for cultural and religious influence throughout the eastern Med. and Russia.

From that cultural centre, the Eastern Orthodox Church has spread in its various forms, largely through south-east Europe, Greece, Turkey, Eastern Europe and Russia, now rejoicing in some 250 or 300 million adherents. So there are a lot of psalm singers out there drawing on a rich historical culture going back to the commissioning of the apostles.

The music is particularly rich. Think Sergei Rachmaninoff‘s All-night Vigil (the ‘Vespers’; if you don’t know it, do listen sometime — here for example > is one movement of this lovely work). Surely we have much to gain from listening to and savouring this ancient spiritual and musical stream?


Tucked away in Chevetogne in Belgium is a Catholic monastery that devotes considerable effort to bridging the gap (eg. different calendars, traditions and observances) between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. There are many differences but many shared beliefs and practices. The monks have recorded some great songs of the Slavonian and other Orthodox liturgies. I have transcribed one of their pieces (originally used as a setting for the Beatitudes — but this has its own magic) for Psalm 90, which I thought particularly suited for the male voice group who sings on this fourth Sunday, 26 October.

After an enjoyable sing at the musos’ lunch at Farrer on Sunday 19th (a rollicking mélange of Gregorian chant and African-American styles), members of the men’s group look forward to presenting this beautiful Slavonian setting (music here>) on Sunday.

Coming up

Saints: Augustine Museum, Freiburg
Saints: Augustine Museum, Freiburg. Click images to enlarge

On 2 November we have a congruence of the baptism of lovely little miracle mite Thea, and All Saints’ day. The photo at left is of large 15th century carvings of some of those saints — note the figures of living saints in the background for a sense of scale. These wearied statues were removed from the cathedral of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany, restored and preserved in the nearby Augustine Museum.

But wait, there’s more: Psalm Singers are invited to gather in strength to lead Meet me in the middle of the air, lovely song combining ideas from Thessalonians, Psalm 23 and all saints, by one of my favourite atheists Paul Kelly.

And thank you all for a rousing call for those scarce commodities, justice and equity, last Sunday. Continue reading “Psalm 90, 26 October 2014”

Psalm 105, 27 July 14

Psalm 105 from the St Albans Psalter, 12th century. Image: Wikimedia commons

Psalm 105 is a song of praise, as indeed are 106 and 107 that follow. The opening lines sound familiar, as such phrases occur throughout the Bible:

Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen ejus

Give glory to the Lord, and call upon his name

The next verse narrows the focus to set the theme as historical narrative, evidence that has provided confidence for such praise:

Annuntiate inter gentes opera ejus

Declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

Perhaps this is why the lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit this psalm several times in coming weeks, with slightly differing verse selections. It recurs on 10 and 31 August, then on 21 September. This provides an opportunity for continuity, using the same style and response for all four appearances of this psalm.


The illustration from the  St Alban’s psalter above is in Latin (click on all photos to enlarge). Why the quotes in Latin this week, you ask? There’s a beautiful five-part setting of Psalm 105 in that language by the towering Roland de Lassus (Orlando di Lasso, c.1530 – 94) who, together with Palestrina in Italy, Byrd in England and Victoria in Spain, was one of the pillars of Late Renaissance music – see previous Crystal Ball post.

Works written for five voices are not everyday fare around South Woden; it is beautiful but demanding music. However, the Psalm Team has assembled a small group of experienced singers to present this centuries-old musical gem for your edification on 10 August.

Regrettably, these motets are rarely heard in Canberra, so that presentation on 10 August will be all the richer – note the date now! (It’s also a commissioning service for new Councillors). A separate post on the subject of this wonderful composer will follow soon.

A foretaste

I’m getting ahead of myself. This week, tossing the Renaissance ball into the ring, we start just with a small quote from the Lassus work as the response. And why not? — let’s sing it in Latin. The translation (above) will appear in the order of service: Ps105 Response


Gregorian chant was widely used during mediaeval and renaissance times. In step with the style of the day of Lassus, we shall use one of these chants for the verses, on this occasion Tone VIII which looks like this:

Psalm tone VIII

Originating over a thousand years ago and thus before the advent of polyphony, such tones were sung in unison. We observe that ancient practice for the forthcoming sequence of readings of Psalm 105.

A season of history Words are important

Thus we dip into history in a big way – Latin, Lassus and friend Greg from the 16th century. It’s not without precedent even in South Woden; we used this very chant last year to accompany an inspiring work by Hildegard. It’s worth re-reading the post for the psalm of the day here>.

It is also the fourth Sunday this week, so your ever-faithful men’s group await to lead you in this blast from the past. With some difficulty we have resisted the urge to enter stage right in long cloaks and dark cowls.

Seriously, though, the beauty and inspiration of Gregorian chant have been recognised over the centuries. The tones were designed to allow clarity of the words in the vast spaces of cathedrals and monasteries with their reverberant acoustics. Sung by voices in unison they have their own special atmospherics. Contact me if you want to be in it. Continue reading “Psalm 105, 27 July 14”

Pärt and Psalm 100, 17 April 14

Image The Oriana Chorale; artwork Dan Sanderson. Click to enlarge

For those interested in sacred songs that you will probably never hear at South Woden, The Oriana Chorale will sing music of some interest at Wesley Uniting Church on Thursday 17th April (‘Maundy’ or Holy Thursday) at 7:00 pm. Their notice says:

The principal work will be Arvo Pärt’s 1990 Berlin Mass. The sections of the Mass will be interspersed with a capella and accompanied pieces by composers ranging from J.S. Bach, Schütz and Lotti to Eric Whitacre, Thompson and Górecki.

It’s not just personal involvement that inspires me to draw this to your attention, but some familiar themes appearing in this blog, works by Pärt and Schütz in particular with the additional appearance of favourite J S Bach!  And if you don’t know Eric Whitacre, you probably should.

IMG_3096Pärt’s Berliner Messe

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is perhaps the most performed exponent of modern minimalist modal music in the tradition of the Gregorian chant.  (See also a previous post on the modern chant.)

The mass follows the standard liturgical sections of the ordinary – but that’s about the end of the standard and ordinary. Here’s an example of the Kyrie sung by the Estonian Chamber Choir – Arvo is an Estonian after all.

Psalm 100

Of the interspersed pieces, I mention the psalm setting by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) not only because it’s a sung psalm, but because it’s a classic example of the emergence of antiphonal performance in polychoral writing. Schütz was a prominent 17th century composer and organist in Dresden and Venice – the multiple choir lofts in San Marco’s Venice was an inspiration for two-choir arrangements. He set all the Psalms of David amongst his many works. It’s the double-choir treatment with antiphonal or at least imitative entries that make this work exciting as the German text urges:

Jauchzet dem Herren alle Welt (Make a joyful noise unto God all the world)

The J S Bach selection, Der geist hilft BWV 226, is also scored for two choirs and instruments, the text being from Romans and Luther.

Continue reading “Pärt and Psalm 100, 17 April 14”