Psalm 86, Solstice

There’s no hint of it in the text of Psalm 86 but the Lectionary occasionally (Year A) trots this song out at around the time of the solstice. For those in ‘the South’, this is the winter solstice, shortest day in the southern hemisphere calendar. [Readers in the northern hemisphere might have to find a point of entry more relevant to the height of summer.] Down under, the lament resonates since David is here at a low point again, “poor and in misery”. But as usual, in such a slump he calls on divine support. (vs 4-7)

The Solstice itself has no particular significance in the Christian year. No, not true: we did borrow it in the days of the old Julian (and northern hemisphere) calendar for the pivotal festival of Christmas. However, the metaphor of reaching the nadir of cold times, be they astronomical, physical, social, emotional or spiritual, is obvious. Psalm 86 somehow reflects these circumstances, providing comfort and inspiration. With this in mind, in the following home-grown song (an SATB arrangement is available) the tune, in both verse chants and refrain, falls gradually to a low point before rising in hope. An obvious device, no doubt, yet undeniably in harmony with the liturgical concept.

People of every race and any century have long pondered on the cycles of heaven and earth, sometimes seeing spiritual significance, sometimes just in awe. In the early 16th century and a long way from the Greenwich Observatory, a Polish medic, cleric and astronomer named Copernicus hesitated for years before finally being pushed into publishing irrefutable evidence that the ancient Greek and Egyptian observers including Ptolemy (who lived not long after Jesus) were wrong in one major premise. The earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe and creation. It actually rotated in orbit around the sun, not the other way around. Galileo agreed.

Final bars of the nine-part ‘Incline thine ear’ by Lassus

The established church opposed them, under pain of excommunication and worse. Some were actually burned at the stake for espousing such views. Galileo recanted, Copernicus kept his head down. The church fathers were stuck in the Ptolemaic system based on some very dubious and over-literal readings of biblical texts – including psalms such as 19 and 93 saying the earth shall not be moved –  for fear that science would undermine belief in the inherited wisdom and authority of the church.

When Copernicus was finally convinced to publish, just before he died mid-16th century, Rome sniffily placed his book on a banned list. It stayed there for more than a century. Regrettably then as now, targeted or random, extreme interpretations in any faith are hard to reform and can lead to foolish attacks on innocent, thoughtful people.

Music

For the ambitious there are many larger classical settings, such as a Morales 1541 motet in three parts, Inclina Domine aurem tuam.  An even more demanding piece for nine voices [illustrated] under the same incipit was published by Orlando di Lasso (1530 – 1594) in 1604, in what turned out to be a very productive early decade for fine music.

Apparently is it possible to conduct from an assembly of many challenging parts. Not a bar line in sight.

This structure, two small choirs or quartet and quintet groups of soloists with or without accompaniment, was not uncommon. The author had the pleasure of hearing a Vecchi mass for 9 voices and early instruments, including psalm settings, performed near Den Haag by Musica Antica recently.

All musicians were reading from the original published music, not at all an easy task to the modern musician. It was conducted by Kate Clark, an Australian baroque musician, professor and lawyer resident in Amsterdam.

Period instruments, violi da gamba and bass viol

Modern music

Psalm 86 is frequently absent in hymn books like TiS. However, TiS 725, the Taizé song In our darkness, is suitable in this context, under the Southern Cross at least.

The psalters, naturally, have settings. PFAS 86B is a responsorial setting whose words paraphrase the theme of the psalm, rather than a particular verse: “Be with me Lord when I am in trouble.” A simplified version of the same refrain may be found at 91D a few pages on.

Everett in TEP homes in on one of the few verses in the collection that mentions a female role-player:

Give your strength to your servant, and save the son of your handmaiden (16)

We are not sure whether this is David referring to his mother as the handmaiden, or it is indeed a prayer by the woman author herself.

Alternate Psalm

The alternate set of readings includes Psalm 69. See previous posts such as that on 4 Sep 2016> Coincidentally, a featured refrain therein offers northern hemisphere readers a tune that rises, rather than falls, to match the summer solstice pattern.

Psalm 31, 14 May 17

Palms at Percy IsThis psalm, combining many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity, appeared in the Lectionary just last month. It was discussed in a post for Palm Sunday, a summary of which follows.

This is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay. Enduring all opposition, David recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words quoted by the dying Jesus: “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” accounting for this reading in Holy Week and Easter.

As always the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme. Thus:

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Celebrating hope and help in time of trouble is a favourite, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

Psalm 16, 23 Apr 17

Like the twenty-third, this is a psalm of trust and protection in divine presence, the source of goodness and guidance. David describes God as his portion and cup, evoking familiar imagery in themes that connect well with daily life. Less familiar but interesting are some other phrases that might easily pass unnoticed in a quick reading.

First, in verse 6: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in (or enclose) pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.” Most of us in the developed world can rejoice in having been dealt good cards — a well-favoured estate, physical and otherwise, as inherited by the psalmist. We seldom think of our situation as defined by boundary lines, but limits are implicit in our inherited circumstances. What we do with them is up to us.

Secondly, in the next verse, we find a point of contact with many meditative and mindfulness observances practised in many cultures around the world: it is by listening reflectively to our own hearts that we may often find divine guidance. There are several other ideas floating around; for example the apostle Peter quoted the later verses of the psalm in Acts 2, declaring that David was foretelling Christ and the resurrection. David concludes the song by affirming: “You show me the path of life. … there are pleasures for evermore.

Music

Of the four settings in Psalms for All Seasons, three follow our preferred format of a refrain with sung verses. All of these three emphasise the theme of refuge and protection:

  • 16B has a slightly longer refrain and verses set to a lively tune
  • 16C introduces a simple refrain by Christian Strover (© 1973) with an equally simple but effective chord line of Gm-EbΔ-Dm7-Gm.
  • 16D uses the same refrain as 16C but verses are sung to a tone.
  • 16D Alt (a new tune which departs from the protection theme, and might therefore have been better listed separately as 16E) also follows that familiar pattern of verses sung to a simple tone, with a refrain quoting verse 9. This could be sung as call and response if desired:

Cantor: My heart is glad and my spirit rejoices
People: My body shall rest in hope.

The Emergent Psalter also uses this verse 9 quoted above in an easy refrain; find your own verse treatment as usual in this source. The New Century refrain, this time by Carolyn Jennings, quotes the final phrase: “In your right hand are pleasures for evermore.” A home-grown setting by the author also uses these closing phrases.

There are a couple of songs in the ether that are highly suitable for male voices. A good example is Benedicam Domino (Psalmus 15) by Orlando di Lasso (1532 – 1594). It’s only a verse or two, and that in Latin, but very enticing.

 

Psalm 31, Palm Sunday, 9 Apr 17

Palms in the KimberleyThe Lectionary readings for Holy Week and Easter include this psalm. You may have noticed that there are two psalms listed for Palm Sunday, the liturgies of the palms and that of the passion.

This psalm combines many common themes of supplication, distress, trust and courage in diversity. It is a rich psalm, combining feelings of confidence and security together with a sense of danger, sorrow and dismay in which the divine refuge and blessing are earnestly sought and highly valued: “I have taken refuge (v.1) … incline your ear to me (v.2) … be my strong rock (v.3)”. Reading the text, you would almost think that this is another of those penitential psalms. What net, we wonder, has been set for David this time? Intrigue, hatred and jealousy amongst competitors or unbelievers, or just common old greed and selfishness? Enduring all this cunning, he recognises the need for some assistance from the ‘tower of strength’ and the ‘God of truth’ (vv.4, 5) Then in verse 5 we find words that the dying Jesus quoted:

Into your hands I commend my spirit

As always, the choice of music depends on a leader’s chosen theme.

  • If resignation of the spirit to divine power and care along the lines of verse 5 is preferred, the refrain from The Emergent Psalter would suit. It swings along quite nicely but has a definite air of lamentation about it. The psalm itself mixes that feeling with strong lines of petition and trust.
  • NCH has two refrains, the first emphasising the rock and fortress of faith, and the second asking for heavenly grace: “Let your face shine upon your servant.”
  • Finally (and quite refuting ‘the-theme-is-the-main-thing’ line) the best wine kept till last: celebrating hope and help in time of trouble, the two-part antiphonal setting in Psalms for all seasons 31C by AnnaMae Meyer Bush and Kathleen Hart Brumm is a favourite. This beautiful and thoughtful response is strong on melody, harmony and meaning, picking up a rather mysterious but powerful promise in verse 15: “My times are in your hands.” That’s only one of four good statements of belief rolled into this antiphon, which continues: “… You strengthen me in strife. My hope is in your word. Your love preserves my life.” This nicely harmonised response follows an easy, descending path of similar phrases. Easily learned, nice to sing. Verses may be sung to a similar chord progression. The main tune is quite a high setting but there is a second lower part acting as an echo voice which adds an excellent dynamic and antiphonal element.

Psalm 95

Note: Psalm 95 appears infrequently in the Lectionary (Lent and November in Year A). This post updates the rather scant coverage of a 2014 post.

This psalm rewards the reader with new dimensions upon each reading. The first half starts with a song, indeed a shout, of praise and thanks to the creator of a fantastic world; and not just any old song but:

let us come before God with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout with psalms (v. 3)

Writing a psalm that urges us to sing psalms seems a bit like blowing your own trumpet; but we assume many of these songs were familiar as part of the culture of the children of Israel from the days of the exile in Egypt.

Wilderness

So the song dips back in time to remind the reader of those trying days in the wilderness that form the backdrop to Lent, after Pharaoh let the people go – into freedom from slavery, sure, but also into the wilds, deserts and privations. When read in Lent, the preceding Old Testament reading is from Exodus 17, the people complaining of their wilderness thirst. Similarly, Australia’s heartlands can be both impressive and fearsome. The psalmist goes on to remind us that trials and hardships pass; do not to take the short view, for in the long run we shall find peace. The song is an encouragement not just to be thankful but also to be humble and not to ‘harden our hearts’.

Praetorius

Books of psalms, Michael Praetorius

Music

 

Two lively options for Psalm 95 are available in ‘the red book’:

  • TiS 52 is “Let us sing to the God of salvation”
  • TiS 53 is the Calypso Carol.

A simple refrain from The Emergent Psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice: “Come let us sing, let us shout for joy”.

Three settings in PFAS also invite attention:

  • The first, 95C (Come let us sing), is a chant by William Boyce in the form of an unusually long double tone. This would suit more traditional tastes very nicely. While the harmonies are not adventurous, it can be sung in SATB to rich effect.
  • Over the page, PFAS 95E (O that today) is a lilting tune in E minor by Andrew Moore, with a choice of two tones for the verses. A couple of features make this refrain attractive. First, it flows up and down nicely to finish on the tonic major. Next, both bass note and chord sequence follow a loose stepping pattern down then up, in either a single or double-step (thirds) fashion. This means little when written thus but the musical effect is pleasing. You have to be there.
  • Finally, an oboe descant part featured in “Let not your hearts be hardened” at 95I promises a nice song, including refrain and sung verses.

For the more adventurous, a swag of classical setting of 95 may be found in the public domain, including a smaller but still impressive swag of tunes from a shoe-maker, Thomas Clark (1775 – 1859). Clark, who according to his obituary “received but a scanty education, but was an incessant reader”, was also an incessant composer. You get the picture when, while scanning page upon page of titles by this director of music in Canterbury, the eye falls on A Twelfth set of Psalm Tunes. Being in the form of rather conservative hymns, they do not earn a prominent place in our repertoire.

Elsewhere in the big swag, a piece by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), impressively entitled “Venite exultemus Domino: In festo Natalis Resurrectionis Ascensionis” (being the incipit and seasonal use), is remarkable for its arrangement for nine parts in three trios. Each voice was published in 1607 as a separate book. As is his way, he directs that these parts may be for voices, instruments or organs.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius.

Septima vox, Musarum Sioniarum (1607), Praetorius. Danish Royal Library.

Psalm 43

Note. Psalm 43 was almost ignored when it came up last time (June 2016) since the Lectionary adds it to Psalm 42 as a combined reading — and there is a good reason for that. It appears in its own right, but only as the alternative reading, late in Year A, 5 Nov 2017. This interim post is intended to remediate a sketchy coverage so far.

Psalm 43 (text here>) is quite short at five verses, and quite like several other songs. The writer, of the Korahites, is seeking justification against nastiness of various flavours. Then, asking himself why he should mooch around gloomily, the psalmist rolls out a prayer whose frequent use in liturgies and hymns has made the lines familiar:Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 19.08.

O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. (v.3)

Taken together with Psalm 42, the song’s structure is in the form of a lament — complain (42), ask, trust, praise (43). This, plus the fact that 43 has no heading, is evidence that these two were probably written as one song. Further, both share the same antiphon:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again to the one who is my help (or saving presence, welfare, prosperity, deliverance) and my God. (v. 5)

Music

One would have thought that this inbuilt antiphon shared by Psalms 42 and 43 would be preferred for the refrain in modern sources:

  • Everett in TEP does choose this verse (43:5)
  • PFAS 43C, a nice setting from The Iona Community and Wild Goose, selects the sending of light and truth in verse 3;
  • NCH goes for a slice of verse 1.

Several classical SATBs may be found online. The name Claude Goudimel is often associated with psalm settings, particularly of the Genevan Psalter project. This French composer was born in Besançon, lived in the north-east of France for some time until forced out by religious wars, and died in Lyon in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. Note in this excerpt from his Psalm 43 published in Paris in 1568 (but in Dutch) that bar lines have been added for the convenience of the modern singer.Ps43 Goudimel 1568

Psalm 113, 18 Sep ’16 Alt.

Ps113 Harley MS603

Psalm 113 and servants rejoicing, Harley psalter in the British Library, MS 603

Many parables in the New Testament propose an inversion of social climbing rules; the first shall be last, the proud shall be humbled, the outcast preferred, all you need is love. After an introductory song of praise — in this case without invoking the usual evidence of mighty deeds — the writer of Psalm 113 recorded a poetic precursor to this ‘foolish’ value system:

God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, and give the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. (vs. 7-9)

Tomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings for this psalm, a motet and a vesper psalm. Both titles (incipits) start with Laudate pueri / Praise ye servants. The title of the motet, for double choir, adds Domine. Victoria’s series of psalms specifically for vespers or evensong includes 113. Various luminaries in early times devised appointed psalmodies in the Roman rite for each of the services of the hours. Between five and more recently two psalms were to be sung in each evening service. In most such schemata, the vespers psalms were drawn from Psalms 109 to 147, with the exception of the longer 118.

However in the Jewish (especially Ashkenazi) tradition, 113 was included in the morning Shacharit (from the Hebrew for dawn) prayer as well as before the Passover meal. So maybe the first shall be last and the last first after all!

There are many enticing classical settings besides these. These vespers psalms and hymns have caught the interest of many great composers such as Monteverdi, Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff whose vespers in the Eastern Orthodox All-night vigil has been mentioned elsewhere.

New Century Hymnal provides a lightly syncopated refrain uses verse 2: Blessed be the name of God forever. It assumes the verses are sung to one of the many tones suggested on page 620.