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

In modern sources:

  • A simple refrain from The Emergent Psalter using verse 1 may be a good choice: “Come let us sing, let us shout for joy”.
  • The refrain at TiS 95 by Michael Perry may also suit, though the verses leave something to be desired. In both cases, the verses, modified or paraphrased if preferred, could well be spoken or sung to a simple tone.

Two refrains in PFAS also cry out for attention:

  • The first, 95C (Come let us sing), is a chant 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.

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.

Psalm 56

The introduction to Psalm 56 is quite something:

To the leader [music director] according to [to the tune of] The Dove on Far-off Terebinths [a type of tree; perhaps this is a comforting reference to the Valley of Terebinths where David fought Goliath]. Of David. A Miktam [meaning unknown], when the Philistines seized him in Gath.

We learn that this is another song emanating from the anguish David felt during the time of Saul’s persecution and perfidy (see post on Psalm 52). The dove in name of the tune might suggest a yearning for peace. How nice it would be to have these ancient tunes to hand now. There was then no way of writing them down for posterity. Similarly, we know not what a Miktam was.

Yin YangAs in the preceding psalms, David rehearses the dangers and opposition all around, being hounded all day long; but gives thanks for deliverance in a repeated antiphon that is integral to the flow of the psalm (verses 4 and 10-11). He thus blends fear and trust in a sort of yin/yang juxtaposition. In a fascinating phrase, David also gives us imagery of putting one’s tears into God’s bottle for safekeeping.

The firsts PFAS setting 56A uses this dark/light theme in its refrain; the second 56B uses the last verses paraphrased — though the title of this song “God, I am beaten, battered and bruised’ is hardly enticing. Then again, neither are such circumstances, which are all too prevalent around the world today, as in David’s time.

These are simple enough songs: in contrast, a setting by Henry Purcell for up to 4 voices and continuo, entitled Be merciful to me, would test the most agile of singers. Here is a small extract of two of the voices, there being also a figured bass continuo:Ps56 Purcell

Psalm 38

The third of the seven Penitentials, this psalm is glass half empty — no, make that a quarter — through to verse 14. The opening verses mirror those of the first Penitential Psalm, 6. The singer regrets failure, inadequacy, illness and a thorough-going weariness. Then comes the half full, and an urgent request for comfort:

For in you O God I have fixed my hope; you will answer (v.15)

Do not forsake me, or be distant; make haste to help me O God, my salvation. (21, 22)

So this could be a song for Lent, or just when you are ill or feeling low.

There’s not much music to help you out in the hymn books — 38 and 39 are not included in the Lectionary. Our regular psalters give you one or two tunes. However, as other blogs have noted, the Penitential Psalms seems to have been de rigueur for the serious composers of yesteryear; Byrd, Dowland, Gesualdo and Lassus all lined for 38; and many more went to town on the middle one, Psalm 51. (Others are 32, 102, 130 and 143.) Producing a compendium of all seven won gold.

Ps38 GesualdoCarlo Gesualdo was certainly a colourful creator of classics. Music by this very expressive musician (and Prince of Venosa in the south of Italy) is very rewarding to sing.

It is also quite demanding — note the absence of bar lines and the apparent independence of individual voices in the illustration. Cadences are sometimes surprising and unpredictable, often passionate.

Gesualdo was both creative and cruel. He famously murdered his wife and lover when he caught them in the act. He was not convicted, but according to the current Wikipedia entry:

The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music.

The work he wrote for Psalm 38 confines its attention to the prayer for help in the final verses quoted above; but it sounds as though he may have felt the pull of the Penitential Psalms stronger than most.

Psalm 26

We find early in this song an echo of Psalm 1. The writer, thought to be David, declares his innocence and refuses to ‘sit with the wicked’ (v. 5). He offers a prayer for justice and confirmation of sticking to the ‘right way’ — that powerful word ‘integrity’ occurs at beginning and end in some translations.  Psalm 1 assures us that blessings will reward such a choice.

All other ground is sinking sand? (Murray River mouth)

‘… All other ground is sinking sand’ 

Psalm 26 thus declares the wonders of divine love and encourages personal integrity, that we might sing confidently with the psalmist:

My foot stands on level ground (v. 12)

Such poetic phrases leap out of the psalms all the time. It will depend on the eye of the beholder, of course. Composers writing refrains for Psalm 26 seem to agree that themes of love and faithfulness appeal:

  • Isaac Everett in TEP imagines this psalm as a good processional or call to worship, and recalls Jesus setting his eyes on Jerusalem. He thus selects verse 3 and modifies it slightly to: ‘I’ve set my eyes on your love. I walk in faithfulness to you.’ Typically, he slips from past into present (and often future) tense. Also typically, it’s a nice flowing refrain. This one starts in E minor, going through the relative major and associated chords and ends in a B7 turnaround.
  • John Becker in PFAS 26A is right there with Everett. His paraphrase of verse 3 in a similarly structured refrain goes: ‘Your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.’
  • Josef Haydn much earlier (1794) wrote a trio entitled, rather mysteriously: ‘How oft, instinct with warmth divine‘. The word ‘instinct’ in this case is archaic and means imbued, as the singer continues ‘…thy threshold have I trod.’ So Haydn was captured by ideas later in the psalm,  notably verse 8. His subtitle says: The Psalmist declares his Love for God’s House and determines to bless God. Reminiscent of Joshua’s “As for me and my house …” (Josh.24:15).

200 years earlier again (1597) Giovanni Gabrieli, in a major work for two choirs of five voices, eschewed key words and just went with the first five verses. The incipit provides the title: Iudica me Domine/Be thou my judge, O Lord, for I have walked innocently.

Psalm 39

The Somme

The Somme

Psalm 39 is a song reflecting on the short span of life — ‘a few hand-breadths … a mere breath’. (verse 5)  It is not formally included, as is the preceding Psalm 38, in the list of seven penitential psalms. (Neither 38 nor 39 make it into the Lectionary.)

39 could well qualify, however, as one of those laments that would go well with the blues (see comments on Psalm 14). The writer, said to be David, pours out feelings of confession, resignation, even anger, but mixes them with admissions of patience and trust in divine goodness. He asks:

Let me know my end and the number of my days, so that I may know how short life is. (v.6)

Clearly the brevity of life on this earth was an incentive to take up an instrument, as many composers chose the psalm as their lyric. Most quote either that sobering theme in verses 5 and 6, or go to the closing verses which ask for comfort as we travel on the way:

Hear my prayer O God, and give ear to my cry … for I am but a sojourner with you, a wayfarer, as all my forebears were. (v. 12)

African gospel in BerlinHow many African-American spirituals sing about travelling on, packing up, being on the way or crossing over?

Thomas Tomkins, whose airs are generally enticing, wrote two settings of small sections of this psalm, one à4 and another à5. Both feature short introductions and accompaniment by organ, both have the bass line as the entry voice.

Orlando Gibbons also wrote a setting for a longer section, verses 6 to 13, published in 1620. The modern version is for five voices and organ, in this case the entry carried by the alto. The original would have included viol or consort continuo, with entry and verses sung by a counter-tenor.

Three centuries later Hubert Parry, composer of the English favourite Jerusalem, published another notable song for almost the same selection of Psalm 39, this time for two choirs and entitled ‘Lord let me know my end’. It is the last of a set of ‘Six Songs of Farewell’, which were indeed Parry’s last compositions before his death at a time of many farewells, just weeks before the armistice was signed in 1918 ending the Great War.

There are no responsorial setting in TiS or PFAS. The Emergent Psalter is focused on the virtue of controlling the tongue, and indeed all other doubtful behaviour:

I will guard my ways. I will keep a muzzle on my mouth. (v.1, Isaac Everett)

Well, we are not here for long, it seems; so pick a song, sing it, and travel on!