Psalm 120, Ascents

The ascent is sometimes steep and indirect

This is the first of a group of fifteen psalms from 120 to 134 called the Songs of Ascent.

Most of them are quite short, between 5 and 8 verses; one (132) is longer but is surrounded (131, 133, 134) by poems of just three verses each. Originating perhaps as pilgrim songs, they are sometimes called a gradual and used as a processional or song of approach.

The psalmist paints a picture of himself living afar, amongst alien and truculent tribes. He regrets human tendencies to deceit and to warfare. Without excluding himself from these tendencies he asks for peace, while those around call for war.

Two offerings, quite contrasting, must suffice in our musical meanderings for this song.

TimbrelsSeven beats of the drum

First, we look at an example of the innovation and broad world-view taken by the compilers of Psalms for All Seasons. 120B is a demanding but rewarding song from the Philippines, When my trouble arose. You know your troubles have just arisen when you look at the opening bars to see no time signature, a tutti ostinato, drum beats and notes that don’t seem to add up.

The congregation, acting as a quiet accompaniment, sings a constant rhythmic ‘Go forth — ‘ to an insistent 3+2+2 rhythm. The time signature is not 7/8 however, because there’s a sneaky 3/4 coming up. Fun. This is surely enough to catch the eye of anyone looking for something different and engaging.

A solo voice overlays the verses. It would be quite a trick to sing this in such a way that the words can be fully comprehended, absorbed and cherished by all. A few well-rehearsed lead singers and drummers are needed to hold this restrained but insistent drive, keeping the sevens, giving energy to the soloist but quiet enough not to drown the message.

Full many a flower

Turning to the classical arena, we run down the list of the usual suspects — Lassus, Morales, Palestrina, Tomkins.  All good stuff, but an unusual name at the very bottom of the list catches my eye.

It is one Ivo de Vento, who turns out to have been an active Flemish singer and organist who learned his trade in Italy. Ivo (or Yvo) then moved to Munich, perhaps with, or as a student of, Orlando de Lassus. He died there having reached the ripe age of about 30+ in 1575.

Screen Shot 2016-08-12 at 17.53.

Psalm 120, Ad Dominum, de Vento. Liber Mottetum, 1571, National Library of Denmark

Several points are notable in this illustration:

  • First, by the 16th century the five-line staff is standard. A century earlier it might be on four lines.
  • Those lines are not quite continuous, indicating a mechanised printing process. It is, after all, more than a hundred years since Gutenberg invented his printing press.
  • A rudimentary treble clef sits on the G; earlier manuscripts would show only a C or an F clef. But since there are no bar lines and the C just happens to sit where the C clef sign would normally sit, this may be an additional key C rather than a time signature.
  • Dotted notes have appeared to indicate note values. (The figure 4 is just a page number)
  • Finally, that little squiggle at the very end of the line, a hangover from very early manuscripts, indicates the next note to be sung on the next line. This little cue can be found in many manuscripts of early music, as a valuable hint for those singers who rely on recognising intervals rather than singing the notes in perfect pitch. In this case, it tells the singer that the first note on the next staff of music is sung at the same pitch.

Ivo de Vento? We know little of this musician. Such brief biographies as we have attest to his creative productivity and influence, while noting how little he is remembered or studied. One commentary says:

He was conservative in taste … avowing a ‘Pythagorean’ preference for pure music over madrigalian conceits. []

Red and green for the seasonHow sad that this obscure composer died so young and was so little recognised and remembered. Did he, like Thomas Gray‘s rustic flowers, blush unseen and waste his sweetness on the desert air?

Though his name may be last in the list and little known, yet he made sweet harmony and no doubt lifted many souls on their daily path. Gray’s Elegy continues:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[I think I snuck that in purely for that madding crowd. Or was it the noiseless tenor? … now there’s a thought!] No, we can hardly say that Munich, home of the Oktoberfest, was either desert air or far from the madding crowd, even in de Vento’s day. However, the continuity of sincere, unsung lives with preferences for ‘pure music over madrigalian conceits’ — just like the ‘restrained but insistent drive’ of our PFAS 120B from the Philippines — is often much more valued than we imagine.

Psalm 35

ShadowPsalm 35 has been omitted from the lectionary, probably as a ‘special interest’ poem — in this case for those who have been slandered or victim of deceit and such injustices. Hopefully most readers will not suffer such pain too often and may not identify with the psalmist and the song; but it does happen.

As noted in relation to other songs by David like Psalm 52 and 34, the historical setting and David’s harsh experience at the hands of both slanderers and King Saul are important.

The psalmist early recognises that the best response is to seek wisdom and any remediation required from the source of all love and justice, rather than taking an eye for an eye. There’s no doubt that David hopes for the downfall of his opponents. Significantly, though, he is sympathetic to the plight of his enemies when they were sick, wearing sack-cloth, fasting, praying and regarding them just like good friend or family. (vs 13, 14)

The psalm highlights the devastation unguarded words can cause in the lives of others, and recommends the habit of speaking the truth in love. (Eph. 4:15)

Each of three sections concludes (verses 10, 18, 28) in a declaration of trust in divine goodness.


There are a couple of settings around, neither common nor antiphonal. To my mind, the psalm does not lend itself well to this responsorial style unless the refrain is positive and uplifting. Isaac Everett‘s in The Emergent Psalter, sounding appropriately rather like a Hebrew song (download>), is just that:

Excerpt from refrain by Everett

Excerpt from refrain by Everett

Otherwise, a hymn like PFAS 35A (the only suggestion in this book, but with the added attraction of an arrangement by JS Bach) might suffice as a response to the reading.



Psalm 52, 17 July 2016

Psalm 52 is another of those songs that can sound vindictive and unforgiving when encountered outside its historical setting. Fortunately, the preamble refers to Doeg and Saul, thereby providing the requisite clues.

Doeg is not, one has to admit, a big name in biblical tales. A devious fellow, it seems, which is what got David so worked up. Best I quote one of the dictionaries (see box, click to enlarge):

Introducing Doeg. Bible

Introducing Doeg. Bible

The psalmist is justifiably cranky at being misrepresented. He had not yet received the policy update bulletin about love enemies, strangers and neighbours, of course — that is coming up in the gospel reading this week with the Good Samaritan.

So David wanted God to hand out the full come-upance. Having got this off his chest, he then pops in one of those little gems of imagery:

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever

Near the Pont du Gard stands an old olive tree a thousand years old, a classic example of this imagery.


Most congregations will be happy with simple sung verses and response such as those available in the usual sources.

Orland_di_LassusMore ambitiously, how nice it would be if you could roll out Orlando de Lasso‘s motet for five voices entitled Quam gloriaris. The Latin text of this incipit is rendered rather quaintly in the BCP as:

Why boastest thou thyself, thou tyrant: that thou canst do mischief; whereas the goodness of God endureth yet daily?

This two-part piece was published in Sacrae cantiones in 1566, during his time in Venice. It starts conventionally enough, the alto entering with the melody, rather than the usual tenor entry. The other voices enter in succession, cantus, tenor, then quintus and finally bass.

Lassus' Quid gloriaris, CPDL

Lassus’ Quid gloriaris, CPDL

The opening tune is essentially a rising scale do-re-mi-fa-so in F with ornamentation. Composers often used the Gregorian psalm tones as a basis. While it is not quite one of the standard psalm tones from Liber Usualis, it is close to Tone I shown here. Psalm tone IIt may also have been a popular sacred or secular song in Venice at the time.

It sounds simple at the start but gradually gets so intertwined as to make the earth move and the horizon tilt.

Detail of synchronous ornamentation in Psalm 52 by Lassus

Detail of synchronous ornamentation in Psalm 52 by Lassus

The delayed imitation continues, the parts gradually coming back together at bar 30 before separating again. The cumulative ornamentation produces those moments when two or three voices have all the fun while the others hold a nice anchoring note. These moments can be quite a thrill to the singer, whether doing the Swingle Singer frills or the anchor. They reach a heightened awareness of a satisfying musical and temporal connect between singers when the plan comes together.

The opening of the Secunda Pars Propteria Deus (verse 5) in contrast, is completely homophonic (one has to be careful with that word – beware the spell-checker). So it is at bar 8, before the voices separate into their own playful counterpoint. The assembled faithful would then have had to know the words to discern any meaning from the delightful but complex layers of notes and words.

For more on Lassus, see post 04.08.2014 or touch the Lassus tag.

Psalms 42, 43, 19 June 16

Australians, at least those who live or travel anywhere near the open dry spaces of this continent, know what thirst is all about. Indigenous plants and animals evolved to survive through hot summers and droughts. Aboriginal people were expert at finding water in dry creek beds, trees and grasses.

Kimberley landscapeFor Sooner or later in a long dry spell thirst will catch up with expert and novice alike. Elijah in the Old Testament story this week (1 Kings 19) must have felt it, as alone and fearful he fled from persecution far into the wilderness (that Jezebel must have been a real piece of work). Elijah finally came to the end of his tether, sat down under a broom tree — and even that was a ‘solitary’ broom tree — and wished for death. That’s what the psalmist has in mind at verse 1:

As the deer longs for following streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Cathedral walk in the Bungle BunglesThen follows the famous episode of the still small voice following earthquake, wind and fire. It is matched in the psalm by deep calling to deep in the thunder of cataracts; but after a day of God so demonstrating steadfast love:

… at night the song is with me (v.8)

The reading then flows smoothly on to Psalm 43, where we come across another familiar verse:

Send out our light and your truth, let them lead me; and let them bring me to the holy hill and to your dwelling (v.3)


Psalm 42, especially the thirsty deers, seemed to capture the imagination of composers over the years. Mendelssohn and Luther did their own translations of the poem, and many settings exist. One of the earlier pieces (apart from early Gregorian chants in the Roman liturgy or counterparts in the Mozarbic and Gallic liturgies) crops up in a mass written by 15th century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem. He calls this verse into service for times of bereavement, when surely the soul thirsts for comfort. This section is sparse, being for ‘superius and countertenor’ voices. It could be adapted, of course, but it’s not very suitable as the centrepiece for the singing of the psalm in the modern service. It’s also in Latin

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

imageIncidentally, Elijah’s despairing cry is repeated in the incipit of a popular madrigal by Monteverdi from his Fourth Book of Madrigals for five voices of 1603, ‘Si ch’io vorrei morire’ (‘Yes, I’d like to die’).That’s where the parallel stops, though, as this is actually an erotic love song. It was recycled during the Counter-Reformation by re-texting with a religious message about the love of God. People would have recognised the tune and got the reference straight away. (Image; canto part book by Monteverdi, British Library)

For South Woden Continue reading

Psalms 44, 53 and 55

These three psalms tell of moments of grief, fear, shame or anger caused by conflict of one sort or another. While they all on first reading have a flavour of violence, and all are omitted from the weekly lectionary readings, they should not be ignored. They actually argue for reliance on divine truth and protection rather than the sword.

Psalm 44

The psalmist first draws strength from divine guidance and support in the story of Exodus. The conquering of the promised lands is not attributed to armed force. In a precursor to Jesus’ command to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane to put down his sword, so here:

I do not rely on my bow, and my sword does not give me the victory; surely you gave us victory (vs. 6, 7)

The psalmist is aware that God searches our hearts (v. 21; both this verse and the next are quoted by Paul in Romans 8). The remainder of the song is a lament at some grievous reverses. Despite humiliation:

yet we have not forgotten you nor strayed from your covenant. Our heart never turned back (vs. 17, 18)

Settings are few in the ether but Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) used verses 5 to 9 for an attractive composition for solo bass and choir. Verses 6 and 7 quoted above are also used as the refrain in The Emergent Psalter.

Psalm 53

Little will be said about this song, as it is virtually a repeat of Psalm 14 (qv. this post>). Paul quotes these psalms in Romans 3 to emphasise grace and love, rather than justification under the law.


Utrecht Psalter, Psalm 55 illustrated. Image

Psalm 55

In this psalm, the first of seven ‘skips’ in a row, the grief is caused by false witness or betrayal by someone who was considered a friend:

My companion hurt a friend and broke a covenant with speech softer than butter — but war is in his heart. (v. 20, 21)

If nothing else, this psalm should encourage us to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph.4:15) — and then stick to it. We are also advised, as in I Peter 5:7, to cast our burdens upon God.

Several of the settings in Choralwiki use just a few verses, often 2 to 4 which are a plea to be heard in times of anguish. The show-stopper is one by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554 ‒ 1612) for 12 parts in three choirs. However, there are also four-part settings by Lassus and Mendelssohn.

Psalm 25, 22 Feb 15

"Double-Rainbow" by Leonardo Weiss

“Double-Rainbow” by Leonardo Weiss, wikicommons

The readings this week start with Noah and that rainbow covenant in Genesis, running through to John baptising Jesus and being arrested for his trouble. Quite a span.

In the heart of this series nestles the psalm, one of the acrostic psalms in which each verse starts with one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. (We read verses 1 to 10). It starts with a brief but bold call:

To you, O God, I lift up my soul.

Perhaps at school you learned this poem by William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky/So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man / So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man / And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.

Back to the psalm. Recognising the value of seeking truth and humility, the psalmist trusts that youthful transgressions will be forgotten (verse 7). That certainly rings a bell. These ideas are a link with the season of Lent, which begins this Sunday. Introduced in this first half of the verses, the ideas are expanded in the unopened second half.

The psalmist declares that on our journey we should trust an upright God:

… who instructs defaulters in the way, leads the humble in what is right, and teaches right paths (vs 8, 9)


Our normal sources have several options for music. We have sung TiS14 on previous occasions — a nice response by Willcock with slightly more challenging verses suitable to sight-readers.

A mix-and-match of a simple tone and TiS14 refrain would not out of order. However, to reach for beautiful simplicity, our women will lead us in singing what we loosely call the South Woden Communion song with a simple tone for the verses. The refrain quotes one of the central themes in verses 4 and 5:Ps25 Refrain+Verses 22Feb15