Psalm 112, 5 Feb 17

Light rises in darkness

Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.

During a yacht delivery through the Barrier Reef a while ago, an overnight anchored in a remote cove was a welcome break. A refreshing sleep rocked by the movements of the boat in wind, wave and tide was a perfect precursor to a pre-dawn start. With anchor a-weigh, still dripping salt water and sand, the early light of dawn crept over the outcrops of the uninhabited island that was our silent but comforting host for the night. In such a tale, light and darkness are equally appreciated, necessary and used to advantage. No moral values either negative or positive are attributed.

When metaphorical dimensions arise in literature, darkness usually comes off worst by a country mile. Light is good, dark is evil. So it appears in Psalm 112 at first glance: but the implied moral values are by no means black and white. Light is valued in verse 4 but darkness is not necessarily bad, just limiting. There’s a time to sleep, and a time to pull up anchor. Illumination, as in Psalm 119:105, seems here to be a lamp to the feet and a light to the path of those who seek goodness, day or night. Translations differ. The New International Version is attractive:

Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.

The paraphrase used as antiphon for a setting of Psalm 112 in Together in Song 69 is: “Light rises in darkness when justice rules our lives.” Strongly in its favour is the direct link to justice, a word wielding much more force in a modern context than the jargon of ‘righteousness’. The music for the opening phrase of the response rises step by step, like the sun rising from behind those dark outcrops, preparing for the final call later in the psalm to a life of justice and faith. The verses may be sung freely to the tone in the hymn book, perhaps with guitar accompaniment. A nice variation is to use the tune of the refrain as a tone, varying the pointing as desired.

Using the first line of verse 1, the refrains in both NCH and TEP say: “Happy are those who fear God”. (See remarks on ‘fear’ in the comments on the previous psalm, 111.) PFAS 112B skips fear and selects the second idea, that ‘those who delight in the law of God’ are happy. And while referring back to 111, the comment made there regarding Victoria’s vesper psalms could be repeated verbatim for this psalm, save for the title Beatus vir qui timet Dominum.Ps112 introit Victoria

Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he hath great delight in his commandments. (v.1, BCP)

Psalm 127, vespers

This psalm of ascent asserts that ‘unless God builds the house, in vain the builders labour.’ And without divine protection over a city, the watchmen are wasting their time. The song is clearly worth consideration by anyone undertaking a new project.

Then there’s a sweet section about the joys of having children, said to be an inspiration behind some of the poetry in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.

monteverdi_vespersTomas Luis de Victoria wrote two settings of Psalm 127 (126 in the Vulgate) for 4 and 8 voices. One is for odd verses only as a vespers psalm, allowing for a priest or cantor to sing the even verses.

And speaking of vespers there is the great Vesperis in Festis Beata Mariae Vergine, usually just called the 1610 Vespers by Claudio Monteverdi. This is much broader in scope than just one psalm; indeed, the whole work revolves around six psalms. 127 is included in this wide-ranging composition, along with several other vespers psalms like 122, 137 and 147, calling for a choir of six or eight voices. These are all separated by a variety of lighter motets.

Virginal in the Berlin museum of instruments

Virginal in the Berlin museum of instruments

The 1610 Vespers is usually accompanied by harpsichord, basso continuo and such early instruments as are available — theorbo, portative organ, strings and reed or horn. The whole work takes about an hour and a half, last sung by your webmaster many years ago with the then Bromley Singers in London.

This is not one to cobble together with a few keen volunteers on short notice.

PFAS 127B is worth a look. The refrain is antiphonal and, being syncopated, might take a little learning. Verses are sung to a nice tone.