Vespers, 26 Aug 17

Vespers psalm settings by Victoria, Lassus and Rachmaninov have been mentioned several times on this blog – see for example Psalms 103, 104, 112, 116 and 127. Canberra area readers will be interested in an opportunity to hear some of the wonderful Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil (‘Vespers’) this Saturday.

Extracts from the Vespers will be performed in the extraordinary acoustic of the Fitters’ Workshop at 3 pm on Saturday 26 April 2017.

The Oriana Chorale presents haunting music of darkness and light in a program of music composers of northern European descent, curated by Music Director Peter Young. The woman with the alabaster box is one of two works by Arvo Pärt, famous for his shimmering and hypnotic choral effects.

Also included are works by three of the most interesting choral composers of today, Ola Gjeilo, Erik Esenvalds and Paul Mealor (the composer of a new piece for Prince William’s wedding).  Jazz fans will also be interested to hear evocative saxophone improvisations by prominent local musician and teacher John Mackey.

While several of the vespers psalms are omitted on this occasion, the wonderful first psalm will open the Rachmaninov sector. The concert will provide an excellent and enjoyable idea of the sonority of the Orthodox tradition, ranging from meditative moments to the explosive last movement:

South Wodens may remember that some time ago a male-voice trio presented a much-trimmed version of Rachmaninov’s Psalm 103:

Psalm 116, 18 Jun 17

Nutty Numbers …

Here is one of those confusing points of discontinuity between the numbering of the Latin Vulgate Psalter and the modern western translations. 114 and 115 were combined into what is now 116 in our Psalter.

Tomas-Luis-Victoria-300x300This explains why some Ps 116 settings over the years are listed as quoting from Psalms 114 and 115. The incipit Credidi in a setting by the Spanish composer Victoria, for example, appears as Psalm 115:1 in the Vulgate:

Credidi, propter quod locutus sum; ego autem humiliatus sum nimis / I believed, and therefore will I speak; but I was sore troubled.”

This is a nice four-part arrangement of odd verses only, and thus identifiable as a vespers psalm, amongst other uses. This verse now appears in the English Bible as Psalm 116:10, not even an odd verse. Cope.

ShadowLike Psalm 30 and others, Psalm 116 is a paean of thanks for deliverance from the power of darkness and, in particular in this psalm depending on the translation, the hold, anguish or entangling cords of the grave. So the psalmist resolves to walk in the divine presence in the land of the living (v.9) – a fine suggestion. The second half of the psalm is an act of dedication, so strongly felt that the psalmist’s declarations of trust and invocation are to be made ‘in the presence of all God’s people’.

Besides this tempting piece from Victoria, those by Lassus and Monteverdi are identified with the same incipit Credidi. Such numbering disparities appear in the lists of other classical arrangements.

… but Nice Notes

Lestocart

Pascal L’Estocart; looked pretty much like Victoria?

Paschal de l’Estocart (about 1538 – 1587) a French Renaissance composer from Noyon, who was considered to be quite an innovator, wrote a set of all 150 psalm settings including this one, J’aime mon Dieu, (Delixi quoniam which is Vulgate 114:1) from 1583. The melody is in the tenor, falsobordone style. The transcription bears the sub-heading: “Mis en musique pour quatre, cinq, six, sept et huit parties par Paschal de l’Estocart, de Noyon en Picardie.” His Psalm CXVI is for five voices.

Modern sources also call on different verses for the antiphon. As usual, the choice of medium will be influenced by the message:

  • The five entries in PFAS, two being responsorial, are marked by simplicity, perhaps too much if measured purely on the musical scale — which of course is not the main game. So 116D offers eight notes for eight words: “I love the Lord who heard my cry.” (v. 1) An alternate refrain is alike in brevity: “I will walk in the presence of God“, quoting verse 9. Verses are sung to a tone.
  • The next choice, 116E, uses that alternate refrain of 116D with a melody (again simple) for verses added.
  • NCH uses the final phrase of verse 1, “I will call on God as long as I live“, in a refrain with a little more interest — a swing feel, the chords alternating between Bb and Ab, and an echo voice.
  • Everett’s refrain in TEP is predictably more syncopated. He goes for verse 8, focused on deliverance and guidance. (He notes that it was sung “over a heavy trip hop beat”, whatever that is.)
  • TiS 71 avoids the prosaic by providing a double tone for the verses, and two refrains. These are drawn from verses 9 quoted above, and 12: “How can I repay?
  • And finally, a home-grown chant uses verse 1. It features the verses sung on a single note, against a falling bass line and some relatively unusual chords in the world of psalm settings. Verses have been paraphrased to sit more comfortably in this double-tone type of arrangement. Two cantors may sing a half of each verse antiphonally. No ornamentation is shown here but may be used in moderation in accordance with the cantors’ inspiration, or perhaps to subtly reinforce the chords changes moving around underneath. ‘Superficial simplicity’:ps116-hg

Such a wide choice allows for a refrain and style suitable to most occasions, whatever the dominant themes.

The alternate reading in the Lectionary is Psalm 100. For one example of what has been done at South Woden in the past, please see the blog for 23 Nov 14.

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.