Psalm 137, 2 Oct 16; Babylon

Note: The readings this week are from Lamentations, with the alternative choices of Psalms 137, the subject of this post, or 37. See an earlier post for Psalm 37.

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. (Ps. 137:1)

We may not remember Zion, but having often sung the 1972 reggae song made famous by Bob Marley and the Melodians, this lament of a people in exile will not be too far from the surface of our memories. To the psalm singer, however, the next verse it he one that hits home:

On the willows there we hung up our harps. For our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing a song of God in a strange land?

An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.

An instrument broken by conflict. Found in Berlin after WWII.

You would think that the singing of songs would be a powerful feature of grief and remembrance in exile. Some of our folk favourites are songs of people in another land, from the more hearty Botany Bay to a plaintive Isle of Innisfree (Dick Farrely, 1950), an oft-recorded song about Irish emigrants:

And when the moonlight creeps across the rooftops of this great city, wondrous though it be / I scarcely feel its wonder or its laughter; I’m once again back home in Innisfree.

In Babylon, it seems the Israelites could not muster the inspiration. Was it just to deny the captors? It may have sprung from an anger so strong as to banish all thought of song, generating vicious thoughts against the captors and their children. (v. 9) We may wish to dismiss this sting in the tail as classic outdated Old Testament vengeance; however it does give us a glimpse of what anger can do and how hard it is to manage. Deal with it we must if society is to avoid such dominoes of damage.

Psalm 81, 28 Aug ’16

Psalmist Asaph begins by casting into a shimmering spotlight some energising phrases:Lyre player, AlteNatGal

Raise a song and sound the timbrel, the merry harp and the lyre. Blow the ram’s horn at the new moon, and at the full moon (v.1, 3)

Then this touch of mystery:

I hear a voice I had not known: “I eased your shoulder from the burden You called on me in trouble and I saved you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder and tested you at the waters of Meribah” (vs. 5-7)

Asaph was one psalm writer who knew his history and used it in his songs. Whether today’s reader knows the background or not, the poetry sparks thought, dreaming, soaring imagination and hope.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Meribah, for example, refers to a real historical event  (disputation, angst and water from the rock; Num. 20). Knowing the history helps. If not, you just say: “Some secret, ancient or holy places, I imagine.” One can still feel the warmth of being in the company of a great cloud of witnesses, hopeful humanity, whoever they are.

Music

The upbeat refrain in The Emergent Psalter (Everett notes: “This antiphon sounds great with power chords and a little distortion”) uses that mysterious verse 5 quoted above.

Psalms for All Seasons has a small clutch of offerings that most musicians would relish. Like the phrases already mentioned, they seem to display a theatrical bent:

  • 81A Sing with joy, antiphonal, with solo and tutti voices and verses to a tone; words and music traditional Malawian
  • 81B Strike up the music! with a quiet ostinato of ‘Hear my voice’ behind the reading of the verses (and an added flute part)
  • 81C in hymn style, and therefore not our choice, but interestingly breaks for ‘a reading of the law’.

Predictably, that opening call to raise a joyful song and blow the ram’s horn captured several classical composers such as Byrd (two setting for 5 and 6 voices), Hassler, Palestrina (again à5) and Scarlatti (SATB).

[PS. This is the 200th post. 150 psalms, and still 17 ‘un-blogged’.]

Psalms 87, 88

Yin YangHere are a couple of very contrasting songs: one looking out happily to ‘Zion’; the other lamenting, no silver lining. Both are ‘skips’ in the Lectionary but should not be ignored — and indeed are not by those traditions that regularly sing all of the psalms within a short period of a month or so.

Psalm 87

Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God (v.2)

The psalm praises ‘Zion’, the city of Jerusalem, representing God’s presence. A psalm of global vision, disregarding tribal or national identities, it connects people of the world to this spiritual home, describing a diaspora of those who acknowledge a divine and benevolent creator spirit however named or imagined. It concludes joyously:

Singers and dancers alike say: ‘All my springs are in you’ (v. 7)

As to the music, there are few classical setting available but several more hymns including Haydn’s traditional AUSTRIAN HYMN tune starting with verse 2 quoted above. The Emergent Psalter uses the same verse. PFAS 87F is a swinging refrain picking up the idea of the Creator as source, water in the life-giving springs.

Psalm 88

This psalm is the only lament in the Psalter that includes no silver lining, no ray of hope, no statement that it will be OK.  Why not skip it? Because, like singing the blues (see post on Psalm 14), it’s a valid and comforting way to externalise distress and share individual pain.

Otis_ReddingFor other reasons not associated with the psalms, I have been thinking lately of the great American singer Otis Redding (1941-1967).  Dock of the Bay by the ‘King of Soul’ is another song of unrelieved weariness:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes; watching the ships roll in, and then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah … watching the tide roll away, wasting time. / Looks like nothing’s gonna change; everything still remains the same / Sittin’ here resting my bones and this loneliness won’t leave me alone / It’s two thousand miles I roamed just to make this dock my home.

The words are a blues lamentation, a way of singing out your woes. The music is vaguely like the old twelve-bar blues, but has a unique and recognisable character; I loved playing it with the band. Redding was actually rich and successful by the time he wrote this song. That did not stop him empathising with many others less fortunate who could see no silver lining. And then, Redding died in an aircraft crash a few days after recording this classic. It’s hard to see a silver lining there but for the great legacy that his music lives on. Indeed, both Dock of the Bay and Psalm 87 have a timeless feeling about them, suggesting in Ps. 88 that the silver lining is out there somewhere, just not at this moment.

As with Psalm 87 above, there are few classical settings listed, save for a nice short piece by Orlando de Lassus, Domine Deus salutis meae, quoting verses 2 and 3.

Entering Taizé village

Many readers will recall with pleasure singing the Taizé chant Dans nos obscurités.

Psalm 63, 28 Feb 2016

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses strikes the rock, by Arthur Boyd

Just like last week, Psalm 63 for Lent 3 holds familiar words and imagery, water this time rather than light:

You are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)

The preceding lectionary reading from the Old Testament tells us it’s all free and free for all:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! (Is. 55:1)

And just in case we missed the point, the NT epistle clarifies:

Our ancestors … drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (I Cor. 10:1, 4)

It’s interesting that the title of this psalms is ‘For David when he was in the wilderness’.

Music

Henry Purcell‘s lovely anthem Thou knowest Lord the secrets of our hearts, still ringing in our ears from last week (we shall hear it sung again by our male voice quartet on Lent 5) reminds us that he also wrote a setting for Psalm 63 titled O God thou art my God. Whereas last week’s short piece was homophonic, syllables all sung together by the four parts, this longer piece starts that way but then becomes more contrapuntal.  Hassler also wrote a nice setting for six voices a century earlier.

Still waters

Simplicity, shelter, silence

The Carers Group leads the worship with their usual accessible and thoughtful approach. This is a great psalm for them as they unobtrusively bring cool water to our people in the deserts of suffering.

No striking of rocks is involved; just listening (theme word this week) for the the cry of the dry and the sound of water. Footprints progress. The ritual of the stones continues, accompanied by that alto flute pretending to be Gabriel’s oboe.

Some options:

  • Psalms for all seasons only has one responsive setting — nice, the refrain being a little longer than our usual practice.
  • TiS has a congregational hymn rather than a responsive song.
  • Isaac Everett, commenting that the psalm ‘ … reflects a very physical, embodied and sensual sort of spirituality’, offers a simple tune in E minor.

Today we assemble a small group to support the carers by singing a simple version of our ‘Communion chant’, one that we used sometimes for the first Sunday of the month. The refrain is simple on mi-re-doh:

Ps63 SWCC cantor.doc

My soul thirsts for God, the living God.

Psalm 23, 26 April 2015

Still waters

Still waters

Well, who needs an intro to Psalm 23 and the still waters? Over the years this Blog has taken several angles, from the quiet waters to the light-hearted. Do you remember Things that comfort me?

Two previous entries on this lovely psalm appeared in 2014, and it’s tempting on this year’s appearance to just say: ‘Yep, the post for 30 March 14 says it all.’

Except that it never does. There’s always a new insight, a new thought and a new stage of life against which to shine the psalm’s melifluous phrases.

So we should not make too light of this beloved text and its key phrases that have entered into our very cultural landscape — the Lord is my shepherd, green pastures, still waters, you prepare a table, my cup overflows.

The gospel reading then checks in right on cue with:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

Music

We shall repeat the Spanish setting we sang a year go (PFAS 23I). It’s also another 4th Sunday so we might expect the esteemed male voice group to stir hearts again this week.

Other tempting music for contemplation includes J S Bach‘s canatata BWV112 based on this psalm. I hope we might do one short section, say 112e which is verse 5.

Initial decorated capital and text of verse 1, PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. British Library MS 62965

Initial decorated capital D and text (Dominus regit me) of PSalm 23 in the Rutland Bible, c 1260. The British Library MS 62965

There’s another nice setting à3, Der Herr ist meine Hirte, by G P Telemann; and of course dozens of other settings around. So much music, so little time.

Unfortunately, school holidays and hall closures are coincident so who knows who might turn up and what will actually happen on the day of the race — not that this is an unusual circumstance for the patient Psalm Team who manage to produce excellent music in the face of all arisings.

Psalm 148, 28 Dec 14

IMG_2394Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! (Ps 148:7-11)

Such powerful words ring throughout this psalm, a resounding song of praise.

TiS has no responsive settings but includes two paraphrases, the familiar tune AUSTRIA by Haydn (96) and a nice one by John Bell (97), and several referential hymns later. However, there are many other good songs available. (We shall be away visiting Yarralumla this week so may not sing the psalm.)

Coming up

After a meaningful and enjoyable Christmas Day service we roll on, buoyed by the harmonies of our own and guest cantors, Libby and Alia visiting from Zürich, still ringing in our inner ears. Warm thanks to all singers.

Singers are needed to open the New Year in fine voice on 4 January 2015. New voices welcomed.

We shall be singing Psalm 72 in which, out of left field, the kings of Tarshish and the isles, of Sheba (or Arabia, as in William Byrd’s setting Reges Tharsis et Insulae) and Seba get a mention. Find out why next week; Arto will explain all.

Psalm 106, 12 Oct 14

Psalm 106 is related to the previous one, 105, about which we heard and sang much in recent weeks. The story of Exodus is again rehearsed in this psalm at some length but with a stronger flavour of an awareness of human weakness. The shorter lectionary reading is here — and you might have to read it yourself this time, since I admit this post is more about what’s not included that what is.

Moses strikes the rock, Arthur Boyd

Moses and the rock, Arthur Boyd

One of the many stories we heard in Psalm 105 was Moses striking the rock, where we heard this and other exploits in which the people were heading for a downfall

— had not Moses, the chosen one, stood in the breach to turn away God’s wrath from destroying them.

The backstory is a little more complex (see also Blind faith). Had we read on we’d find that the provocation of the people made Moses angry and he acted in haste:

By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD and trouble came to Moses because of them, for they rebelled against the Spirit of God, and rash words came from Moses’ lips. (V. 33)

Moses spoke ‘unadvisedly’ and suffered for it. There’s a study here about anger, control, deliberation, leadership, pressure — interesting but we are not going there now since it’s not in our reading. That great rock story doesn’t feature either but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to pop in Arthur Boyd‘s vibrant painting, currently on show along with his Nebuchadnezzar series and lots more at the National Gallery of Australia in the excellent Boyd retrospective — highly recommended.

So what is included in this reading? A warning against selfishness and a plea for divine guidance and grace.

Music options

(i) The people’s refrain in Psalms for all seasons 106B invites us to sing:

Cast every idol from its throne

Good idea if you are troubled by unhealthy fixations but the theme does not appeal to me as timely.

(ii) The response in The emergent psalter is nice and syncopated but maybe a little too long to learn in the short period available.

(iii) Thomas Tomkins wrote a swag of psalm settings in the early 1600s, including 106, for four male voices. Would be fun if we could do it but it presents verse 4 alone. Nice as an incidental.

(iv) New century hymnal has a simple refrain but no sung verses.

(v) PFAS 106A is by John Bell, so is prima facie worthy of attention. I’d go that way because for a start it emphasises the enduring patient nature of divine love and forgiveness. Secondly, it offers a sung verse. And finally, the refrain is in nice four-part harmony which will be great if we have enough singers. Roll up, roll up.