Psalm 32, 5 March 2017

Psalm 32 is one of the psalms of penitence (the second after Ps. 6; this theme takes up the first half of the song), but also of refuge — “You are my hiding-place” (vv. 6 -7). Then it changes direction, breaks into other riffs of guidance or wisdom (8-9) and finally thanksgiving. Of the seven traditional penitentials, David in this song is particularly conscious of personal failings, confession and forgiveness. A tweet by Ben Myers summarising the psalms captured it cleverly with a positive twist:

Psalm 32: When I finally got the courage to confess my sins, I discovered You weren’t even listening. You were singing to me. #psalmtweets

A woman’s touch

Ideas herein other than penitence are worth consideration. Never far from the psalmists’ pens are thoughts of refuge, wisdom and guidance. Sometimes, refuge is presented as a shelter from violent conflict. Here, David says: “You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble”, (verse 7) then goes on to relish divine guidance, (8) and understanding. (9) More often in the highways and byways, relief from hunger, poverty, oppression and homelessness are far more relevant. There’s no vector in this psalm to point us directly to International Women’s Day which will be celebrated about the time this psalm arises in the Lectionary. However, women have often been primary agents for refuge and guidance to the young, penitents and destitute over the centuries.

Beguinale, Brussels

The psalms give little prominence to women. However they do recognise images of God as feminine spirit and creator, as well as ideas of mothering or midwife (22:9, 113:9, 127), the prophetic (68:11) and other female influences. This includes the provision of shelter and care (22:9-10) as beautifully seen in the ancient Beguinale women’s order and their houses of refuge and faith in older European cities. Psalm 131 sounds as though its author may well have been a woman. Her experience of the divine is described as relating directly to a mother rather than father, affirming the mother’s strong and beautiful role in nurturing confident, content and independent children.

On the other hand, the psalms omit some courageous women when equivalent male prophets are mentioned by name (Miriam in Ps. 99). Pity, but perhaps this just reflects the pattern of other records and writings in those early cultures when men wrote the poetry, policy and history. This is no reason to discount this ancient poetry. An inclusive linguistic, contextual and poetic interpretation —  and recalling the esteem with which Jesus regarded women as recorded in John’s gospel — helps balance and fill in the gaps for modern sensibilities.

Music

Modern sources (other than TiS, whose setting in No 20 can not be recommended for its hymn format and dated language and style) recognise that ‘Penitential’ is just a label obscuring many more varied ideas which, while not overtly feminist, support themes of strength, nurturing, guidance and shelter:

  • Psalms for All Seasons suggests You are my hiding place, which many more demonstrative groups will enjoy.
  • The guidance thread in verse 8 emerges in The Emergent Psalter, a very memorable and lilting Isaac Everett antiphon that will easily conjure up a mother’s watchful coaching: “Show me which way to go, counsel me with your eye upon me.” Everett has the chords slipping easily from minor to relative major sequences and back again in a short space.
  • NCH, commended for its broadly inclusive approach, offers a simple antiphon from a woman’s pen (Emma Lou Diemer, 1994) that emphasises surrounding love.

If a few good sight-readers are available, two short trios are worth a look:

Ps32Lassus

  • Orlando di LassoDixi confitebor, verse 5 only; starts simply but becomes more complex; an excerpt is shown in the illustration. Readers may recall that Lassus wrote a famous and much more ambitious set of Penitential Psalms, including this one.
  • Thomas Tomkins, Blessed is he, verses 1 and 2.

Note for SWUC: no sung psalm as we enjoy a Shaker song, ‘Simple gifts’.

Psalm 29, 8 Jan 2017

The voice shakes the wilderness and strips the forest

The voice of God is a constant and powerful theme in this psalm — thundering over the mighty waters, shaking the wilderness, breaking cedars or flashing forth in flames. The psalmist (said to be David) assures us that through all the elemental turbulence of life, the divine spirit reigns supreme.

A familiar voice from someone well-known but out of sight is often easy to recognise and identify. There is no need to analyse the pattern of frequencies, the combination of harmonics, or the different degrees of resonance. The subconscious sifts. The psalms, poetic and mystical though they may be, are full of voices. The fact that we do not always immediately identify them suggests lack of familiarity. However, it’s also of course because of that poetical and mystical nature. Take the voice of divine influence. In the business of daily life we seldom pull up short and say: ‘That’s a heavenly voice speaking.’ Psalm 29 says the voice of God is to be found in many ways:

  • over the waters
  • full of majesty
  • breaks the cedars of Lebanon
  • flashes forth flames of fire
  • shakes the wilderness
  • causes the oaks to whirl
  • strips the forest bare

John Greenleaf Whittier‘s prayer was: “Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!” All this suggests the need to be attuned to the environment, natural, social and cultural, not just the flow of our internal thoughts. Then, the psalmist seeks more than just hearing. The final verse of Psalm 29 is a prayer:

May God give strength to the people! May God bless them with peace!

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

A prayer for peace, graffiti on the Berlin Wall

Music

This concluding prayer for peace suggests a familiar and beautifully harmonised Taizé chant as the antiphon: “Dona nobis pacem cordium, give to us peace in our hearts”. Sing it twice as a refrain. The text of this psalm falls into place easily using the same chords and basic tune of Jacques Berthier’s nice little melody. This is very effective presented  by a soloist acting as story-teller.

Everett in TEP also homes in on this very relevant prayer for the modern world, in a  lilting refrain over one of his typically inventive chord progressions.

A more lively song in PFAS 29B, by Lorenzo Florian 1985, is one of those attractive Spanish tunes with good plain harmony, including a few surprise chords, and a little swing. (Is everything Spanish so much fun to sing and play?) Definitely worth a try if you have any Spanish heritage represented in your group. A more conservative (and less inclusive) double tone and refrain (Willcock) is to be found in TiS 17 for the plain vanilla treatment if preferred.

Although Brahms wrote a nice motet drawing on Psalms 22 and 29, he calls for a double choir. Few easier classical settings recommend themselves to a small group of singers. Remember you can always grow your own.

Psalm 131

Like most songs of Ascent, this is brief and to the point. Three verses extolling simplicity, honesty and humility, with a fourth calling for Israel, or the people of God, to wait in reverence. And as one of the songs of ascent (120 to 134), the poem is said to be one of pilgrimage (see also the comment on 122 regarding the pilgrimage series of 120 to 123) though such a construct is not obvious from the evidence of this text alone.

Child at peaceWhat is more obvious is that the song uses maternal images of divine love. While it is said to be by David, again from the text it sounds as though it may have been written by a woman. This feminine touch is regrettably rare in the psalter. Such were the times.

Isaac Everett in The Emergent Psalter paraphrases this into a nice refrain using his characteristic syncopation and modern chord voicings, in this one with lydian mode atmospherics based around Cmaj#11:

I have taught myself to be content. I am like a child with its mother.

The responsorial setting in PFAS 131C by Loretta Ellenburger — again on verse 2 and the quiet child — is more conventional, but creatively adds ATB parts in a different rhythmic pattern behind the refrain melody. The setting in NCH, despite its female authorship, skips the maternal theme in favour of ‘Hope in God’ from verse 4.

Equally pleasing but in a different style and more demanding are rather lengthy classical settings by Schütz, Lassus and White, for four to six voices. Schütz wrote a motet for each of the first three verses.

Psalm 8, 22 May 2016

In the cosmology of Psalm 8, as in many others, humankind is a jewel of creation, somewhat smaller than the universe —  ‘a little lower than the angels’ — yet ‘adorned with glory and honour’ (v.5).

Significantly, the creation is placed under our care (v. 6), a responsibility that is not absolved by the loss of the Garden of Eden, however one interprets that tale. As Prof. Tom Wright says:

The four winds and more, traditional namesThough the psalmists were aware as anyone of the darkness within the human heart, Psalm 8 can still gloriously remind us of the human vocation.(1)

The fact that civilisations over the centuries have named natural phenomena from the constellations to the winds, (2) building tales and myths around them, indicates our empathy and sense of symbiosis in a universal search for the Dreamtime.

Music

This is the first psalm in the psalter in which an integral antiphon appears in the text, in the form of an opening and closing doxology that has little to do with the content of the song itself:

O God our sovereign, how great is your Name in all the earth. (verses 1 and 9)

Familiar names including Hassler, Schütz, Gabrielli, Lassus, Purcell and Ravenscroft all line up with classical settings; a popular poem, manageable length, and good content for the composer, or so it seems.

The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?

Our choice again (please read the post for Trinity Sunday 2014) is a lovely song by Linnea Good, The Height of Heaven.

Our women will lead this refrain, between bending their pure voices to an antiphonal tone which follows a similar attractive chord pattern.

Ps8 Linnea

Notes: Continue reading

Crystal Ball, May 2016

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

Crystal ball, by J Waterhouse. Image Wikimedia commons

The plan for the coming month looks roughly like this — a first cut, and anything can happen according to leaders’ inspirations, the Cantor’s whim and happenstance.

1 May. Psalm 67 is quite like the Aaronic blessing, suggesting lots of atmospherics. There’s a famous canon by Tallis, but it needs preparation. If our visiting leader wishes, we could sing The emergent psalter (May God be gracious, which can be a round) or PFAS 67C.

8 May. Settings from Psalms for all Seasons and The Emergent Psalter are also neck and neck for Psalm 97, the former (97C) with slightly better words and the latter having much more interesting chords. Several hymns available.

15 May. Men sing in support of Keith who leads this week. We have sung a Gregorian chant (8th tone) for Psalm 104 previously, but that was to get into the medieval zone with an antiphon by Hildegard. PFAS 104G and Together in song 65 in four parts (with a more adventurous tone) could be good for Pentecost. The anthem could be a Tomkins setting or the delightful Sanctus (‘Heilig heilig’ or ‘Holy holy’) from  Schubert’s Deutche Messe.

The inattentive visitor looking up at the vaulted cathedral of Siena might step on this simple but beautiful marble unawares. A wondering Mary?

22 May. Women sing to support Gwenda at the helm with a lovely song for Psalm 8 by two women, Linnea Good and Lynn Bauman, Height of heaven. Paraphrased verses will be sung to the same tune.

Leaders, singers, readers; any suggestions or comments welcomed — and of course your voices!

Psalm 30, 10 April 2016

IMG_0400Psalm 30 may have originally been a song of thanks for recovery from a serious illness. Evidently this was somewhat worse that just flat batteries; brought up from death and ‘the Pit’ (verse 3).

Whatever the origin, the psalmist — it’s again attributed to David — gives thanks for finding restoration and divine mercy after striking tough times, a very low ebb.

The song contains some lovely phrases, including the famous verse 5:

God’s wrath endures but a moment: God’s favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night: but joy comes in the morning.

There’s also a rather lovely image of responding through dance, something that we do not much favour in laced-up Western traditions:

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (v. 11)

Women sing

In Aboriginal cultures, the dances of men and women were quite different, telling life from different angles and roles. I can imagine women of any culture gathering for this song, telling the tale from a carer’s or a mother’s viewpoint, gracefully and quietly expressing thanks and hope.

Kassia's Epigrams from Works of Demetrius Cydones and others, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/03/kassia.html#sthash.IIN3Czdw.dpuf

Kassia’s Epigrams, Eastern Mediterranean, 16th Century, Add MS 10072, f.94r

As it happens, Gregor spoke warmly on Easter Sunday of the important role of women in the Easter story, especially when the big-name male disciples were conspicuous by their absence. Coincidentally I noted a post from the mediaeval manuscripts section of the British Library the other day that resonated with my interest in both early manuscripts and music from Orthodox and other traditions. The BL, marking women’s history month and the recently celebrated IWD, informs us:

Of the hundreds of hymn composers from the Eastern Church, only four women can be positively identified and only one of these – Kassia — had her works incorporated into official service books for use in church worship. She also wrote secular works. The British Library holds a collection of her epigrams.

– See illustration and more here>.

Sunday. Returning to the plan for the day, women will sing a simple home-grown arrangement of our South Woden Communion Chant, last sung with Psalm 30 in July 2013, but still hidden away on our Dropbox. The refrain is:

You turned my lament into dancing, and girded me with joy.

Ps30 Dancing

This psalm and the accompanying readings all tell tales of a complete change of direction — sorrow to dancing, Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus, fishermen reluctantly casting their nets on the other side — a wide variety of situations all telling of the transforming power of divine love and grace.

Psalm 133, 12 April 2015

Psalm 133 in the Vespasian Psalter; British Library

Psalm 133 in the Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, with 9th C translation into Old English. British Library.

A beautiful old Anglo-Saxon manuscript in the British Library from the 8th Century, shown above, records the psalms in Latin in an insular uncial script (capital letters) in common use around 700 CE. The British Library’s description of this manuscript, titled Cotton MS Vespasian A 1, is simply:

A Roman Psalter (‘The Vespasian Psalter’), including prefaces, canticles, hymns and liturgical texts.

Easily seen, the initial capital begins the word Ecce, ‘Behold’. The text line in dark red gives the psalm number (132 in the old Vulgate system) and the descriptor ‘Song of ascents’ (canticum graduum). This text then follows:

Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity. (Verse 1, Anglican BCP)

The British Library description goes on to reveal in this same matter-of-fact tone some quite impressive information:

The text is the earliest surviving example of St Jerome’s first translation of the Psalms (the Roman version), first written c. 384. It was copied during the second quarter of the 8th century.

A close examination (click on the image) reveals some smaller writing in a brown ink between the lines. Friend BL continues:

An Old English gloss was added around the second quarter of the 9th century by the Royal Bible Master Scribe, whose hand appears in other manuscripts owned by or made at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. This gloss is the oldest extant translation into English of any biblical text. [emphasis added]

This is an example of uncovering new layers, wheels within wheels, depths and mysteries within. These thoughts will form the basis of my remarks this Sunday. And we shall discuss how doubting Thomas and Werner Heisenberg are related.

Music

This manuscript reaches right back to earliest steps on the path of the psalms reaching out to readers across the world, including to us in South Woden. What paths did the psalms trace in finding their way into hundreds of other languages and cultures?

This is partly the inspiration for our choice this week of a Spanish setting of the psalm and refrain. From Psalms for all seasons No. 133D:

¡Miren qué buono, qué buono es!

Oh, look in wonder how good it is!

Our women lead us in this rhythmical song, and we’ll throw in a little Bruce Cockburn for good measure.