31 Jan 2010

Tallis' haunting tune

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first performance of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I fell in love with this magnificent work nearly 30 years ago while studying for my written comprehensive exams at Notre Dame. The “theme” in the title is a tune composed by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter to which a versification of Psalm 2 is set. In most hymnals it is given the title THIRD MODE MELODY, because it’s in the phrygian mode, and it is sometimes paired with Horatius Bonar’s text, I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. In the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnal a metrical version of Psalm 62 is set to it. Here is the original psalm below:

The tune itself doesn’t seem especially strong, at least at first. There’s not much movement in the first half of the melody, which sneaks up on the listener hesitantly with a chant-like quality. Yet it is surprisingly compelling, all the same. Like most music of the period, it lacks a regular time signature, yet it’s in the double common metre ubiquitous in English psalmody and hymnody. Above all it is an “ecclesiastical” tune.

In the hands of Vaughan Williams this tune takes on an unforgettably haunting quality. The Fantasia is played entirely by strings, and the composer even employs parallel fifths, which defy musical convention but work wonderfully to heighten a sense of awe and mystery. When the piece finally brings us back to the original tune, we recognize that we have been on a remarkable musical journey – perhaps into a nearly forgotten past of some four and a half centuries ago. On more than one occasion this piece has left me with moist eyes. Listen for yourself below:

One can nearly picture the peaceful nobility of the English countryside in the composer’s swelling cadences. I myself tend to associate it with another tranquil landscape, namely, that formed by the land along the Illinois Prairie Path, where I rode my bicycle during that summer so long ago.

Remarkably, Vaughan Williams seems to have considered himself an agnostic, despite his having contributed so much to the music of the English church. Who does not love to sing For All the Saints, set to his whimsically (un)named SINE NOMINE? Incidentally Vaughan Williams was the grandnephew of Charles Darwin.

As for Tallis' THIRD MODE MELODY, here is another elaboration composed by the late Texas composer Fisher Tull in 1971, Sketches on a Tudor Psalm. This has a quite different feel to it. While Vaughan Williams' Fantasia is written entirely for strings, Tull's Sketches are for brass band. This gives the piece a less tranquil and more dynamic and agitated flavour, as underscored by the discordant tonality and energetic percussion. There are echoes of Vaughan Williams in a very few of Tull's phrases, as heard below:

Finally, soon after discovering Tallis' tune, I wrote a metrical versification of Psalm 25 to be sung to it, which returns it to its original use, namely, as a setting for a psalm.

23 Jan 2010

Update: 'gods' and 'angels'

I have just completed a versification of Psalm 97 along with an arrangement of the Genevan melody.

As is the case with a number of psalms (e.g., 8, 82, 95, 138), Psalm 97 includes two references to "gods," which appear to presuppose a polytheistic context. Some of our study bibles tell us that this accords with an ancient view of God presiding over a council of gods, as seen, e.g., at the beginning of Job. However, in Psalm 82 the translators of the New International Version place inverted commas around the word "gods," implying that these are not genuine gods but definitely subordinate to the one true God. The context appears to point to earthly political rulers who fancy themselves gods, as was not uncommon in the ancient near east. The RSV translates Psalm 97:7 thus:

All worshipers of images are put to shame,
who make their boast in worthless idols;
all gods bow down before him.

However, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) renders the same verse slightly differently:

Let all who do obeisance to carved images be put to shame,
those who make their boast in their idols.
Do obeisance to him, all his angels (άγγελοι)!

Note the change from the Hebrew to the Greek — from gods (elohim) to angels. I have rendered the same verse thus:

Those who deny his name
are quickly put to shame
for worshipping untruly
and reverencing unduly.
You gods, pay homage now;
before him you must bow.

However, following the Septuagint rendering, the fifth line could be rendered as follows: "Pay homage, angels, now." But for the present I have kept it as is. Such references to gods in scripture could thus mean either (1) false gods, as understood by the pagans; (2) angelic beings, as the LXX has it; or (3) political rulers who claim divinity. Interpreting which is correct obviously depends on context.

22 Jan 2010

God as 'Supreme Being'

It is well known that liturgical language changes more slowly than ordinary spoken or written language and that people are exceedingly reluctant to alter the language of worship unless forced to do so. Of course any innovation, however controversial at first, has the potential to develop into hallowed tradition over time.

The Dutch Reformed churches have long sung from the Genevan Psalter, but there has been more than one approved versification of the psalms. An early versification in Dutch was that of Pieter Datheen, which became the standard version sung in the Reformed churches after 1566. In 1773 the States General of the Netherlands commissioned and imposed a new versification of the psalms on the churches. This was controversial at the time, as told by my emeritus colleague, Dr. Harry Van Dyke:

There were of course nation-wide protests when the 1773 berijming [versification] was forced on the church by the States-General. People hate to lose their well-known spiritual songs. In the town of Maassluis riots broke out when the minister announced a psalm from the new versification. A complication was that they were also to be sung at a faster tempo than the old version, and the congregation had practised doing so in weekday evening sessions a month earlier. That Sunday, however, people stormed out of the sanctuary and bellowed loud protests. But it was not likely to have been a protest against rationalism in the verses, and much rather a question of the tempo and the wish to stay with the old and familiar versification of Petrus Dathenus of 1566 (still sung in some ultra-conservative Reformed churches, esp. in Zeeland).

With respect to "rationalism," the 1773 version refers to God as het Opperwezen (Supreme Being) in 16 psalms (7, 8, 21, 33, 38, 40, 68, 71, 77, 78,81, 96, 99, 102, 112 and 113). With its abstract and impersonal connotations, Opperwezen's use here reflects the influence of the Enlightenment and Deism — at their height in the 18th century. It is found nowhere in the Statenvertaling, the 1637 Dutch translation of the Bible, comparable to our own King James Version.

The 1967 versification of the Psalms almost entirely removes Opperwezen as a reference to God except for a single uncharacteristic reference in Psalm 68 that appears to have escaped the attention of the editors.

9 Jan 2010

New year updates, 2010

I have made several updates to my website in recent weeks, as indicated below.

  • For Christmas my wife gave me a rather extraordinary CD, The Psalms of Ali Ufki, whose name readers will recognize. It is billed as "An interfaith concert of sacred music exploring the shared traditions of Judaism, Turkish Sufism, Greek Orthodoxy and Protestant Christianity." This performance by a collection of musicians was recorded under the auspices of Dünya, an organization undertaking to "foster awareness, educate, deepen the dialogue and celebrate the similarities between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths." Recorded 2005 at Harvard University.

    The one Genevan tune on this disc is Psalm 13, performed in Protestant, Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Turkish Sufi versions. The tracks to listen to are 1, and 17 through 21. Number 19, the "Greek Orthodox Version," takes its text directly from the Septuagint, where it is numbered Psalm 12, managing, by means of melismatic manipulation, to fit this nonmetrical text to the Genevan tune, where it sounds strikingly like Byzantine chant. This is a remarkable achievement, yet it is testimony to the enduring strength and versatility of the Genevan tunes. Definitely worth hearing and savouring. I have posted this on the discography section on the links page.

    Incidentally when I told my father, who was born in the Greek Orthodox community in Cyprus, about Ali Ufki, he recognized the name immediately, knowing that he had translated the Bible into Turkish. Ali Ufki seems to be better known in the eastern Mediterranean than in the English-speaking world.

  • After having received this CD, I versified the text of Psalm 13 and just this past week composed an arrangement of the tune. Although the traditional rhyming scheme for this psalm is a-a-b-b-a, I have altered this to a-b-b-a-c, which better fits the alternation of masculine and feminine endings to each line: m-f-f-m-f. The music can be heard here, and the score can be downloaded here. For purposes of comparison, Michael Owens' performance of Goudimel's arrangement can be heard here.

  • I have at last completed a full versification of Psalm 119, the alphabetical psalm which is by far the longest. The tune I arranged back in 2001, while I began the unrhymed versification in 2007. I had still not done very much of the psalm as recently as September of this past year when I decided to go through it methodically and attempt a full versification before Christmas, a deadline I managed to beat by one day.

    I confess that I am not entirely satisfied with much of this, because the Genevan tune has six lines per stanza while each Hebrew letter has sixteen lines. I opted to try to fit two English stanzas into each letter, making for a total of 44 stanzas. This meant that I usually had to combine the thoughts of four lines into two lines per stanza, or eight lines into four lines per Hebrew letter. This doesn't work equally well throughout the psalm. I may try to reversify the psalm using a different scheme at some point.

    I have not yet had the time to put together printable musical scores for the entire psalm, but that will come, probably sometime during the summer months.

  • My text, Christ Who Is in the Form of God (Philippians 2:6-11), was recently republished in Hymns for Worship, by Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publication arm of the Christian Reformed Church. It is set to Sir Charles Hubert Parry's tune, JERUSALEM, to which, in my humble opinion, it is ill suited. The CRC should have followed the Mennonites in using Orlando Gibbons' SONG 34, which the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould thought to be the finest piece of music ever written.

  • As of last October I am one of the bloggers at the new First Things blog, Evangel. First Things is, of course, the journal founded two decades ago by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, whose death almost exactly a year ago silenced one of the more significant Christian voices in the North American public square. For the most part my posts there concern Christianity and the public square, but I am taking the opportunity when appropriate to post on the psalms and liturgical matters in general. This is my most recent contribution: Epiphanytide.

  • Finally, I should mention another gift from my thoughtful wife, who thoroughly supports my interest in the psalms. To my surprise, she presented me with a copy of the 1903 facsimile reproduction of the 1640 Bay Psalter, a scanned version of which can be found here. What a wonderful surprise! Thank you, sweetheart.