29 Mar 2011

Phos Hilaron

I have recently posted my freshly composed versification of the ancient Greek hymn, the Phos Hilaron (Φῶς Ἱλαρόν), which is the most ancient Christian hymn outside the Bible itself, dating back at least to the 3rd century AD, if not earlier. It is an evening hymn most appropriately sung at the beginning of vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is first recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions in the 4th century. St. Basil the Great spoke of it as an ancient hymn already in that same century. For the tune I have taken that for Genevan Psalm 77/86 and somewhat extended it to fit the length of the single stanza. The tune is in the hypodorian mode. I may still come up with my own tune at some point.

22 Mar 2011

Praying the Psalms in community

I recently found this wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom through one of my current students:

If we keep vigil in church, David [the author of the psalms] comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Coincidentally, I have been reading The Rule of St. Benedict, which in some fashion governs the monastic communities in the Benedictine tradition. I am struck by how much my own practice of prayer for the last more than three decades has been shaped by Benedictine spirituality, and especially the place of the Psalms within it. The basic patterns of the Liturgy of the Hours were at least codified, if not created, by St. Benedict in the 6th century. Among other things, Benedict prescribed that all 150 Psalms were to be sung each week. After having set forth the pattern of sung psalms through the successive prayer hours during the night and day, he offers this:

We particularly admonish that if this distribution of the psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should make any other disposition he may think better. Let him take care, however, above all that each week the entire Psalter of one hundred fifty psalms be recited and be always begun anew at the Night Office on Sunday. For those monks show an exceedingly slothful service in their devotion who, within the course of a week, sing less than the entire Psalter with the usual canticles, since we read that our holy Fathers resolutely performed in a single day what we tepid monks but hope to achieve in an entire week.

For those of us who are even more tepid than St. Benedict and his followers, some are content to sing through the Psalms every 30 days, as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, or at an even slower pace. Inspired by these readings, this past weekend I versified and arranged another psalm, this time Psalm 133, which extols the joys of living in community:

Behold, how right and good it is whenever
brethren have dwelt harmoniously together!
It is like precious oils that flow
upon the consecrated priestly head;
down to the beard their goodness too is shed;
even to Aaron's beard they go.

Anointing oils flow down along the trimming
of Aaron's garments where their drops are gleaming,
as if the dew that oft descends
on Hermon's mountains were to come and rest
on Zion's mount where God his people blessed
with blissful life that never ends.

Of course, most of us do not live in monasteries. But what if the ordinary communities of which we are part, namely, families, schools, work communities, &c., were to adopt something of this benedictine spirituality, praying through the psalms together on a regular basis? By God's grace, it could just transform these very communities.

18 Mar 2011

The Politics of the Psalms

Perhaps it has something to do with my first name, but I have always been fascinated by the biblical book of the Psalms. I grew up singing from a hymn book in which the Psalms set to meter were given a prominent place. The liturgical practice of singing the Psalms has ancient roots going back to temple and synagogue worship, finding its way also into Christian churches. It is thus not surprising that, until the end of the 18th century, the majority of Protestants sang from metrical psalters containing all 150 Psalms. Most Protestants since then have abandoned this practice, but many in the Reformed tradition have held to it, glorifying God, as it is often said, in his own words.

Read more here.

13 Mar 2011

Updates: Psalms 128 and 88

I have just completed versifications and arrangements for two more psalms: 128 and 88. The tune for Psalm 128 I first heard more than 30 years ago when I was a graduate student at Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies. Senior Member Calvin Seerveld had brought along to class his own versification of this psalm and had us, his students, sing it through. I was intrigued and began to follow in his footsteps, setting to verse Psalm 133 albeit to my own rather weak common metre melody. I finally returned to this psalm late last week.

The psalm itself is one of the more cheerful and optimistic ones, promising peace and prosperity to those who fear the LORD. I completed it last friday, the very day that northeastern Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Because its promises sounded a little too glib against the backdrop of tragedy, I held off posting it until I had also versified and arranged Psalm 88, easily the darkest of the psalms. This I completed today. Verses 16-17 are reminiscent of a tsunami:

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.

In my own regimen of praying through the psalms, I currently encounter Psalm 88 on the 17th day of each month at morning prayer. It always takes my breath away because it is so bereft of anything resembling hope. It is appropriately said or sung on Holy Saturday, that is, the day between Good Friday and the Paschal feast. As St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Yet Christ has indeed risen, which is our ultimate source of hope as we travel through the penitential Lenten season. Psalm 88 does not have the last word, although it is the last psalm for morning prayer that day. However, at evening prayer Psalm 89 is sung, which begins: "I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations." God's faithfulness has the final say as we look forward to the day of our salvation at Christ's return.

Psalm 128 is a rhymed psalm, while Psalm 88, with its feminine endings in four of the six lines, is unrhymed. Both melodies are in the dorian mode, which is probably the most versatile of the traditional church modes, easily capable of communicating both hope and despair. More of the Genevan Psalms are in the dorian mode (45 in total) than in any other single mode.

8 Mar 2011

Updates: Psalms 111 and 112

Last month I mentioned that I had posted Psalm 111, but I will say a bit more about this psalm now that I have posted 112 as well. Psalms 111 and 112 are in effect mirror psalms comparing God with the godly person. It may be justly said that the notion of man being created in God's image, often thought to be limited to Genesis 1:26-27 and 9:6 and implied in Psalm 8, is also found in these two psalms. Both are alphabetical acrostic psalms containing 22 lines each. Each line of 111 is reflected in some fashion in its counterpart in 112, conveying the sense that, e.g., if the justice or righteousness of God endures for ever, so does that of the just man (the ו VAV line is identical in both psalms). The alleluias at the beginning of each psalm precede the alphabetical lines.

Although the Genevan tunes for the two psalms have different metres (889 889 and 999 999), they nevertheless have the same number of lines per stanza. With four stanzas in my own versification, this adds up to 24 lines in total, two more than the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Consequently, I have had little choice but to expand slightly the thoughts contained in the first stanzas of each psalm while following the number of lines from the original in the remaining stanzas. The texts are unrhymed.

Both tunes are in the dorian mode. That for 111 is shared with Psalms 24, 62 and 95, while the tune to Psalm 112 is unique to that psalm.

4 Mar 2011

Updates: Psalms 70 and 80

Psalms 70 and 80 have now been posted. Psalm 70 is an unrhymed metrical versification set to a tune in the phrygian mode. Since ancient times the first two lines of this psalm have been used to open the prayers in the liturgy of the hours, especially at vespers. Here the psalmist cries out to God for help in distress brought on by his enemies. The Hebrew superscript ascribes it to David, while the Septuagint indicates merely that it is for him or pertains to him.

Psalm 80 is striking in that it obviously originates in the northern kingdom of Israel after its division from Judah following the death of Solomon. It relies, somewhat curiously, on a mixed metaphor. As in the beloved Psalm 23, God is likened to a shepherd, yet his people are likened, not to sheep, but to a vine which he took from Egypt and planted so that its tendrils would spread from the river (the Jordan or perhaps even the Euphrates) to the sea. The reference in verse 17 to the "son of man" could perhaps be understood as an anticipation of the coming Messiah, the True Vine. This is a rhymed versification and the tune is in the dorian mode.