20 Mar 2012

Update: Psalm 33

My 77th psalm versification has been posted. This one is Psalm 33, which has no title in the Hebrew and appears to be a continuation of the previous psalm, which ends with words similar to the opening words of 33. In this psalm we first encounter the command to sing to the LORD "a new song," which recurs five more times in the Psalms, once in Isaiah and twice in Revelation.

What exactly is this new song we are enjoined to sing? Can a church that sings from so ancient a book as the biblical Psalter really sing a song no one has sung before? Is that what new means? Is this a licence for endless liturgical innovation, as some would have it? Not necessarily. In scripture the adjective new often refers to the redeemed life in Christ, in which we turn aside from the old ways that kept us in sin. A new song is one in which we celebrate afresh the grace of God, whose mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). This may be in freshly composed words or, better, in the inspired words of the biblical authors. As Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon writes, "The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore 'walk in newness of life' (Romans 6:4)."

My own text is a rhymed versification in six stanzas. The traditional rhyming scheme is ABABCCDEED, which I have modified to ABCBDDEFGF to reflect better the stresses in the melody and thus to render it more singable. The metre is highly irregular: 98 98 66 56 65. As for the tune, which is in the dorian mode, it has had a special allure for at least two composers, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Zoltán Kodály. Commercial recordings of Sweelinck's music often begin with his arrangement of this psalm. I am unable to locate an online performance of Kodály's arrangement, but here is Sweelinck's:

In the Genevan Psalter Psalm 33 shares its melody with Psalm 67, which I set to verse a decade ago. Revisiting the tune presented an opportunity for me to alter, and hopefully improve, the arrangement I composed at that time. Its flavour is mostly the same, but there is now more movement in especially the lower voices.

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