18 Dec 2012

The two lives of the Virgin Mary

Six days after posting my second version of Mary's Magnificat, I am posting my most recent "Principalities & Powers" column from Christian Courier, dated 10 December 2012.

Jesus’ mother Mary can be said to have had two lives: the one recounted with tantalizing brevity in the Scriptures and the one bequeathed to her in subsequent centuries by the church, which made her an object of veneration. Mary, of course, plays a prominent role in the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and at the beginning of Acts.

Luke 1 recounts the visit by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, announcing that she would give birth to the promised Messiah, the one who would save his people from their sins. Although we are told that she at first questioned how this could be, given her virginity, and that, in response to Gabriel’s explanation, she said: “let it be to me according to your word,” we are not told much else.

This is where Mary’s “second life” comes in, with later writers embroidering the biblical account with their own additions. For example, the second-century Protevangelion of James tells us that her parents were named Joachim and Anna (or Hannah in Hebrew). Lamenting her barrenness, Anna promises that, if God will grant her a child, she will dedicate him or her to the Lord’s service in the Jerusalem temple. An angel appears to Anna and informs her that her prayers have been heard and that she will indeed bring forth a child. In a plot twist similar to that of the Old Testament story of Hannah and the child Samuel, once her daughter Mary is born and attains the age of three, Anna entrusts her to the priests at the temple.

When Mary hits puberty, the priests decide to marry her to an elderly widower named Joseph, who has children by a previous marriage. When she is sixteen years of age, she is found to be pregnant. The author of the Protevangelion then recounts an entirely plausible scenario in which Mary and Joseph are condemned for having secretly married without the assent of the larger community. The priests subject the distraught couple to trial by ordeal, making them drink a concoction that will harm them if guilty but will not harm them if innocent. They survive the ordeal, and the plot continues with the birth of Jesus at Bethelehem.

It is, of course, difficult to determine where these extrabiblical stories came from or how they developed. It is possible that Mary’s parents were really named Joachim and Anna. Or it could be that, given the obvious literary dependence of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) on the much earlier song of Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, a tradition began that Mary’s mother was also named Hannah.

In any event, Mary’s status became the subject of the Christological disputes of later centuries. In AD 431 the First Council of Ephesus declared Mary Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), or God-bearer, commonly rendered in English as the Mother of God. This was less a statement about Mary than an affirmation that her Son Jesus was fully God and fully man.

Indeed, in Orthodox iconography Mary is rarely portrayed without her Son, who is shown in her arms, seated on her lap or even inside a stylized circular womb, fully clothed and his head wrapped in the traditional gold halo.

The sixteenth-century Reformers continued to esteem Mary. Ulrich Zwingli, who reformed the church in Zürich, even retained the first part of the Ave Maria in his initial liturgy: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Recognizing its scriptural origins (Luke 1:28, 42), Zwingli argued that “the Ave Maria is not a prayer but a greeting and commendation.”

Reformed Christians do not request Mary’s intercessions before God, primarily because Scripture is deafeningly silent on the matter. However, all Christians of whatever tradition do well to emulate Mary in her ready acceptance of God’s will for her life, despite hardships incurred, and in her jubilant expression of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!”

14 Dec 2012

Stolz: Psalms 53 - 56

The tune for Psalm 53 is, of course, the same as that for Psalm 14, which is not surprising given that the texts of the two psalms are nearly identical in the original. The scholars tell us that Psalm 14 is "yahwist" and 53 "elohist," referring to the two different names for God used by the author(s). The message is the same: only fools deny God's existence. How very different is the attitude of the author of the next psalm:

Update: Stolz is definitely picking up his pace:

Holst: Psalm 124

Psalm 86 is not the only Genevan melody that Holst adapted for choral performance. He also arranged Psalm 124 using Clifford Bax's text, Turn Back, O Man.

13 Dec 2012

Gustav Holst: Psalm 86

One-hundred years ago the English composer Gustav Holst, best known for his series of orchestral tone poems, The Planets, composed a moving choral piece based on Genevan Psalm 86:

The metrical text was apparently written around 1620 and is attributed to either Jo­seph Bry­an or Fran­cis Da­vis­on.

To my humble supplication
Lord, give ear and acceptation;
Save Thy servant that hath none
Help nor hope but Thee alone.
Send, O send relieving gladness
To my soul opprest with sadness,
Which from clog of earth set free
Winged with zeal, flies up to Thee.

To Thee, rich in mercies treasure,
And in goodness without measure,
Never failing help to those
Who on Thy sure help repose.
Heav'nly Tutor, of thy kindness,
Teach my dullness, guide my blindness,
That my steps Thy paths may tread
Which to endless bliss do lead.

This is from the notes for the Hyperion recording of Holst's Two Psalms, of which 86 is one:

Holst’s Two Psalms, for chorus, string orchestra and organ, H117, were written in 1912 at a time when the composer’s compositional style was undergoing a process of textural and structural refinement. He had recently completed the last of his Sanskrit works, The Cloud Messenger, which had been a complete failure, although his next major composition was to prove extremely successful—the symphonic picture ‘Mars’ for The Planets.

Holst composed very little religious music as such, probably as a result of his somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the Church. He found the spiritual aspect enormously appealing, but felt stifled by regimented orthodoxy. Of the current two Psalm settings, that of Psalm 86 is the more striking with its greater textural variety and emotional range, though the beautiful setting of Psalm 148 has a compensating warmth of expression that is rarely found in Holst’s music.

The melody for Psalm 86 was composed, or at least adapted, by L Bourgeois in the Genevan Psalter (1543). The first text (‘To my humble supplication …’), sung by the chorus, is a metrical version of the words by Joseph Bryan (1620); the second (‘Bow down thine ear …’), sung by the tenor soloist, is taken from the Authorized Version of the Bible (Psalm 86: 1–6, 12).

Incidentally, despite Holst's general lack of enthusiasm for liturgical music, the hymn text, O God Beyond All Praising, is often sung to his tune THAXTED, taken from the Jupiter movement of The Planets.

12 Dec 2012


During this Advent season I have posted a second version of Mary's song, the Magnificat, in addition to my metrical version of this ancient Lukan canticle. This is not a new version, as I composed the music for it twenty years ago. My inspiration came from the chanted psalmody of Fr. Joseph Gelineau as used in the Roman Catholic Church for the past several decades. Accordingly, I have used a modified form of The Grail text. Here is a description of Gelineau psalmody from my Reformed Worship article, Straight from Scripture:

One of the more interesting ways of singing the psalms was developed by Joseph Gelineau of France. Of all the methods of singing the psalms, Gelineau's chant best preserves the Hebrew poetic style, retaining both the parallelism and the metrical structure of the original. Ancient Hebrew meter is somewhat like early English meter (e.g., nursery rhymes) in that it focuses on the number of stresses within a line rather than on the number of syllables. Gelineau psalmody is often sung to the Grail translation, which was produced specifically for this purpose. The following passage (again from Psalm 54) is "pointed" to indicate the regular rhythmic stresses in each line:

          O God, save me by your name;
          by your power, uphold my cause.
          O God, hear my prayer;
          listen to the words of my mouth.

Gelineau psalmody also takes into account the different number of lines within each stanza, something that is not possible with other methods of psalm-chanting.

Gelineau psalms are usually sung responsively. The soloist or choir begins by singing the refrain; then the congregation repeats it. The psalm then proceeds responsively with a soloist or choir chanting the verses and the congregation responding with the refrain. Many Roman Catholics, who have recently begun congregational singing, have found this "responsorial" style of psalm-singing very helpful. A refrain (or antiphon, an older term) is much easier to learn than the whole psalm.

Among Protestants who are used to exclusive metrical psalmody, the responsorial style has the advantage of making a clear distinction between psalms and hymns. Rather than simply reading the psalm directly from the Bible or singing a paraphrased version of it metrically, the congregation can sing the actual words from Scripture.
Here is a Gelineau version of Psalm 25 sung on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Peter's Church in Columbia, South Carolina:

11 Dec 2012

Bay Psalm Book for sale

Ted Olsen has written a fascinating article inspired by the recent decision of Boston's Old South Church to sell off one of its two remaining copies of the original edition of the Bay Psalm Book, used liturgically by the New England Puritans in the 17th century: What You Need to Know About the Bay Psalm Book.

Last week, Boston's Old South Church voted 271-34 to sell one of its two remaining copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book—one of the most historic volumes in American religious history. When it goes up for auction, Sotheby's vice chairman David Redden told The Boston Globe, it's likely to fetch between $10 million and $20 million. (The historic and liberal United Church of Christ congregation is also selling 19 pieces of early American communion silver.)

The church says its building needs at least $7 million in repairs, and its endowment needs to grow to support at least $300,000 in annual repairs after that. "We will take this wonderful old hymn book, from which our ancestors literally sang their praises to God, and convert it into doing God's ministry in the world today," Nancy Taylor, the church's senior minister, said in a press release.
While one can understand the congregation's desire to raise funds for its ongoing ministry, one is justified in hoping that the historic volume ends up in the right hands. It's certainly too dear for me to bid on. On the other hand, I am content to own a copy of the 1903 facsimile edition of the Bay Psalm Book, which my beloved wife gave me for Christmas three years ago. Despite its evident literary flaws, the Bay Psalm Book is testimony to our forebears' eagerness to sing God's praises in his own words.

6 Dec 2012

The latest from Hungary: Psalms 104 and 107

Hungarian soprano Judit Lengyel sings two more Psalms beautifully according to the 16th-century versifications of the great Albert Szenczi Molnár:

Then sings my Seoul: Psalm 35

A lovely rendition of Psalm 35 from the Korean peninsula:

4 Dec 2012

Psalm 29: getting it right at last?

Some months ago I wrote of my recent effort to come up with a fresh text and tune for Psalm 29. Several weeks later I entered my effort in a Psalm contest sponsored by Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the encouragement of Greg Scheer, the congregation's minister of worship. Last month I tested it out at a chapel service at Redeemer in connection with the annual Zylstra Symposium and quickly discovered that it's not especially singable by an ordinary congregation. One of my colleagues went so far as to call it "dreadful." Oh, well. A fine blow to my conceit, that's all. Back to the drawing board.

Accordingly, I have now come up with a fresh tune for the same text, dubbed VOX DOMINI. A printable score can be found here. I believe it is more singable than the first tune, QOL ADONAI, but I suppose there's only one way to find out for certain: try singing it! I may rearrange the latter as a choral piece at some point in the future.

Stolz: Psalms 51 and 52