Does size matter? The shortest psalm (116/117)

Size isn’t everything

The psalm coming up on Sunday is the shortest psalm in the Psalter (116/117). It has only two verses, and for once I don’t need to distinguish between stanzas and verses, because each verse makes a stanza. Even with an intercalated Response, this is a very short psalm. Does that matter?

Some small things are larger than they look

Of course it doesn’t, because this is a tiny psalm with a mighty subject.  It’s probably a good thing that it isn’t the first psalm in the book, because we might just skip over it without realising its significance, but by the time we are one hundred psalms or so into the Psalter, we can pick up references and reverberations and value this psalm for all it means rather than just noticing how short it is.

Expressing distilled praise

The main meaning of ‘the Book of Psalms’ is ‘the book of praises’, and this psalm is a distilled version of so many others (the very next psalm is a great litany of praise in 29 verses).  Its size does present a challenge when you’re setting it to music, though, and it’s worth considering exactly how to deliver it.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Good things can come in very small packages
No repetition, no deviation

The shortness of the words would not have presented a problem in previous years.  Anyone who has ever been to an opera knows how the music is allowed to express feeling and significance with the words being repeated to fit.  There is a marked difference between spoken dialogue with music (recitative) and making a song (aria) to enhance the meaning of a brief statement or even question.  Many church composers have written whole arias around a single word (e.g. Alleluia : Bach, Handel, Mozart, Kodaly among others) or a single verse out of a psalm (Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina….everybody, really), but nowadays we aren’t allowed to repeat anything at all, unless it’s traditional (the three-fold Kyrie) or invented as part of the new Canon (‘this pure victim, this stainless victim’ etc).  Musically you have to set the words as given.  So what do you do with a very short psalm?

Ensuring engagement

The Responsorial Psalm is situated between the two readings before the Gospel.  People are sitting down, after the first part of the Mass, and they are listening.  In some churches, they listen even to the psalm, sung by a choir; in others, they sing just the Response, and listen to the stanzas in between. (In some churches, they just speak the Response, but I think this is a shame, and it’s not what I’m talking about here).  After the Psalm, they listen again to the second Reading before standing up for the Gospel, which ought to be greeted by them singing the Alleluia (though in many churches, they just speak it, which is again a shame).  All the sitting down and getting up again helps to keep people engaged, but the best engagement is joining in the singing, as I’ve explained before, because it wakes everyone up and increases their oxygen levels..

The risk with a choir (only) singing a short little psalm is that the congregation barely notices it.  I’ve mentioned before the problem posed by  a very short response, you might call it the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ problem.  So long as the congregation is singing even a short response, though, you have a good chance to engage their attention.  I do find that it is worth taking an extra beat or two before you actually start (as you look up at the beginning and make sure everyone is watching),  just to make sure that everyone is already paying attention, as there is not enough time for them to catch up later, and we don’t like leaving anyone behind.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together
Varying numbers of verses and stanzas

So a short psalm needs to have just as much presence as a longer one.  We can have up to five stanzas in a Responsorial Psalm for Sunday Mass, but most are three or four.  The stanzas often vary in length considerably, even within the same psalm (causing the composer much muttering and trying out different ways of inserting extra bits of tune), but given that the psalms are translated (and sometimes twice-) poetry, it’s amazing how well the text for most of them has come out (and thank God for the brilliant people who have worked on the Grail psalms).

Adam names the beasts
Relative sizes can be very deceptive
Multum in parvo : small but mighty

As always, you have to focus on the meaning of the words.  Psalm 116/117 could hardly have a bigger subject.  O praise the Lord, all you nations,/acclaim him, all you peoples!  is the first stanza, just two lines, but crucially addressed to everybody, not just the Chosen People.  Judaism was a ‘closed’ religion, open only to the people who qualified, which is why there are so many rules in the OT about ancestors and circumcision, and you can see Paul and Peter struggling in Acts with the dawning realisation that God actually wants everybody.  But here in this tiny psalm, we have a clarion call aimed at the whole world.

The second verse explains why : Strong is his love for us; /he is faithful for ever.  The size of what we are talking about has not reduced in the slightest.  It’s just adding more dimensions.  It’s almost as though the first stanzas is about breadth (the whole world),  the next line states the central point (God’s love for us) and the last line brings in the time dimension and extends it to infinity (for ever).  People have written whole symphonies on smaller topics.  My job is just to try and help the congregation express some of this praise.

There isn’t room for much development, so the tune (everyone except the US setting) basically just surges up and comes back down again.  I think of it as waves on the sea, but big waves crashing with enthusiasm and sparkle (moving ‘like kings into court’, as the wonderful book by Margaret Mahy,  The Man whose Mother was a pirate,  puts it).  The US setting was a bit more wordy, so you have trumpets instead.

Holy trumpets can even defy gravity

Sing this psalm with a swagger, and take it at a good speed.  This is pure praise, pure celebration; there isn’t room for subtlety.  It’s not about the minutiae of the psalmist’s life, or his problems, or his situation; it’s just about God the Almighty, and celebrating him.  Instead of the earlier yells for help, this is just a shout of praise.  Enjoy it.

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Making a song out of shouting for help : Psalm 39/40

Setting Mayday to music

I’ve talked before about the differences between hoping, waiting and trusting, in the context of an Alleluia verse, but a fine example of this is Psalm 39/40, coming up on 20th Sunday OTC.  It’s a fascinating psalm because the tone of it depends completely on which stanzas are selected to be sung.  On most of the occasions when it is chosen, the emphasis is on God’s law and how we should keep it, creating as we do so an expectation that God will therefore take care of us in all ways.  You would assume that this is the only burden of this particular psalm.

Two strands, one psalm

The other part of the psalm (and it’s not linear : the two strands interweave, so that it’s easy to miss one if you’re concentrating on the other, like one of those pictures that you can see as either one thing or another) is about the parlous state that the psalmist is in, and how he needs God to help now, quite urgently actually. He has helped in the past; the psalmist has been in dire straits before and God has rescued him; but actually now would be a good time, God, are you listening?

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
Picturesque and colourful peril
Calling for help a recurring theme

It’s a very human piece of writing. Appealing for help in difficulties is one of the main secondary strands of the Book of Psalms (the main one is praise), and it is so artfully done that we tend not to notice quite how artfully. The crisis in this psalm seems to be current, but of course, just as in an adventure novel or a thriller, if the protagonist is writing/singing about it afterwards (especially in the first person), we know that he must have escaped and won through to safety. How does the psalmist create this sense of current urgency, of real danger unresolved?

Three different psalms, same message

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with Psalms 68/69 (which we had on 15th Sunday OTC, just a few weeks back)  and 69/70, because it’s almost as though those two psalms are each an amplification of half of this one.  There are echoes of whole sentences between them.  All three psalms start with a bang in medias res.  Ps 39/40 is less immediate, if anything, because it uses a past tense (so we know the psalmist has survived) : I waited, I waited for the Lord.   Ps 69/70 describes the same situation but in the present tense : O God, make haste to my rescue, Lord, come to my aid!   Ps 68/69 has the unforgettable Save me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck.

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep, even worse upside down

Psalm 39/40 continues in its comforting past tense : he stooped down to me, he heard my cry.  Then it describes the awful situation the singer was in : he drew me from the deadly pit, from the miry clay, and it is exactly the same as in Ps 68/69 : I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold. [..] Rescue me from sinking in the mud.

Stuck in the mud

This peril, of being fast stuck in a hole and unable to get out, is a recurring fear for the psalmist.  He describes it minutely, and he is asking not for an unspecific with-one-bound-he-was-free rescue but (more specific, more limited, you might almost say more concrete) for something to stand on, because that is his biggest fear, that he might simply sink down into the mud and never resurface : I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold (Ps 68/69).  God provides the solution :  he set my feet upon a rock and made my footsteps firm (Ps 39/40) , with the same pattern in the tenses : Ps 68/69 has the current danger, Ps 39/40 recollects it in tranquillity and still has a cold shiver.

Acute watery danger
Other possible dangers

There are various types of danger which the psalmist asks to be rescued from: enemies (Pss 16, 21, 26, 34, 58, 139, and many others), sorrow  and general distress (Pss 6, 12, 87, 101, 118), illness ( e.g. Ps 114).   Quite often he turns the situation around and talks about how the Lord has (already) rescued him from whatever the problem was (a trap or snare set by his enemies, general tribulation, illness, or even God’s absence), and some psalms talk about the watery danger or the falling into a bottomless pit as danger past and therefore less scary (e.g.  Ps 123/124).  Psalm 53/54 shows the usual trajectory of these psalms : a request for help, here is the problem, God will save/has saved me, hooray for God.  The urgency of the plea is mitigated by the way that the psalm progresses through the danger to a comfortable resolution.  This is often the way that the Responsorial Psalm is constructed in the assortment of verses prescribed for a given Sunday, but it’s often effected by leaving out whole chunks of the text, so it’s worth checking, if you want to understand the movement of the psalm as a whole.

He makes my footsteps firm

Often the psalmist uses the metaphor of a firm footing to show his confidence in God’s power and mercy.  Like everyone except the richest and most powerful in those days, he moves about on foot, and his safety is  in his speed and not tripping up, like the hero in The Time Traveler’s Wife ,  or the beasts of the foot in The Once and Future King  when Wart experiences life as a hawk.  So he rejoices My feet have never slipped (Ps 17/18), My foot stands on level ground (Ps 25/26) , When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy, Lord, holds me up (Ps 93/94) and so on.

The power of tenses, the tension of the present

Why does the danger seem so urgent in the psalms I was discussing earlier?  It’s not just the tenses, though the present tense lends undeniable emphasis in that he is in the deadly pit at this moment, not just worrying about it as one of the things which might happen.  Psalm 39/40 starts with that reassuring past tense (I waited..he drew me), but then moves even into a future tense (you will not withhold your love from me) before returning to a continuous present (I am beset with evils) and then into the imperative, most ‘current’ of all the tenses (come to my rescue) and then ends with another imperative and a superb cliffhanger (O God, do not delay) of a last line.  I said it was artful.  Psalm 43/44 moves in the same way, seemingly peaceful to begin, but ending with with an acute yell for help (Stand up and come to our help! Redeem us because of your love!), where the editorial exclamation marks indicate the power of the words.  Psalm 68/69 starts acute, goes through the imperative and then settles into confident predictions of the future.  69/70 is much shorter, so it doesn’t have room for this sort of trajectory, and it’s more like 39/40: it starts with a cry for help, looks forward more generally, but then instantly returns to the current danger, ending again O Lord, do not delay. Short stanzas and short lines add to the effect here.

We could do with some help here
Singing only part of the psalm

It’s just as well that we usually have only a part of any given psalm prescribed for a particular Sunday, as it’s difficult to cover changes of mood in one tune or setting.  Psalm 87/88 is unusual in having only one mood throughout, that of despair, which presents its own problems, and I’ve written about that before, but in these calling-for-help psalms, the mood changes, so you have to be careful about not making the tune too closely related to one feeling.  I like to emphasize the calling, though, so I try to make that bit of the tune the sort of noise you might use to call someone (a sort of yoo-hoo effect), but you can’t be too desperate.  Like the settings for Psalm 22/23, you need to have room for the dark valley, but it mustn’t dominate.

Setting a shout to music

When you’re calling someone, you have to catch their attention, so there’s usually a higher note there; you need to be clear, so you can’t rush that bit; and where it’s open-ended (my earlier cliffhangers), I try to reflect that, avoiding a terminal-sounding cadence.  These are the points I am thinking about while I’m setting these particular psalms.  They are important, because although the main business of the Psalms is praise, calling for help is something we all need to do on a regular basis, and I love the direct and undeferential way in which these psalms show us how to do it.  It reminds me of the way that Jesus talks to God.  Abraham (as a contrasting example) tends to be more formal and elaborate (think about the scene we had as a first reading recently where he whittles God’s requirement for not destroying the wicked city down to only ten men), but you don’t talk like that when the waters have risen to your neck.  You shout for help;  and God answers.  And then you praise him.

Just hold the baby, while I down a devil : Mary in a more active role
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