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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A name of power : who was Melchisedek?

A mysterious figure

In the psalm (109/110)  for Corpus Christi Year C, there is a reference to Melchisedek.  This is one of only two references to him in the Old Testament. Here are the words in Genesis 14 :

‘And Melchisedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine;  he was priest of the Most High God.  Then he blessed him [Abram, who’s just returned from winning a major battle and freeing Lot from captivity] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth; and praised be the Most High God, who has handed your oppressors over to you!’  And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.’

And that is absolutely all the information we have about Melchisedek in the Old Testament, apart from the reference in Psalm 109/110 :’You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’ or ‘…in the line of Melchisedek.’  Different translations of Genesis are not sure who gave the tithe to whom, and the words can vary slightly (I took the translation above out of the Jehovah’s Witness version, because I thought it was probably the most literal).  You can see how early a part of the salvation story this is by the fact that Abram is still missing the extra syllable God will give him later.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181
Full of significance
Here he is in nineteenth-century stained glass

I’m not qualified to discuss all the later meanings added on to the figure of Melchisedek.  There are old Jewish traditions about him, he’s mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, he’s mentioned by some of the Gnostics, St Paul considers him a central figure in explaining how Jesus did not need to be related to Aaron or Levi and yet is the Great High Priest  (this is all in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it’s an interesting Jewish theological question), and what that means, is that this psalm is quoted in the New Testament more often than any other, all on this Melchisedek point.

Names in poetry and songs

But having read the account from Genesis, you now have as much information as the psalmist of this particular psalm, who we think might well have been David.  I want to discuss the power of proper names in poems and songs, and specifically the difficulty of setting them to music.  Proper names are awkward because they are too specific and often not euphonious.  It works if the name is of someone with mythical or enhanced status (Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour…),  but it’s difficult to avoid bathos where it’s just someone less important.   Wordsworth wrote several poems which start with the name of the person he’s addressing, like the ‘Milton’ poem, but it doesn’t really work attached to a name that means nothing to the reader.    Try it yourself, with the names of people you know, and it’s hard to repress a snigger.  This is the whole basis of the joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Generic goddesses or proper names

The Greeks, the Romans and European poets up to the eighteenth century handle this by using nymph or goddess names for their (real) sweethearts, but a specific reference name is much harder to deal with.   So we have ‘Jenny kiss’d me when we met’  interestingly described as a ‘Rondeau’ (musical dance form as well as a type of poem),  Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone,  which is a madrigal;   but it’s hard to deal with a name and surname, unless a comic effect is desired (‘Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins’).  Of course there are exceptions (Barbara FrietchieBarbara AllenEleanor Rigby ), but on the whole, it’s easier to deal with people famous enough to have one-word names (Napoleon (Shelley), Shakespeare  (Ben Jonson).  Whitman avoids Lincoln’s name in his poem, just addressing him as ‘O Captain! my Captain!’.

Names with exotic sounds

But there’s one group of names, often but not always single words, which are in the text because of their sound and sometimes their overtones.  They are characterised by an incantatory quality, often marked by exotic strangeness.  They can be geographical, historical, romantic; they can be totally normal in one context but like magic or hilarious words in a child’s ear.   Lear’s  The Akond of Swat  is one of the first that a young reader comes across and a good example (and there’s another poem about the same gentleman by George Lanigan, less well-known, same idea, quite different, extremely funny).    It doesn’t even have to be poetry : Kipling’s great grey-green greasy Limpopo has created magic for children even in prose.

There’s a poem by W.J. Turner called Romance, which describes this perfectly, where the force of the poem lies in the magic exotic names of the places (cf. Marlowe’s Persepolis or Ilium).  I came across this poem as a child; I still don’t know anything about those places, and I don’t want or need to; but ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, they had stolen my soul away’ indeed.  John Masefield’s Cargoes is similar, but he uses exotic words as well as names (though sadly I have never yet managed to use the word ‘quinquireme’ casually in a sentence).

Names of power
Beautiful dawn
Clouds of glory from my garden

With names of people, it isn’t pure sound usually, though Tolkien is a master of this, as you would expect (Galadriel, Faramir, Tom Bombadil).  There’s a lot of foreign-naming going on in nineteenth-century poetry, part of the contemporary passion for the exotic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a good example (Kubla Khan, Xanadu).   Swinburne is another (Aholibah).  The Brownings tried, but don’t seem to me to succeed (just calling Italy ‘Italia’ is not enough, and Garibaldi is unfortunately suggestive in an English pronunciation).   The names to conjure with are mostly those with reverberations, which come as it were trailing clouds of glory, to coin a phrase.

Names of mystery

However some of the most powerful magic comes when there is nothing but a name : look at Shelley’s Ozymandias.   Sometimes it’s a name with just a bit more, which does not illuminate, but adds to the mystery : Hereward the Wake; Herne the Hunter; and even (I would argue, and so would Christopher Robin)  Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Let’s get back to Melchisedek
Melchisedek, name of power and of mystery

Melchisedek is a classic example of an incantatory name, because we have so little other information; and just because there is so little of it, it’s all very significant.  Who is he?  He is described as ‘king and priest of Salem’.  ‘Salem’ could be Jeru-salem, but is also the same word as ‘shalom’, so this person is ‘prince of peace’, to use Isaiah’s formulation.  Being king and priest is highly significant, not just in a Christian or Davidic forerunner context, but because it means you outrank others in both spheres (imagine if Charlemagne had been the Pope as well).  Look at the trouble Henry VIII caused by making himself head of the Church in England, and that was even without invoking the priesthood; and one of the reasons Charles I was so difficult to deal with was because he believed so strongly in the divine right of kings; – but this is to raise the claim to a whole new level.

Melchisedek in landscape
Bringing forth bread and wine almost like a picnic

What does Melchisedek do?  He appears with no context; he brings out (of where?) bread and wine; he blesses Abram (presumably by laying his hands on his head, so Abram has had to bend or even kneel before him); and he praises God by a name which shows that he means The One True God, not anyone local or subordinate; and then he disappears again, to reappear only in Psalm 109/110, which plays absolutely fair in not adding any further information, but using the same incantatory name.

Melchisedek qualifies for a feast day
Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Melchisedek is significant enough to make it into the Roman Liturgical Calendar.  His feast day is August 26th.  For the Eastern Orthodox, it is May 22nd.  For the Armenian Church it’s July 26th, as one of the Holy Forefathers.  I was very excited to discover this, and went hunting for a feast of the Holy Foremothers, but sadly this does not exist, though I did find a feast of Holy Translators, which I trust includes people like Catherine Winkworth.    Melchisedek’s importance for the Church is mainly because of the use St Paul makes of him, as indicating a pre-Levite and pre-Aaronic priesthood,  in which Jesus can be the great High Priest ‘according to the line of Melchisedek’, which I’m not qualified even to discuss.  I am just concerned with the practicality of setting proper names to music.  At least Melchisedek is one where everyone knows how to pronounce it (I always worry about Massah and Meribah, in Psalm 94/95), but it presents problems of its own.

Melchisedek modern icon
Modern icon, with classic attributes again
Setting  Melchisedek to music

Melchisedek is a name, a word of four syllables.  I try to avoid using anything smaller than a quaver, especially for the Response, so you’re looking at 2 crotchets or quarter notes minimum, which is half or two-thirds of a bar, if not a whole bar.  You can play with rhythm but not duration : you need all four syllables.  And it’s not just in the Cantor’s part, it is in the Response; and it is (mostly) the last word of the Response, so it is full of emphasis, it has the cadence.  These are the unavoidable considerations, and I’m actually rather glad that this name does not come up as often as (say) Zion or Israel.   Words like ‘ordinances’ are similarly tricky.

Variation in the Responses

It’s a sizeable chunk in the Response, and the words around it vary according to the different Lectionaries.  US and OZ both have ‘You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedek’, but they have different strophe words (OZ follows the same strophe words as the UK Lectionary. Mostly.).  UK has ‘You are a priest for ever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’, and CAN has ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek’, which gave me the most trouble of all.

The US version arranged itself neatly into a 3/4 rhythm, with the stresses falling naturally as the tune lollops along, so the Response set the mood for the whole psalm.  The UK Response seemed to have a more exotic or even other-worldly feel, and the rhythm was more flexible, so that came out in 4/4, but with a modal, haunting little tune.  I didn’t want to lose the impact of the name, so I treated the ‘of old’ as a part of the title.  OZ shares the US  Response but the UK verse words.  As though to rub it in, the second half of the fourth strophe is the same word-for-word as the UK Response, but combining the two together didn’t work, so I started again, and that is a completely different setting, in 4/4.   Somehow that arrangement of words in the Response doesn’t seem to need the haunting quality; I think ‘in the line of’ is much more straightforward than ‘of old’, maybe.

The CAN Response was awkward because there were just so many words in it, and the rhythm was not flexible.  Ideally, you don’t want a Response to be too long or too complicated (I’ve written about this before), because the congregation has to pick it up quickly and not forget it in between its appearances, so I try to keep it to four bars or eight if it’s a quicker flow.  ‘You are a priest for ever’ is already half of a Response. ‘According to the order of’ is a lot of syllables, even before you get to ‘Melchisedek’.  I had to do a lot of saying it out loud before I could fix a rhythm which worked, and I was surprised to find that I could relate it best to the UK modal tune  (the strophe words were slightly different, but it was easy to adapt the tune).  When I looked at the UK and CAN Responses carefully, they were each five bars, which surprised me again, but I think that’s one reason why they feel slightly uncanny, unbalanced (in a good way), and this preserves the exotic element which I didn’t want to lose.

See how an expert does it….

Psalm 109/110 starts ‘Dixit Dominus’ in Latin, and because it’s a neat, short psalm with wonderful words, many great composers have set it.  It’s part of Vespers, for a start (Monteverdi and Mozart). Because of the Melchisedek line, it’s useful as celebratory music for Church celebrations, like Zadok the Priest is for royal events, with all those repeated ‘May the King live for ever’s.  Here’s a link to the part where Handel sets the Melchisedek reference.   He does it as (mostly) runs of semiquavers, so you only really hear it as the choir comes down to the triumphant conclusion.  He’s following the music not the words, and you’d never get away with it as a Responsorial Psalm, but it’s a lovely piece of music.

Melchisedek, Abram, servants….and God as well

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