The stress of saying ‘I love you’

Short responses can cause problems of stress

The Response for Psalm 17/18 looks incredibly straightforward : ‘I love you, [O] Lord, my strength’, – but this is deceptive. It’s the first line of the psalm, which makes it an obvious and fitting Response, but it’s tricky to deal with.  This is all because of stress.

men in white singing from shared copy
Trying to get the stress right
Starting with an unstressed word

At least, I started out thinking it was all because of stress, but now I think there is more to it than that. But let’s look at the stress first. The first note in any musical bar carries a stress, and when you set words to music, you have to take this into account. Because it has definite articles, English has a lot of initial unstressed syllables, and those can’t go on the first beat of the bar. So if your line is (say) ‘The Lord is a man of war’, you have to put ‘the’ on an unstressed, lead-up note in the preceding bar, so that you hit ‘Lord’ on the first beat of the second bar, as Handel demonstrates so beautifully.  All the settings of (for example) ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ have to place the stress like this.

Stress, rhythm and meaning

With a sentence like ‘I love you, [O] Lord, my strength’, as soon as you put it to music, you commit to one reading.  Am I stressing that I, personally,  love God as opposed to all the other people haring after false gods? Am I stressing that my feelings are strong and intense? At a pinch I can have two beats before the first note of the next bar, so I could stress that it’s you, God, that I love and certainly not anyone else. That [O] makes things even trickier. Without it, the line is one breath group; with it, there is a step in the middle. It takes up more space than you expect, without altering the meaning.

Lord and O Lord

Only Canada has the [O], but I was concentrating on Canada, because the [O] meant that I had to alter the tune completely.  Setting ‘I love you, Lord, my strength’  (US, UK and OZ Lectionaries) had not been too problematic.  I put the ‘I’ in as the last beat of the previous bar, and dwelt on the ‘love’ as the important word, with the ‘my strength’ just flowing as almost part of the name of the person addressed.  The US version is 3/4, the other 4/4, so the problem was not that the rhythm of the words was too strong.  However, neither seemed to work once the [O] was there.  Eventually I came up with a compromise for the Canada psalm which worked for me: ‘I’ is the first beat of the bar, but ‘love’ has a longer note (and a higher one), and the whole thing was in 3/4, so that it has a rocking rhythm, but the words of the Response move slightly against that rhythm.  Then I had to write a new verse tune, because the words are different from the other versions anyway….  If anyone else has not totally glazed over by this point, the first strophe in the US version starts,’I love you, O Lord’ (and the CAN one then drops the [O]) , so you move directly into that from the Response, just to keep you on your toes.

The stress of saying ‘I love you’

When I was thinking about it, though, it struck me that the psalms are the only place in the Bible where someone simply says ‘I love you’ to God, and it’s not surprising that it’s slightly awkward because it’s not something we say all that often.  (I am not specifically talking about romantic love here, though even in those circumstances, many people find ways to say that differently.  I am not including the Song of Songs in any of the general comments I am making about love, either.)  Some people can’t actually say it in words at all, except in moments of great stress (deathbeds, for example);  some don’t choose to, because they show love in a non-verbal way.  There is a beautiful poem by U. A. Fanthorpe, called Atlas, which expresses this perfectly.  Some languages use other, different words to say ‘love’ – the usual Italian for I love you actually translates as I wish you well, and Georgian uses the ethic dative, a bit like the ethic dative with placet in Latin.  French, like English, takes refuge in fuzziness: ‘aimer’ covers ‘like’ and ‘love’, and no two people will agree on the exact distinction between them (I love the smell of new-mown grass and I really like that particular cousin).

Weighty words

There seems to be tension about saying ‘I love you’, one might call it stress, either because it means so much (and we don’t want to lay ourselves open to that extent) or because if we keep saying it, it indicates that we don’t mean much by it.  The first is almost like the way a taboo works, or like the traditional Chinese avoidance of giving a new baby a name until it has survived a year, for fear that it will be snatched away.

The stress of saying it to God

So the psalmist sings,’I love you, Lord, my strength’ , and this is a really unusual thing to say to God directly.  In various books of the Bible, the speaker/writer describes how God has rescued him, supported him, brought him safe out of trouble and so on.  God is regularly described as doing something because of his love for us.  However, it’s difficult to imagine Moses or Abraham approaching God and telling him that they love him; the dialogue is on a different level.  The emphasis is on fear and enormous respect.  God talks about loving us, in some of the prophetic books (especially Hosea), but it’s usually indirect speech or general, rather than individual and specific.

Jesus and the question of love

When Jesus meets the rich young man, the narrative tells us that he looked upon him and loved him, but of course he does not tell him so (Mark 10).   When people see his tears for the dead Lazarus, they say, ‘See how he loved him!’ ( John 11.36) – third person, and past tense, so it’s safe.    The New Testament has a lot more about love (and less about fear), culminating in Jesus’ triple question to Peter after the Resurrection, which Peter handles very well, but it clearly makes him a bit uncomfortable, especially in the repetition (John again, chapter 21, and it isn’t in any of the synoptic accounts).   Jesus follows each question with the instruction to look after his sheep, which can only have confused Peter still further.  But I am trying to concentrate on the Psalms.

tending the sheep (with added music)
Putting it to music might mean less stress

You might expect that poems or songs (poems with tunes) would find it easier to deal with saying ‘I love you’ than prose, and I think that’s true, but only up to a point.  Simple declarations of love are still quite unusual.  Something is used to insert distance.  The Beatles’ ‘She loves you’ is in the third person ( though their songs became more direct later), and the ‘yeah yeah yeah’ makes it sound less serious .  Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s apparently spontaneous outpouring of love in Sonnet 43 uses the archaic ‘thee’ instead of you, which immediately removes the intimacy (obviously, if you go historically farther back, the ‘thee’ might be natural, but it isn’t here; even in Shakespeare it would be borderline).  ‘Thee I love‘ uses the archaic Quaker ‘thee’ plus inversion, to make it even less direct.  The cheesiness of these examples goes some way to proving my point.  People sing ‘I love you’ directly at each other in opera, but not as often as you might think; and it’s in a foreign language; and opera must have the biggest Verfremdungseffekt of all time anyway.

Fiddler with dancer
The power of music : leaning over backwards to express something
Telling God, and describing his love

It’s particularly startling to see ‘I love you’ in the psalms because it’s addressed to the Almighty, and yet the simple words suggest a shocking intimacy and equivalence.  To say it, places the speaker and the person addressed on the same level.  This is why it’s rare even in the psalms, because it involves a huge mental jump.  The intimate (you might call it mano a mano if you were the Sheriff of Rottingham) directness is specific to the psalms.   It brings the reader/singer up with a jolt where it occurs.  Saint Therese (the little one) addressed Jesus as ‘tu’ when she spoke or wrote to him, but her first editors corrected it to the more formal ‘vous’, feeling it was more appropriate.   (She does use ‘vous’ for God, though.)  David’s psalms would definitely translate as ‘tu’.

two people embracing
Love on the level

Most of the love in the psalms is an abstract noun.  There is a lot of discussion about God’s love for various just men, for his people, for the nation and so on.  The psalmist in the first person talks about his love for God’s law (at great length), about his love for God’s commands and decrees, his works, his precepts, his will, his name, his house (psalms passim).  The psalmist repeatedly calls on God to rescue him’in your love’, or uses ‘for his love endures forever’ as a recurring chorus (or even every other line, Ps 135/136).   It’s usually God doing the loving, and even so, the word is relatively rare as a verb.

Psalms that say ‘I love you’ to God

Psalm 17/18  is where we started, with the human doing the asserting : I love you, Lord (and even putting the O in cannot make it vague.  It changes the rhythm, but we are so used to addressing God with an O that we have become desensitised).  It’s not surprising to find that this is one of the psalms which we think is by David himself.   Another line later in the same psalm demonstrates again the equality which is so arresting : ‘he brought me forth into freedom, he saved me because he loved me’.  Psalm 114/115 has a similar movement, but it’s moved again into the third person : ‘I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal…..I was helpless so he saved me’.  Psalm 143/144 does not say ‘I love you’, but has a similar feel in an ecstatic chant : ‘He is my love, my fortress; he is my stronghold, my saviour’.  Fortresses and strongholds are not unusual adjuncts when love comes up in the psalms, I think to prove that this is all very manly and not a bit sissy.

Mythical boat with monsters
The sort of thing that the Lord can save us from

The rarity of saying ‘I love you’ to God in the Old Testament is because of humility and deep respect rather than any lack of love.  Psalmists and Bible writers encourage everyone to fear, respect, trust and bless the Lord, by instancing his past deeds and the wonders of creation.   David had a more son-like relationship with God, so he could sing ‘I love you, Lord’, but most of us had to wait until Jesus showed us that he actually prefers to be addressed as ‘Father’, and ‘I love you’ is an entirely appropriate response.

Psalm 87/88 : how do you sing about despair?

Despair and desolation  in song form

This is the darkest of the psalms, with no heartening shift towards hope and relief. The psalmist forensically dissects his situation and his feelings, and finds no light or comfort anywhere. This is unique in the Psalms.  Mostly they are at least partly joyful in tone (they are songs, after all), but there are plenty of gloomy psalms, or gloomy passages.   Psalm 87/88 is the only one where the gloom is unrelieved by the prospect of actual comfort arriving, or even just the hope of it.  Why would you sing about despair?

Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels

I’ve been looking at this psalm because it’s set for the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels on the US Bishops’ website. I was so surprised to find it there that I had a hunt around and discovered that most other Lectionaries are offering Psalm 90/91, and this indeed is available as another option for the US. But if it’s asked for on a particular day, I like to set it, because we try to make sure that you can keep to the Missal as far as humanly possible. So I had to find a way to sing Psalm 87/88.

Unfinished previous attempt

I had totally forgotten, but I had made a previous attempt at setting it, and come up with this modal tune, but I’d never finished it or fleshed it out.  It’s possible I was very busy and events just overtook me; but I think it was also the difficulty of trying to sing (and get the congregation to join in with) such a bleak set of words.  Of course people sing about tragedy all the time in opera, but we don’t do it in church unless we are looking towards resurrection;  and we don’t in opera try to get everyone to join in and sing along.

Fiddler with dancer
The power of music
Psalm 87/88 and what it says

This is a frightening psalm, because it is absolute.  The language is very simple and direct.  The writer describes his emotions in a quiet, almost passionless way.   It starts not with a call for help but a description of an ongoing call for help; the tone is almost conversational.  It is addressed to God, but the speaker is not expecting any response; he is just carrying on calling because there is nothing else left for him to do.  He does not rail at God for the injustice of his position; he reminds the Lord that he keeps calling to him for help, but all his life he has been suffering with no relief.  He can see no reason for this; like Job, he has not deserved what has happened to him.  People count him as already dead, he has reached the end of his strength, he is alone among the dead, even forgotten by God;  and it is God who has done this to him.  The images of desolation are piled up with almost physical weight : death, graves, drowning under  great waves of water, isolation, imprisonment, grief.

drowning people underwater
Drowning under the billows (but not alone)

At verse 10, the psalm feels as though it goes back to the beginning.   This is like when your mind wearily repeats the circle of miserable thought you have just gone through, when you are depressed.  ‘I call to you, Lord, all the day long’, and he starts asking God direct questions : ‘Will you work your wonders for the dead?  Will your love be told in the grave?’, but these are only rhetorical questions, and he does not wait for or expect an answer.

Again he repeats the beginning of the psalm (v 14, ‘Lord, I call to you for help’) and the questions are even sharper :’Lord, why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face?’  and we realise that the worst of his suffering is not that God is absent, but that he is choosing not to engage.  The psalmist goes back to describing his position, as though it were someone else.  Unusually, no human enemies or dangerous animals are even mentioned; this is all God’s work. ‘I have borne your trials; I am numb.  Your fury has swept down upon me; your terrors have utterly destroyed me.  They surround me all the day like a flood, they assail me all together.  Friend and neighbour you have taken away: my one companion is darkness.’

Seascape at night, storm
Darkness and billows

It’s not a long psalm, but it’s too long for a Responsorial.  The US psalm as set is the first eight verses.  Strophe 1 is the call for help, 2 he is about to die, his strength is gone, 3 his place is among not just the dead but the forgotten, and 4 has no relief : ‘You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit (‘tomb’ in the Grail translation), into the dark abyss.  Upon me your wrath lies heavy, and with all your billows you overwhelm me’.  This is wonderful poetry, like parts of Isaiah and Job, but is not going to have the congregation spontaneously bursting into song.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
Job suffering among the animals
Artful renunciation of music in Psalm 136/137

We have had trying to sing about tragedy before, in the rivers of Babylon psalm, where the psalmist cleverly makes a song out of hanging up our harps and renouncing music (here’s the blog I wrote about that one), but this is a different sort of despair, because there is nothing left even to sing about.  In Psalm 87/88, there is no one else there, not even an enemy, only God and the singer.  He is on the brink of the grave.  There is nowhere to go.  He keeps calling out to God, but hears no answer.  All he can do is submit and wait…….and keep singing.

Oddly, there is no sense of fear in this psalm; and I think it’s because everything bad that he can imagine has already happened, which is itself a terrible thought.  So how are we going to sing it?  How can I give it a tune?

Modal instead of minor, plus not minus

It’s simple, timeless and not cheerful, so a modal tune seemed to work better than anything else.  Modal tunes have an in-between quality, not simply gloomy, like a minor key, but more ambiguous.  This is what makes them haunting (I hope).  Some of our oldest tunes are modal, so I’m also hoping to tap into some ancient music memory here.  The other psalm that bears immediate comparison is Psalm 21/22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ which Jesus starts to recite on the cross.   I gave that a modal tune as well, but the big difference there is that the second half of that psalm is a strong assertion of God’s power and strength and the singer’s conviction that everything is going to be all right.  That meant that the music also had to change, and the second half is far more upbeat.

Here the mood is set, and unrelieved.  It is difficult to sing, like some of the Holy Week liturgy, but I think these words would be unbearable to sing in a minor key.  We would be heading for despair.  However, despite what I said at the beginning, I don’t think that this psalm does demonstrate despair, because the psalmist does not stop appealing to God.  He reproaches him, he almost threatens him (‘if you kill me, who is going to sing about you?’), but he refuses to give up, he refuses to despair, so the in-between quality, where a chord can resolve into major or minor, is what I want here.

The other advantage of going modal is that you can have all the billows crashing in the fourth strophe.  As I said, it’s wonderful poetry, and you want it to be exciting as well as terrifying, not just miserable.  This is the first psalm where I have needed to write out a separate  verse because of the accompaniment rather than the melody, but those billows are irresistible. The melody just hangs on, being the singer, the same as in the other verses, but the piano part and the recorder cascade down all over it.  Here’s the link.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters
Avoiding despair, and perseverance

Does this desolation and near-despair lead anywhere?  What is the point of singing about it?  I think there are at least two things going on here.  One is that the psalmist just keeps on going, even when he has no real hope.  Perseverance is not trendy, but it’s a great virtue, even a heroic one.  When Jesus gives the apostles warning of all the terrible things that are going to happen to them, he ends with a promise : ‘He that shall endure to the end shall be saved’ (Mtt 24.13; Mark 13.13).   Paul’s proud claim, looking back at his life, is that he has finished the race, he has not given up before the end (2 Tim 4.7).  Surely this is one reason why we are given this psalm to sing.  The writer is in a terrible position, much worse than ours;  but he’s still calling upon God, despite the lack of an answer.

Job talking to Jesus
Job resisting despair and still asking questions

We have it assigned for the feast of the Guardian Angels presumably also to remind us that however alone we may feel, our angel is there.  Angels are mysterious beings, impossible to predict and hard to recognise, but they keep cropping up unexpectedly (I did a blog on this as well), and this too is a comforting thought.

Small angel figures attached to a light fitting
My kitchen chandelier full of angels

It’s very striking how present God is in this psalm.  He doesn’t answer, he doesn’t comfort, his actions are all in the past tense, which is why the psalmist is in the mess he is in; but it is completely inconceivable that he should be absent.  This is also Jesus’ promise : ‘Lo, I am with you always’, which Matthew uses to close his gospel.  However alone we may feel, we aren’t.   Even if we cannot think of anything else to do, we can just keep going.  Bleak comfort, but comfort nonetheless, and this is what makes it possible to sing this psalm.