Canticle Deut 32 : writing a tune for God’s anger?

An unusual Responsorial Psalm

As I’ve said before, it’s always interesting to be asked to set a new text, and the current situation has led to us being asked for tunes for different Responsorial Psalms from the usual Sunday ones.  A recent example was very unusual for a daily Mass on July 27th.   It was a Canticle,  a ‘little song’ not out of the Book of Psalms.  We have several of these, from the Magnificat (Luke 1) to familiar passages from Isaiah, Judith or Exodus.  Some of them are easy to spot, because the form is slightly different from the shape of a psalm, or because of the content.  We sang the Daniel Canticle quite recently (Pentecost and Trinity A), and I blogged about it then.  This Canticle, though, is out of Deuteronomy, which is unusual. The form is not particularly odd, although the Response has been modified, but the content is very strange. 

The Book of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch, the last book of Moses (Moses dies at the end of it). It is the second (hence deuter) giving of the Law, and it comes at the end of the long wanderings in the desert and just before the Chosen People (minus Moses, but with Joshua leading them) head into the Promised Land.  Moses sees it, but may not enter.

Moses gazing upon the Promised Land which God will not allow him to enter, even after forty years in the wilderness

It’s not one of the books that registers with most people, except for some of the passages about Moses, because it is a recap of the history (lots of battles) and a restatement of the Law, so rather dry, really.   But it is quoted many times in the New Testament, and was very important for the early Christians, especially the ones who had started out as Jews, and written its words upon their heart, as prescribed in Deut 6.6.  It is the legal reference book for Jesus, for example; the quotations he uses to see off the Devil in the wilderness (Matt 4, Luke 4) are all from Deuteronomy, as are the laws in the following chapter with the repeated ‘You have heard it said […] but I say to you…’ (Matt 5). 

God of anger, terrifying even in pink (Sistine)

Paul quotes Deuteronomy often;  it is a basic part of his mental furniture as a Pharisee.  Some very familiar Scriptural phrases are from it, such as the great call  Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one….(Deut. 6.4), and Vengeance is mine, I will repay (Deut.32.35, and Hebrews 10.30). It’s often the Deuteronomy version of the commandments which sounds more familiar than the Exodus one.  This book also gives us several proverbial expressions (a dreamer of dreams,13.1, the wife of thy bosom 13.6, the apple of his eye 32.10), as well as many turns of phrase familiar to us from various psalms (passim).  The figure of God in Deuteronomy is a stern Deity, though, full of anger and vengefulness, and the words in this Canticle are terrifying (see below).

Moses retells the story so far
high points in Moses’ story

Moses takes the opportunity, in his final address to the nation, to review the story from the departure out of Egypt up to the present.  He narrates the history of the last forty years or so, restating the important parts like the Commandments, and scolding the people for their many failures to follow God’s law.  Deuteronomy is two books in one; as well as being a restating of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, it is also a hero narrative about Moses, recapping all the battles he fought and all the successes which God gave him.  It goes on to describe his death, the point where he leaves the story, although there is no sense of age or weakness overtaking him (unlike the other patriarchs, but very like a hero figure).

The long form of a contract or covenant

Not only the Commandments are repeated, all the food laws are too, and other laws about how to treat your Hebrew slaves, how the Levites should behave, divorce arrangements and so on.  There is a mixture of carrot and stick in this law-giving;  Moses relays God’s will and backs it up with threats just as much as promises, quite literally blessings and curses (standard for treaties and covenants at the time).  The form is important; the whole book is cast as a contemporary covenant or treaty, and its function is as though to reboot the covenant and start afresh in a new place as a settled nation under God’s rules.  It is a second chance for the people to agree to the bargain God wants to make with them.

The Song of Moses (which everyone was meant to learn)

The verses chosen for us to stand as the Responsorial Psalm come from a section near the end of the book, known as The Song of Moses, in which Moses describes God’s bitter disappointment and anger at his people’s disobedience and contumacy.  There are more positive sections in this long song, but overall the effect is of anger and vengeance, repeated failure and bitterness.  The beginning is Moses addressing the people, but swiftly it changes to God directly accusing and threatening them.  There are only three verses and there is no lightening of the mood.

The text of the Responsorial Psalm (OZ version)

Deut. 32:18-21. R. see v.18

(R.) You have forgotten God who gave you birth.

  1. You forget the Rock who begot you,/unmindful now of the God who fathered you. /The Lord had seen this, and in his anger /cast off his sons and his daughters. (R.)
  1. ‘I shall hide my face from them,’ he says /‘and see what becomes of them. /For they are a deceitful brood, /children with no loyalty in them. (R.)
  1. ‘They have roused me to jealousy with what is no god, /they have angered me with their beings of nothing; /I, then, will rouse them to jealousy with what is no people. /I will anger them with an empty-headed nation.’ (R.)
Vindictive anger, but better in context

I was so aghast when I read the words that I had to go back to first principles and check what this was meant to be a Response to.  I thought it must be some terrible account of the people going off after false gods or stubbornly defying God’s direct command, but it isn’t;  it is a reading out of Jeremiah 13, where God tells the prophet to go and buy a linen loincloth, wear it but don’t wash it, and then bury it.  Later God sends him back to dig it up again, but it is of course no longer usable.  Then God explains that this is how he will rot the pride and arrogance of Judah and Jerusalem.  They should be clinging to the Lord the way a loincloth clings to the body, but they have turned away.  So the Responsorial Psalm is God expressing his anger.

God’s anger and its aftermath
The Deuteronomy Canticle as a Psalm

There are two real difficulties with this as a Psalm.  One is that most of it is God speaking in the first person, which is always tricky, but the bigger problem is the bitterness with which he speaks.  He plots to pay them back with worse than they have done to him.  This is not a loving father speaking, but someone full of rancour and anger. He uses the language of the family (sons, daughters, children), but he is not talking or behaving as a parent.  Rather, these are the words of one party to a contract who has been cheated and deceived by the other party.  Now this began to make more sense, because Deuteronomy is meant to be about the contract between God and his people (with lots of warnings about how they have continually got it wrong in the past, so they had better try to act in accordance with the contract in the future).

Not something to sing about

How do you set God’s anger to a tune?  I found this set of words very daunting.  It needed to be minor or at least modal, because the tone is so dark and minatory.  For God to talk like this about his Chosen People shows how saddened he has been by their behaviour, how distressed.  But we know that he is not closing the door on them, so I did go for modal in the end.  I wanted something simple (the words are stark and direct) but haunting, like the psalms on Good Friday or the Reproaches.  It was particularly difficult because there is no movement away from the dark mood, unlike most psalms, where although you may start ‘in the depths’, the words carry you to a place where at least there is a rock to rest your foot on.

Joachim and Anna cuddling the toddler Mary (Chora) : good parenting
Solace in the midst of woe

As it happened, the next psalm I had to work on was also a response to another reading from Jeremiah, for 22nd Sunday A.  Jeremiah complains to God about being seduced and enthralled by him, being driven to act as the Lord’s messenger and being badly treated by the people in consequence.  This time, though, the response is the lovely Psalm 62/63, one of my beloved yearning psalms.  Here the two pieces of text work together to remind us of God’s love, like the beautiful moment when Jesus says to Julian of Norwich,’My darling, in all thy woes I have ever been with thee; now seest thou my loving’.  This was a very comforting psalm to move on to, and I was grateful.  As Deuteronomy also reminds us, ‘underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut. 33.27).

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Psalm as folk psong : Ps 49/50 for July 1st

Sing a new song

I enjoy being asked to write a tune for a psalm I haven’t set before. Now that we’ve covered all the Sundays of the three year cycle, it doesn’t happen so often that I get to write a totally new tune, but it’s always a pleasure. I never know what sort of tune is going to emerge, but there are a few basic pegs which make it easier for the congregation to pick up quickly, so I will use a hymn idiom or a folksong idiom if I think it’s appropriate.  Some psalms are clearly gloomy and have to be in a minor key, like the Good Friday psalm; some are pure celebration, and minor is clearly not appropriate.  If there is talk of kings, I find myself using Handel-type melodies and thinking brass.  Sometimes I’ll actually quote something relevant (We plough the fields and scatter for the Sunday where we have the parable of the Sower, Luther’s Ein feste Burg when that psalm comes up,  Sheep may safely graze for Good Shepherd Sunday, and so on), anything to help grasp and memory. 

working out a tune for Good Shepherd Sunday
Psalms for daily Masses

The Sunday cycle does not cover all the psalms by any means. Some are omitted altogether (and I need to write something about that one day); others are used at different points in the liturgy, as part of the Divine Office or for weekday Masses.  While our churches were in lockdown, church musicians were often not able to play their part. But some churches did their best to include some music in their digital Masses, some even at the daily Mass, which was most impressive.  I was delighted when we had some requests for settings of psalms for daily Masses, ones I hadn’t done before,  and we have added them to the website so that anyone can use them.

a new psalm needs a new tune
Psalm 49/50

One fascinating psalm that I recently came across in this way was Psalm 49/50, which I had not needed to set before.  It is the Responsorial Psalm for July 1st.  I didn’t realise quite how interesting it was, at first, because the Response looks like many others.  I nearly always start with the Response, because you have to be able to engage the congregation straight off.  It mustn’t be too difficult or off-putting in any way; it needs to be graspable immediately; and then it has to lead into and out of the stanzas easily, so (usually) the Response comes first.  This one looks like a standard psalmist’s call to everyone else to praise God.  But the stanzas are all in God’s voice, in the first person, which is always slightly tricky (it happens in the Alleluia verses quite often, and it’s easier when it’s in inverted commas, with ‘God says’,  ‘it is the Lord who speaks’,  or ‘says the Lord’), because it feels like an enormous responsibility to set God’s own words to a tune.  The Response is taken from the last verse, so it is actually God speaking, although it doesn’t look like it.  I will give the full text as it is given in the Lectionary (Australian, on this occasion), because it’s a weekday liturgy, so a bit harder to track down:

Ps 49:7-13. 16-17. R. v.23

(R.) To the upright I will show the saving power of God.

1. ‘Listen, my people, I will speak;/Israel, I will testify against you,/for I am God your God. (R.)

2. ‘I find no fault with your sacrifices,/your offerings are always before me./I do not ask more bullocks from your farms,/nor goats from among your herds. (R.)

3. ‘I own all the beasts of the forest,/beasts in their thousands on my hills./I know all the birds in the sky,/all that moves in the field belongs to me. (R.)

4. ‘Were I hungry, I would not tell you,/for I own the world and all it holds./Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls,/or drink the blood of goats? (R.)

5. ‘How can you recite my commandments /and take my covenant on your lips,/you who despise my law /and throw my words to the winds?’ (R.)

Adam names the beasts
beasts of the forest and other too
The other part of Ps 49/50

The words are simple, repetitive, and, dare I say, almost humorous.  This is the God from the later part of the Book of Job, who arrives ‘clothed in majesty and glory, wrapped in light as in a cloak’ (Ps 103/104), to answer the questions of this tiny little man who has called him to account.  Interestingly,  there is an extended section before the part of the psalm which we sing.  It starts by setting the scene (The Lord has spoken and summoned the earth, […..he] comes, he keeps silence no longer).  He calls everyone before him and starts to speak.  Here are our first four stanzas, in one complete run.   The psalm divides at verse 16,  with what amounts to a stage direction: ‘But God says to the wicked’, and our last stanza is the next verse after the stage direction, which does sound almost as though it’s out of a different text.  Then the Response is an adjustment of the last line of the whole psalm, with God oddly referring to himself in the third person.  Psalms (and hymns, for that matter) where we sing as if we were God feel slightly strained, because of the mismatch between us and the Lord, so most people singing the Response will think that they are using David’s words (or some other psalmist’s), rather than taking them as God’s own, and the inverted commas only on the stanzas help to give that impression.

Why God is complaining
making sacrifices

God is not objecting to his people not carrying out their formal worship, he’s upset because they are doing so only formally.  As Hosea explains, God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6.6, quoted by Jesus himself in Matt 9.13, just after that encouraging verse about his coming to call not the righteous but sinners).

Finding the right sort of tune

Setting the Response was fairly easy, because it’s a normal thing for the psalms to say, and the oddity of the speaker’s being God is not apparent or even material; but when I came to the words of the stanzas, they irresistibly pushed towards some sort of folksong tune.  They are simple, direct and repetitive (the bullocks and goats recurring, all the beasts, all the birds).  The tone seemed somehow familiar, and then I worked out why.

all the birds of the air belong to me


Folk song parallels

It’s like a puzzle song (O no, John and that link is to an amazing Red Army version, which sadly leaves out the last verse), or a ballad (Leezie Lindsay, Raggle Taggle Gypsies).  C.S.Lewis described Psalm 49/50 as ‘one of the finest’ psalms, because the standpoint of the human is more humble than usual (Reflections on the Psalms, chapter 2), but in the edited segments we have here, it has a certain humour.   God describes his power and might, he enumerates his possessions, like the hero of these folksongs, and the person listening (usually a woman, in the ballads) is persuaded to go off with him.  The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ story is different, because she’s already run off with the handsome gypsies, and the laird describes all his possessions (the goosefeather bed, the house, the land ,the money, the ‘new-wedded lord’) to no avail.

Keeping cheerful

The parts of the psalm that are not included are graver and more stately in tone, more formal.  Our last stanza is more like this, and the early section of the psalm is even more solemn.  But all the other four stanzas (and five is a lot for a Responsorial Psalm, especially for a weekday Mass) do not have this tone.  The language is simple, lots of short words, and the rhythm is attractively clear.  I wondered about using a modal or minor tune, useful in folk songs with a darker feel (Miller of Dee, Drunken Sailor), but it just didn’t seem to fit with the celebratory declaration (in anyone else you could call it boasting) that God is doing here.  So I decided just to go with it and emphasize the lovely clear rhythms.  It sounds jaunty and positive, confident and serene, so I thought that was not a bad portrayal of the first-person singer/narrator.

But most of all I like it when WE ALL JOIN IN

He who sings prays twice, and my objective is always to get people to sing.  I’m hoping that using a familiar musical idiom will make it easy for people to join in, and you don’t need to know anything about folk songs to find their tunes and rhythms comfortably familiar, as they go back into both our own childhoods and the mists of time.  At the moment we are forbidden to sing in our churches here in the UK, even once we are allowed back into them, which is a terrible shame.  But better times will come, and I hope one day some congregation will be able to join in the chorus for my new folksong psalm.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.