One of the best song lyrics ever

By the rivers of Babylon

The middle of Lent is approaching, exciting because it’s the Pink Sunday in the middle of so much purple, because it’s Mothering Sunday, because it’s the one that starts by encouraging us to rejoice;  and also it has Psalm 136/137 as its responsorial Psalm for this year, Year B.

This has to be one of the best song lyrics ever written.  It’s a good length (four verses);  it’s regular without being repetitive or boring;  it’s poignant, but not simply miserable;  and it’s beautiful.  It’s also elegant, witty and self-reflexive: it is a song written about the impossibility of writing a song. It talks about the impossibility of singing, while singing.

Initial S with illustration for Ps 137
By the rivers of Babylon, hanging harps and tragic captives
The two verses we leave out

There are two more verses, which are usually omitted in performance, as you might say.  The first one is a curse against those who attacked Jerusalem, to pull it down; the second amplifies the curse and warns Babylon that vengeance is coming, climaxing in a truly horrific image of the child of the guilty man being seized and dashed against the rock.  I’m not going to speculate about whether these verses are part of the original psalm, as I don’t have the linguistic tools or the expertise.  I would just say that this was written in a time very different and remote from our own, in a culture where cursing your enemies and seeking violent vengeance was accepted, expected and even virtuous.  Jesus showed a different way, for which we are deeply grateful.  But you can’t edit bits out of a historic text just because you don’t like them.  However, you can choose which bits to use in the liturgy, so it’s fair enough to stop after the four verses we have for Sunday.

Unusual shape for a psalm

The form is really unusual.  It has  five short lines to each verse, and the UK Response has such a strong ternary movement that it is written as three lines in the Missal (I think this is unique among the psalms).  The Response has an exclamation mark, which is again unusual, but intended to show strong feeling (which, as the words are a self-curse, is also arresting).  The line of the verses looks short, but in fact it rolls on like a great wave, with the parallelism  (‘our captors, for songs; our oppressors, for joy’) that is so strong a feature of the psalms here deepening the feeling and accumulating it until the wave breaks into the response.  It reminds me of the movement of the lines in ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’ when you suddenly realise that each seven-line stanza is only one sentence (a wonderful piece of hymn translation).

It’s a perfect lyric because it is attractive in both shape and content, and you can see immediately why so many people have wanted to set it to music.  Presumably some are attracted more by the form than the matter, and vice versa, but the whole is irresistible to musicians.  From Palestrina to Don Maclean, from Victoria to Boney M, it calls out to be set to a good tune, and the tune we make never fulfils all our aspirations, so we have to keep trying.

Singing a sad song

Unlike many psalms, though, it is only rarely used in the liturgy (this is its one outing as a Sunday psalm, so only once every three years).  I think this is because it is painful to sing.  It is a lament.  Crucially, it is in the past tense, so we are looking back at past rather than undergoing present suffering, and I think this is because it would be unbearable if it were in the present tense.  As well as a lament, it is a prayer for survival.  We are reminded of the Jewish orchestra in Terezin concentration camp.  Singing the Lord’s songs in a strange land has been a part of the Jewish experience for centuries.  As it says in the Book of Tobit,’I give him thanks in the land of my captivity'(ch 13).  The paradox of making a song to renounce music is itself comforting.  If we were not able to look back at the experience from a better place, we would not be able to address it at all.

Setting the scene : water and trees

The words are immediately gripping, and we identify with them so simply that it’s easy to miss how clever they are.  ‘By the (rivers or waters) of Babylon/there we sat and wept, remembering Zion’, and we are immediately there in the story, remembering, or imagining, if we are lucky,  how it feels to be desolate.  The waters of Babylon remind the psalmist of the beloved and blessed river Jordan, but the setting is also somewhere which should be a place of pleasant repose: ‘near restful waters he leads me to revive my drooping spirit’ (Psalm 22/23) and every locus amoenus has a water feature.  River banks are green and pleasant places.

Narcissus by a piscina
Water, trees, and greenery : must be a locus amoenus

Here are also trees, and it was only when I came to think about this that I realised that I think of them as weeping (of course) willows, because that’s what I associate with rivers.  These are poplars, because that’s what grows in the Holy Land, but apparently ones that look like willows, according to the Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible.  Job has willows by the stream (40, v.22) which are also translated as poplars.  It seems that foreign tree names are as tricky to translate as exact species of fish.  The US translation has aspens. When I was little, reading Anne of Green Gables in an English edition, one of the later volumes was called Anne of Windy Willows.  I felt cheated to discover it was Anne of Windy Poplars in the US and Canada, but I reckon this is another case of the same overlap.

Willows on the riverbank
Willows (or poplars, or aspens) by the water

The trees are where the harps are hung….and left behind.  This is a total renunciation of music, and goes with the awful self-curses which make up the Response.  Remember, this is in a culture where every joyful event, every victory, is marked by singing a new song.  Here though, my tongue should cleave (CAN cling) to my mouth, I should be unable ever to sing or even speak, and my right hand, the one I use to play, should wither and be of no further use.  I shall not need my harp, so I hang it on a tree (I don’t destroy it, because others might be able to use it) and I leave it behind.  Rivers mark borders as well as resting places.

Musical instruments hung on a tree
Hanging up all sorts of instruments
Not silence but silenced

The idea of silencing people is a terrifyingly powerful act.  That is why the protests where people sew up their mouths are especially horrific.  Even a taped mouth produces a visceral fear in the onlooker.  It seems even worse than gagging, because it obliterates the means of communication (remember that bit in The Matrix, where Neo’s mouth is removed).  Taking away someone’s voice is a sign of complete hostile power (the legend of Philomela, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the Church’s attitude to female voices singing or speaking until very lately).  This is why speech therapists are so important, and why what they do has so much impact.

What had happened before the psalm was written

The link between the First Reading and the chosen psalm this week is particularly clear.  The first reading tells the history of the destruction of the Temple and the whole of Jerusalem, with Nebuchadnezzar carrying the survivors off to Babylon and into captivity,  but ends on a note of hope as Cyrus, in a voice like a bugle, says that God has ordered the building of a new Temple in Jerusalem.  He continues,’Whoever there is among you of all his people, may his God be with him!  Let him go up.’  This would truly be a situation full of joy,  and therefore, naturally,  songs of joy. ‘I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy.  My redeemer, I will thank you on the harp, O God, my God’ (Ps 42/43).

Jerusalem the other character in the story

Zion or Jerusalem is lovingly named in every verse, in the context of remembering, not forgetting, or singing.  The song itself does what it is talking about not being able to do, and the tenses move from a simple dreadful past (sat and wept, hung up our harps) to a past conditional (how could we sing) and then pivots towards the future: ‘if I forget…if I prize not Jerusalem’.  The psalmist moves from renunciation to a determination to keep the song going, and prays only for the physical capacity to do so, for the memory to stay green.  Like Henley’s Invictus, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who specifically rejects ‘eternal silence’, this perfect lyric is a testimony to the unquenchable human spirit, so it never goes out of fashion.  From the ashes of desolation arises a strong determination never to give up, never to stop singing.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

What makes a good psalm Response?

All shapes and sizes

We’ve just had a couple of brief psalm Responses, ‘Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will’ and ‘Teach me your ways, O Lord’, and there’s a longer one coming up for Sunday: ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’, or for the Canadians; ‘O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!’ Even so tiny a sample shows how much the Response set for the congregation on a Sunday can vary.

A quick study

Sometimes it’s difficult to get the congregation just to remember the Response for the duration of the psalm. Length is a significant factor.  Rhythm is very helpful, but not always on offer, especially if the Response has been imported from some different bit of the Bible (eg a bit out of one of St Paul’s Epistles as the Response to a psalm).   A tune really helps, especially if it has a certain predictability, but it’s difficult to be predictable without being boring.  This is a tune that the congregation hears once and then has to repeat three or four times, while the cantor sings something different, sometimes to the same words. It almost sounds like another fiendish parlour game from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. 

Learning the Response

In some parishes, everyone has a printed copy of the words of the psalm; in many they don’t.

Potsherd with mass text
This is the earliest known Mass sheet fragment : on a piece of pot

Some people won’t pick up a sheet at the back of the church on principle; not everyone can read quickly.  If you’ve ever tried to sing along in a language (or alphabet) not your own, you will be aware of how hard it can be to keep up with the unfamiliar.  The congregation has to pick up the words as well as the tune.  Our current congregation, like many others, includes many people for whom English is not their first language, so I speak the words first, and then sing them.  With a very long Response, you already see the congregation begin to flounder at this point, but keep trying, and be very clear.  Some churches allow you to run through the Response before Mass, and this can help, but it disturbs those who are trying to pray before Mass starts, and it doesn’t help the many who arrive more or less at the same time as Father processes in.

Alternative Responses

Unfortunately, even if you don’t like the psalm Response, you can’t change it, as it is set in the Lectionary.  Occasionally you are offered a choice between two Responses (All Saints has some of these, so has the Christmas Vigil), and often you can substitute ‘Alleluia’ for the words of the Response.  Since the Alleluia is going to be sung later, the one word response seems to me a bit of a cop-out, unless you are omitting the Alleluia proper.  And it’s not always the most appropriate response either, especially if (part of) the psalm is gloomy.  I don’t set Alleluia on its own as a psalm response, as I think the longer ones work better.

Singers with long score
…but maybe not too long
Getting a good Response

A good psalm Response is not too short or too long.  A single sentence works best.  The very short ones tend to be a bit blink and you miss it, and you aren’t allowed to repeat them to improve the length,  but have to use the words as given.  Getting them across to a congregation in a bigger church can be quite challenging, and short can be as difficult as long.  Don’t rush; be measured and clear.  ‘Arrow’ prayers work better for individuals than in congregations, because there is no time to catch up if you miss the beginning ; this applies to short psalm responses too.  Litanies work for bigger groups because they have a predictable rhythm and a repeated response.  Ditto the Rosary.

Mixed medieval choir, with musicians outside the frame
Mixed group singing with musicians providing the frame

But the Response is different every week, one of the trickiest things for the congregation to handle.  No wonder many people don’t even try to join in.  Try and make it easy for them;  I try to make the music immediately attractive and straightforward, one note per syllable (mostly), a clear rhythm and line, something to latch on to, (nearly always) ending on the tonic (unless I’m after a different effect), and (even more nearly always, but there are exceptions) lifting off from exactly the same point of introduction.

Stress levels

The first thing you have to do with any given Response is work out where the natural stresses are if you are saying it as a spoken text, because this will help your congregation to grasp the Response as a whole.  It sounds obvious, but it can be tricky.  Some words act as stumbling blocks from the start (‘ordinances’ is my favourite example, ‘favourably’ is coming up shortly for the Canadians).

Many Responses start with an unstressed syllable (‘The’ or ‘O’, for example, usually followed by ‘Lord’), which means that you can’t start on the first beat of the bar.  But if you don’t start on the first beat of the bar, then each verse has to be framed to lead into the Response smoothly, while allowing for the fact that the congregation may not have the words or is just hoping that it will all be over soon.

The last syllable of the Response is also very important.  In English, it’s often a short, stressed word (‘joy’, Ps 125/126; ‘want’ Ps 22/23), which is very helpful.  Sometimes it’s an unstressed syllable at the end of a long word like salvation, forever or deliverance, which is usually straightforward; but a single short unstressed word can get lost if you aren’t careful (you can’t give it a bar to itself or it receives too much stress).  ‘The Angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him’ (Ps 33/34): you need the stress on ‘fear’, but you can’t put too much stress on ‘him’.

The importance of small differences

The smallest of changes to the text can have a significant effect on the rhythm.  The psalm coming up for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, has different Responses according to different Lectionaries. ‘I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (US and OZ, but their verse words are different).  ‘You are my refuge, O Lord; you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (UK).  ‘You are my refuge, Lord; with deliverance you surround me’ (CAN).  Simply adding or subtracting an ‘O’ changes the rhythm of the first half to a surprising extent, and although these are all clearly translations of the same thing, I can’t use the same tune for all of them.

This is why many people are keen to intone or use a sort of chant-lite, but unless it is really well done, it won’t help the congregation much, as people usually find rhythm and melody more effective in making the words stick in the mind.  Chant takes a lot of practice and works best in (surprise surprise) a group which does not change, and sings together often (e.g. a monastery). A congregation is a much more varied group, and all of them need to be able to take part.

Medieval school choir with cantor and teacher
Cantor and supporting choir?

I get nervous as soon as I see a psalm setting with no time signature.  It’s difficult to sing without applying one unconsciously, and not everyone will agree. A time signature means there is a supporting structure, like a trellis in a garden, or the rules of form for a sonnet.

Start from the Response…

Sung mnemonics work really well only if the tune fits the spoken rhythm and precisely isn’t too interchangeable (that’s why it’s difficult to learn your times tables to a tune, as too many of the number words have the same number of syllables : twice two could be anything under ten except seven, according to the rhythm).  So once you have a spoken rhythm, you make up a tune that follows it, and you always start with the Response because that stays the same, at least for this Mass.  The verse words are going to be irregular, so I will need to adapt the tune to them (and sometimes it works better than others), but that affects only the cantor, so long as I make sure that the lead-in to the Response is unaffected.

….whatever it is

Many psalms turn up on a different Sunday with a completely different Response.  Sometimes you can just write a new tune for that Response, but sometimes the rhythm of the Response is so definitely either a 3/4 or a 4/4 that you may have to go back to the beginning and start again, as you can’t have a 3/4 Response with a 4/4 psalm, or vice versa. ‘Lord, you are good and forgiving’ is a 3/4 Response; ‘Lord, let us see your kindness…’ is a 4/4.

Occasionally a psalm comes with a repeated Response actually in the text (Pss. 45/46; 66/67; 79/80 for example), but that’s not to say that it will be the Response appointed to be sung.  Ps 79/80 turns up three times in the Lectionary, and on one occasion (27 OTA) it is given a Response out of Isaiah 5.  That’s all right, as Isaiah is a beautiful and poetic book with a strong sense of rhythm.

I have far more trouble with the responses gleaned from St Paul’s letters.  He may be a towering genius but he didn’t have the benefit of being translated by Joseph Gelineau and the Grail.  I suspect it’s not just the translation, though;  I’m not sure St Paul had a good sense of rhythm or whether he actually could sing, because when he does quote a song or poem, it stands out so very clearly from his own prose, which could be seen as heading towards a slightly bureaucratic style (I am trying to be diplomatic here).  It’s not fair to blame or reproach him for this; the Epistles weren’t meant to be sung, but read, read out and passed around.  It’s the choice of extracts as lines of singing that I find occasionally difficult to handle.

Choir singing from one book
Long Responses can be hard to remember without checking the score
The point of the Response

In the end, what matters is that people pick up the Response and sing it back to you.  Joining in is the most important thing.  The music should make it easier, not harder.  You can feel the energy with a succesful Response, and you can see the congregation begin to feel stronger and more involved as they join in.  This is why we sing in church: if you sing, you commit.  You need to use your voice, your breath, your diaphragm; you can’t help but get involved.  Setting music to the words is meant to make people want to join in, and make it easier to do so.  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise you’ (Ps 66/67 ).   The italics are mine, but follow the natural stress; and this is why I write tunes for the Response.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

Presents, gifts and Christmas

Arrival of the Kings

The Magi have just arrived (with their presents) to see the baby. Matthew’s account of their arrival is careful and circumstantial. It’s a little while on from the actual birth (although we think of the kings as queueing up behind the shepherds,  as that’s what happens in Nativity plays and at our cribs, it’s not exactly what the narrative suggests).

Here they are, queuing patiently, presents at the ready
First in Jerusalem…

The wise men arrive in Jerusalem, seeking information, after Jesus has been born in Bethlehem. All that the wise men know is that there is an infant king, born for the nation whose capital is in Jerusalem, so they go and ask if anyone knows any more about it than they do. They have seen a new and significant star which indicates the baby king’s arrival, but the implication is that the star is taking a pause, because otherwise they would have continued to follow it. Maybe it’s too cloudy; or maybe they are travelling through Jerusalem anyway, replenishing their supplies or something (we know they have come quite some distance), and a big town is a good place to ask for news.

…and on to Bethlehem

Herod’s informants get wind of this and report it to him. He is worried (his position is difficult anyway, because of the Romans), so very sensibly he tries to find out more. (He is the first person officially to worry about this baby being the Messiah.)  First he checks up on the prophecies. then he summons the Magi ‘privately’, to avoid any fuss being made, elicits as much information as he can from them, and sends them on to Bethlehem, as being their probable destination. He even encourages them to come back and tell him all about it, a charm offensive which they luckily do not fall for.

the angel warning the Magi not to go back and tell Herod anything

They set off from Jerusalem, and you can feel the lift of their hearts as Matthew says,’And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising’, which leads them directly to where they want to be, ‘right over the place where Jesus lay’, as the carol says .

Presents for a new baby

They are filled with joy and delight, they greet the little family, they fall to their knees and pay homage to the child. And only after this do they produce the presents, even though crib figures mean that we all grow up with the idea of them solemnly processing with their gifts clasped in front of them.

the star marking the spot, and presents for the baby king

This is a very encouraging moment, because they burrow in their saddlebags and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are gifts of wealth, honour, and luxury. Although Jesus has been born in a barn with no facilities or any arrangements for his arrival apart from what Mary and Joseph have managed to bring with them, these are not gifts to relieve abject poverty.  The Magi don’t hand over anything like a robe to be used as a blanket, for example.   They don’t offer food.  The gold is ceremonial, not part of a whipround.  ‘Opening their treasuries’,  they give things appropriate to another person of wealth and status, so I think we can assume that the Holy Family has managed to make itself comfortable and is not in dire need.  That’s a relief.

Everyone likes giving presents

Giving presents is a deep human instinct, and a very endearing one.  Everyone loves to give presents, and most of us are better at giving them than receiving them graciously (certainly I am).  We seize any occasion to give presents : a new house, a new job, birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, saints’ days,  anniversaries, or just for love (the ‘unbirthday’ present).   New babies are a wonderful opportunity to give a gift, which nearly everyone takes advantage of.

Presents from the shepherds

I am sure that the shepherds would have brought something with them when they came to see the baby which the Angel had announced to them.   At that stage, Mary and Joseph were on their uppers and the baby was lying in the animals’ feeding trough.  So I think they would have given gifts of comfort and necessity : a fleece, maybe even some milk and cheese for Mary, perhaps a bundle of firewood or something.  That’s like the collections that we have for refugees nowadays.  You wouldn’t give them perfume and spices, you provide for urgent need : clothes, shoes, blankets. (The shepherds also seem to have brought their instruments, so presumably they play the baby a lullaby.  Shepherds are famous musicians, as we have seen before.)

I never travel without my bagpipes
giving what you can
Worth and value

Everybody loves to give.  Children present you with pictures just as soon as they learn to hold a pencil.  If you go for a walk, they give you conkers or acorns.  If you are by the sea, it’s shells or an attractive pebble.  Surely this is part of the point of a kiss.  It is something you give.  People may kiss you against your will (especially in families at Christmas or New Year, for example), but a kiss is only worthwhile if it is given.  It is a gift with no actual substance other than the act of giving.  Gifts don’t need to be worth anything.  Gifts that are worth nothing can be valued more than any other possession, because of the giver or the occasion.  A gift is valid all by itself.  The Magi’s gifts were probably less immediately useful than the shepherds’, however much they were worth, but everyone has to give what he can, like the Christina Rossetti poem In the bleak midwinter.

The Magi’s gifts in the Psalms

There is no textual evidence for the shepherds’gifts, however likely they seem to be, however many pictures of them there are.  Why do we hear about the Wise Men’s presents and not the shepherds?  Because they are mentioned in the psalms. ‘The kings of Tarshish and the sea coasts shall pay him tribute.  The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring him gifts’ (Psalm 71/72).   Matthew is concerned while writing his Gospel to show how all of the birth narrative has been foretold, so whenever there’s a chance to make the point specifically, he does so. Isaiah  in the first reading last Sunday foretells even the gold and the incense (and the camels).  This is all evidence of the divine plan, reassuring for those who know the Jewish prophecies already, as well as for those who start from the figure of Jesus and then look back.

Jesus and presents

Look at Jesus’ attitude to giving.  He doesn’t often have anything material to give, but when he does, he does not just fulfil the need, he is lavish (the wedding at Cana).  He talks about generosity, and tells us that God will not be outdone.  He’s not interested in the value of what we give, but in the giving.  Mark and Luke both tell the story of the poor widow who gives a measly tuppence to the Temple treasury, and of Jesus’ words of respect and commendation.  This is not a parable, it is an event, and the woman is real.  You give what you can, and God supplies the rest.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.

One woman’s voice : the Magnificat

Mary our mother and the Mothers of Israel

The women I concentrated on in my last blog  (Judith, Ruth, Esther, Deborah) are recorded with honour in the Old Testament.  They are regarded  as heroines and holy women, the Mothers of Israel; and they are our mothers in faith too.  Parallels between them and the Mother of Jesus are interesting and not hard to find and show.   But we would look in vain for a similarly extensive prayer from her.

someone’s holding up the words,  so she must be joining in the singing
Women’s voices in the New Testament

In the New Testament, it is even harder to find women’s words than in the Old.  Mary is recorded as saying astonishingly little, although she is present during so much of it.  In Luke she speaks four times, once in John, and we have none of her words in Matthew and Mark, though she sends Jesus a message that she’s arrived  (Mark 3, 31).  So the exchange with Elizabeth (in Luke  1, 39ff)  is very precious, even though it repeats whole lines out of previous songs, psalms and prayers.  Elizabeth’s words are incorporated into the Hail Mary,  and the Magnificat is part of Evening Prayer.  It is by far the longest piece of female speech in the New Testament. And it is brief.

Mary’s Magnificat?

It’s a (relatively rare) joy for me to write music for psalms that even mention women, so I particularly appreciate setting women’s words. And yes, I know that these are words fully in the tradition of the Old Testament, put into Mary’s mouth by the evangelist Luke.  Definitely mediated through a male writer, then, and deliberately reusing the language and tropes of earlier speakers, some of them women;  but tradition has always claimed these words as Mary’s own.  If Luke (according to tradition) painted her, they would have had time to talk; who else would remember these words, if she did not?  —    and in the end, they are all that we have. So I am taking them as women’s words.

A woman’s prayer from below

In the whole text, there is only one word indicating the speaker’s gender : ‘He looks on his servant in her nothingness’  or (different translation) ‘he has regarded his lowly handmaiden‘  (and the US version ‘for he has looked upon his lowly servant’ elides even that).  But what is distinctive about this song is that it written from below throughout.  This is a person without any power or rank speaking, and celebrating God because he is wonderful and does marvellous deeds; and is doing them, for her, now.

Living in the moment

The references to God’s actions are all in the present tense, not the future : this lowly person is totally confident that all this is happening right here, right now.  This is an interesting contrast to the appeals for help in the psalms, which are usually looking forward for relief (O Lord, hasten to my help…..O Lord, do not delay… O Lord make haste to help us , Ps 22/23  but passim really).

The text does not move forwards or back; there is no narrative; there is no sense of time other than the present.  Mary describes what is happening  at this moment to her.  There is one gesture towards the future: ‘Henceforth all ages will call me blessed’, but this is an immediate future which starts now, just as the one reference to the past is ‘the mercy promised to our fathers’, a past which is still continuing into now and for ever.

A world turned upside down

Apart from the absoluteness of the present tense, the other striking thing about the words of the Magnificat is their celebration of the reversal of human order.  Mary starts with a statement of fact: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ and then starts to celebrate the topsy-turvey.  God looks at his servant (Mary) and he is perfectly aware of her status; but guess what, ‘henceforth all ages will call me blessed’.  This is so extreme that it would be embarrassing or foolish if it were not true.  Then Mary refers again to God, because her future standing is not because of her, but because of him.  God is working wonders for her, he is wonderful, and his kindness is for everyone.

And it isn’t just Mary for whom he is turning the world upside down : ‘He […] scatters the proud-hearted […], casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly’.    Again the claim is stupendous : from their thrones, so not just petty important people, but the mighty of the earth, the sort of person Mary would only ever have seen at a distance, or possibly only heard about.  More reversal :’he fills the starving […] sends the rich away empty’.  Here is the option for the poor with a vengeance.  When you think about Mary’s status compared to ‘the rich’, this almost sounds like a joke (and that’s how Bach sets it in his Magnificat, with the music petering out into the hollow left in the bellies of the rich).

Historical context for Mary’s words…

The last verse of the Magnificat is like a doxology, and in it Mary places herself in the line of salvation history and shows that what is happening to her is the fulfilment of God’s promises from the beginning (our fathers) until the end of time (for ever).  To reduce the Magnificat to a neat three verses of Responsorial Psalm, the proud-hearted and the mighty are left out on Sunday, as are the last two lines, but all the rest is there (I said it was short).

…and parallels before and after

As a literary artefact, it is interesting to compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s song  in 1 Samuel 2.  Mary’s song is not special because it is so original; rather, it is important that it is part of a tradition of obedience to God,  of joyful surrender to his will.  It is special because it is the fulfilment of salvation history, not an isolated event.  The other literary artefact it chimes with is the Beatitudes.  Even the order is the same : Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God […] blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied (Luke 6,20ff).

Setting the words

As well as being all one tense, the Magnificat is all one mood, of exultation.  So I tried to keep the music simple but jubilant.  We need to remember what Mary is like at this point.  She is very young.  She is enthusiastic, exuberant, committed and joyful.  She doesn’t know very much about what’s going on yet, but her faith in God is so complete that she is prepared to leave it all to him.  She knows that her situation is unorthodox, to say the least, but that does not concern her, and, thanks to Joseph, it is not allowed to become an issue.  She will treasure every piece of information as it comes along, but she has not yet met Simeon and heard about the sword that will pierce her.  In a different cultural context, I think we might have had something specifically about the baby, but Elizabeth is the only person who mentions that.  She is (much) older,  and her baby is much bigger and moving about (‘leaping for joy’ Luke 1, 44),  a magical stage of pregnancy which Mary hasn’t reached yet.

a special baby each : compare and contrast

Elizabeth would have let Mary feel the baby leaping for joy in her womb, and suddenly Mary’s own pregnancy would have felt real.  With our first baby, until she started to move,  I felt as though she lived inside the ultrasound box at the hospital; only when I felt her move was I sure that she was really there.

I wanted the Response to feel like a natural spill-over of all the excitement in the verses.  I think it does quite effectively in the (new) CAN version.  The Response is tricky, because it starts with an unstressed syllable, but you don’t want to take the congregation by surprise; so that’s why the OZ and UK versions have a tiny introduction, which is rare for me, but seemed to work here. The US one is straightforward.

Hard to find a picture of Mary singing it
…the best I could find

It’s really difficult to find a good image of Mary and the Magnificat.  If you look at the covers for the different musical recordings of it, they show soulful, ethereal females,  actually a bit wishy-washy and almost without exception with their mouth shut;  even sometimes male figures (Christ or the composer).   What they do not show is a woman speaking, chanting or singing aloud in the fulness of joy.   I think this is a pity, as in the Magnificat we have an unafraid female voice just celebrating God’s greatness.  Sing it with joy and conviction.  This is not a silent blonde, with clasped hands, and eyes raised to heaven.  This is a real woman, who is so happy she can’t not sing.  What a wonderful, heartening role model.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.




Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.



Sheep are cute, but why are we ‘sheep’?

The Lord is my shepherd (again)

The twenty-third psalm is up again for next Sunday, another slightly different version. I’ve mentioned before how our idea of the Shepherd is different from Jesus’ (and from any Jewish reading of the psalm, and it was theirs long before it was also ours), but this time I want to look at the sheep.  In the Psalms, God is the shepherd and we are the sheep.

Illumination of sheep and shepherds
orderly sheep for once
Sheep are cute, sheep are beaut

My title is from a children’s song by the Australian musician Don Spencer.  We were given a cassette when the children were little and we were doing a lot of car journeys.  I think the whole family can still sing it word-perfect.  In fact, the real title of the song is Bob the Kelpie, because it’s actually about the sheepdog, and if we’d had YouTube in those days, I’m sure the children would have adored the film, although I find it slightly surreal with the singer lounging in a doorway with his guitar while the hard work of shearing goes on inside the shed.

We call it ‘Sheep are cute sheep are beaut’, not just because it’s the first line, has a catchy tune or because it’s an audacious rhyme (we love those).  Mainly  I think it sticks in the mind  because those aren’t the obvious adjectives anyone would use about sheep.  Lambs are cute and cuddly (in cartoons and at a distance).  I particularly like the way their tails rotate when they feed (babies can only grunt and knead with their fists in similar circumstances).  Adult sheep however are not the most attractive of animals.

Features of adult sheep

There are more human sheep than real mountain sheep in the psalms, by a small margin.  Why are we so often described as sheep?  In the rest of the Old Testament,  it’s the standard image to describe the relationship between God and his people.  Sheep aren’t stupid, by any means; you only have to look at a sheep to see the crafty intelligence in its eyes; but they are wilful and wayward.  They need a shepherd to give them any sort of higher purpose and to make them worthwhile.  They can’t even shed their own skin, as a snake can do.  A neglected sheep just gets woolier and woolier, not good for the sheep or for anyone else.  The parallels are easy to draw!

Music demonstrating sheep qualities

All we like sheep have gone astray is one of the best choruses to sing in the whole Messiah, with all the exciting dodging about; and in He shall feed his flock, the difference between unlimited careering around and the order brought by the shepherd is demonstrated clearly by the music in its peaceful linear progression.  As they say to aspiring film directors, show, don’t tell, and Handel is brilliant at this.

No poems about sheep

There are plenty of poems about horses (e.g. The Arab’s farewell to his steed), dogs (e.g. To Flush, my dog), and even cats (e.g. My cat Jeoffry).  There are poems about lambs (Blake springing immediately to mind), but though there are lots of poems where sheep figure as part of the landscape, I can’t think of any where they star, apart from nursery rhymes (Baa baa black sheep, incidentally the first song to be played on a computer) or joke poems.  Sentiment seems to be the usual driver for animal poems, apart from some rare exceptions, and sheep are not sentimental.  Chesterton could maybe have written one as a companion piece to his donkey poem, but he didn’t as far as I know.

When we talk about people being like sheep in a modern context, it is not usually complimentary.  But I think this is because we are no longer an agricultural society.  If you read about what shepherds or farmers think about sheep, a different picture emerges.  For them, sheep are important and precious, of worth not only monetary.

Sheep virtues

Sheep are patient, tenacious, vegetarian, pacifist and sociable.  They co-operate with each other.  They are so collective that the singular noun is the same as the plural, like fish.  They have some intelligence.  Welsh mountain sheep are bred to learn their own mountain area and do not stray even without walls or fences.  They are defenceless against predators.  They recognise their own shepherd, and they leave the job of fighting to him.  This is one reason why they figure in landscapes : because they demonstrate peace and tranquillity.  If there were a threat, they would all be running away, like the herbivorous dinosaurs in Jurassic Park when a carnivore arrives.

There is a famous and popular picture by Shishkin, entitled Morning in a Pine Forest.  When he painted it, his friend added young bears to it, and it instantly became one of the favourite pictures in the gallery.  The bears give scale and a sort of human touch  (they also make the picture more chocolate-boxy).  My point here is that sheep turn up in so many landscapes for similar reasons, even if they were painted from the beginning rather than added later, and even if they were real sheep that the artist was looking at. Sheep may safely graze and the scene is all set.  And it’s not just pictures.  The Staffordshire potters are using the same shorthand.

Spode Blue Italian dish
I don’t know what the people are doing, but the sheep are safely grazing
Sheep in the mists of time

Animals don’t alter as much and as fast as people do, so I think we can reckon that a flock of sheep in the days of Abel, Jacob, Moses, David and indeed in Jesus’ own time, would have operated in very similar ways.  Even nowadays, the sheep and the people are similar, even if the modern shepherd has access to new technology.

Doodled sheep
This sheep doodle is mediaeval, but could have been drawn yesterday

Sheepdogs vary only by breed around the world, and Welsh collies tend to be gentler than the Georgian shepherd’s dogs, but then the latter might have to cope with wolves and lynxes instead of foxes.  Some shepherds nowadays use quad bikes, but most will still be walking, and the dog is there to save their legs and keep the sheep together.

This gives a shepherd a lot of time to think and plenty of fresh air (I’m sure too much sometimes). He or she is usually working in beautiful surroundings, hills and mountains, because sheep flourish there where the grass is not rich enough for cattle.  (But there’s also a flock of sheep that grazes the perimeter at Heathrow, which I find unexpected but delightful.)  There’s one British Member of Parliament who is a part-time shepherd, and you can see the attraction of the contrast between herding sheep and the House of Commons.  More than one shepherd has been a poet.  And David of course, King and psalm writer and composer, was a shepherd in his youth.

Shepherd piping to his flock; angels in the sky
Playing to a captive audience and the dog joining in

The link between shepherds and music is very strong.  Many shepherd crib figures for Christmas will have a pipe of some kind.  Often they have two they can play at once (I’ve seen this in Georgia and Serbia, and it’s very impressive).

Shepherd playing double pipe, another dancing
the sheep aren’t paying much attention, but the shepherds are making music and dancing too

Sometimes it’s a version of bagpipes. The illustrations of shepherds in manuscripts often show them playing and dancing.  Much more unlikely, but great fun, are the pictures of sheep playing musical instruments, and the psalmist has singing sheep in Ps 99/100.

Sheep playing the bagpipes
What tunes would he be playing?
Jesus does it too

Why does Jesus talk about sheep?   Mostly because of the OT references, but also through observation, I think.  When he spends time alone in the desert, when he walks the mountains with the disciples, when he goes off on his own, he would often have come across flocks of sheep and their shepherds.

He uses sheep in parables because everyone would have known what he was talking about.  It is interesting that one psalm (118/119) contains in close proximity a reference to God’s word as a treasure  (‘I take delight in your promise like one who finds a treasure’) and  an appeal for help ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant’.   In the New Testament, we have the parables of the pearl of great price, the treasure found in a field (Matthew 13) and later of the lost single sheep in the flock of ninety-nine (Mtt 18).

In the Old Testament, the great Shepherd is God.  This would have been Jesus’ understanding of Ps 22/23 too.  So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd’, it is indeed a mindblowing claim  for the Jews who are listening to him. It means that he is leader, protector, defender….and God.  But in case we find this too intimidating, he says, ‘I know my own, and my own know me’.  Sheep don’t worry about, or argue with their shepherd.  They trust him, because they know him.  Sometimes they even run off and get themselves lost; but he will find them again, and bring them home.  It’s a very comforting image.

Shepherds with flock in fold
All are safely gathered in

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.

Love songs and lullabies (and some old films)

Different sorts of psalm

The psalm for Thirtieth Sunday in Year A is a love song; the psalm for Thirtyfirst Sunday Year A is a lullaby. I have been thinking about the similarities, and then I came across a reference by Sally Emerson to lullabies as ‘love songs to babies’, so it’s not just me, and I decided to explore the idea.  All lullabies are love songs, but not all love songs are lullabies.

I’ve said before that the Book of Psalms is a book of infinite riches, so it’s not surprising that we find both love songs and lullabies there. There are lots of different sorts of love songs: bellicose, triumphant, wistful, relieved, celebratory. Most of the Hurrah for God psalms are different sorts of love songs. Lullabies in the Psalms are rarer (mostly male poets, perhaps?).  Psalm 130/131 is perhaps the best example of psalm words clearly needing a lullaby setting, picking up the central image of the sleepy child, but there are others.  And now the Pope too has admitted that he sometimes drops off to sleep while in God’s arms, which I am delighted to hear.  The US version of Psalm 18 for 30 OTA gave me enough room to allow a lullaby setting, whereas the UK/OZ version (Ps 17) seems more wakeful, even fierce, runs the words into longer verses and does not have the restful feel, so I had to handle it differently.  But for 31 OTA, everybody needs a lullaby.

Characteristics of lullabies

So what makes a lullaby a lullaby?  Usually but not always in 3/4 time, sometimes 6/8, they mustn’t go too fast, and it’s clear when you sing them that this is because it gives a rocking movement, either just mentally or to the real baby in your arms. (The surprising thing about the Rocking Carol ‘Little Jesus, sweetly sleep’ (Hajej, nynej) is how jerky it is; it’s in 4/4, and I’m always reminded of small children trying to rock dollies and not quite getting it right! As a children’s carol, that’s probably a useful association.)  But you can get away with 4/4 if you sing it sufficiently fast and smoothly to be beating one in a bar (Sleep baby sleep, Coventry carol).

Some golden oldies

Most classic lullabies are 3/4; Golden slumbers (not the Beatles version, the lovely tune recycled by John Gay in the Beggar’s Opera), Sweet and Low, Brahms’ Cradle song, Feed the birds in Mary Poppins, Hushabye Mountain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It was very difficult to find acceptable versions of these to link to (you should have heard the ones I left out), but there’s vast amounts of stuff on YouTube, although the best lullabies are the ones you sing yourself.  To go back to films, the worst indictment of Mr Brown in Nanny McPhee is not just that he’s stopped reading stories to the children, they aren’t getting lullabies either (even if they are, oddly, pronouncing it loolaby).

Lost lullabies

But of course the ones we know about are only the tip of the iceberg as most lullabies in the world probably aren’t written down.  This tends to be (certainly traditionally has been) women’s words and music, and so, ephemeral and transmitted by oral tradition, rather than by book.  So any generalisations are tentative, but I think the 3/4 rocking movement is a fairly safe one (though having said that, I keep thinking of 4/4s.  Never mind.)

Purpose of lullabies

What are lullabies for?  They are to encourage your beloved child to go to sleep.  So they need to be steady, reassuring, comfortable and soothing; not exciting, not sudden, not musically athletic, not scary (don’t sing ‘I’m going on a bear hunt’ as a lullaby).  Your aim is a gentle boring to sleep.   (It took us a while to work this out, as it’s very engaging to have an awake baby even in the night, but once we had missed enough sleep, we went for boredom rather than entertainment, and it was a breakthrough.)

This is the feel you are aiming at, but it’s one of those musical paradoxes, like writing a tune for Chaos (Hadyn’s Creation), infinite space (Holst’s Planets), heaven and the Beatific Vision (Elgar’s Gerontius, Palestrina Sicut cervus).  You know you can’t do it, but you try.  I’m sure even geniuses as above quailed at the challenge, whereas for a simple tune writer……The music I’m offering is trying to express peace, and moving towards silence and stillness.

Lullaby or sea shanty

This is difficult, especially in a Responsorial Psalm format, with the chorus coming back in again repeatedly.  Lullabies don’t usually have choruses, for obvious reasons, but they do use repetition.  The tune matters, but it can’t be showy or too upbeat; a little bit fey, modal or folky seems to work.  Lullabies are by their nature unaccompanied, so again, not much on the instrument front.  You need to be able to sing them almost under your breath, let them tail away, fade to nothing as the eyelashes close…….but pick up again gently if needed.

Words for lullabies, good and bad

The tune is important, not so much the melody for once but the movement of it; the words are not so important (you have to be able to fade to a hum).  I have the psalm words as a given, so I don’t need to worry about the words, but it’s fun to read traditional lullaby words from different cultures.

So long as the tune is steady, an aggravated parent can let off steam with the words (and if you are really sleep-deprived, and garble or forget them, it doesn’t matter).  Rock a bye baby is a fine traditional example of this, with total catastrophe at the end tied to a serene tune, although there are modern bowdlerised versions.   There’s another one, Go to sleep you little baby, in O Brother, where art thou?   One I like is Icelandic, I think, and the letting off steam line is ‘Sleep, you black-eyed pig.  Fall into a pit full of ghosts.’  Now there’s a singer longing for oblivion and just marking time till she gets there.  Thomas Hood wrote his Serenade for a father in precisely this situation, and it contains the line, ‘The more I sing, the more you wake’,  which is precisely not what we want here.

Setting a lullaby psalm : practical considerations

We can’t have the congregation nodding off during the readings,  so I am not trying for a real lullaby here, just something suggestive of it.  Luckily it’s a clear and understood brand.  I was amazed to discover how many pop songs are based on lullabies, and that is one reason why it was so difficult to find clips for my earlier references.

Psalm 130/131 is short and irregular, with a final half-verse.  I couldn’t go for 3/4 in the UK version because of the rhythm of the Response words, so I was aiming more for a Tallis feel there, a simple metrical psalm with a stepping bass;  and the half-verse fitted smoothly into the second half of the verse tune, so that worked.  The OZ/CAN version had a gentle rock, with a long wait on the note for peace which I deliberately left as simple and calm as possible.  I could streamline the tune around the half-verse using all four lines but more simply, as though it was easing away.  The US version was tricky, because the words are a bit Yoda, except for the Response, which has the same beautiful words as the OZ/CAN version, but a different tune.  This time the half-verse fitted into the first and last lines, so I ended up doing it differently for each group, but each version keeps it clear for the congregation, which is my main concern.

Responsorial psalm as a lullaby

So if you don’t want the congregation to go to sleep, why set the psalm as a lullaby?  Especially for Psalm 130/131, the words are so strongly suggestive that it seems the only sort of tune to write.  Nobody sings you lullabies any more once you get big, but everyone remembers the feeling of being totally safe and close to the person you love most, and being able to let go.  I hope the congregation won’t go to sleep, but I hope they will feel calm, rested and peaceful; like a weaned child on its mother’s breast (or lap, for the US) indeed.  It is hard to think of a more peaceful image of us and God.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. 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.