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.

Lent Gospel Acclamations, a User’s Guide

Putting the Alleluia on hold (for a little while)…..

From this Wednesday, February 14th, you won’t hear the word Alleluia in church for the next six weeks or so. That is because it is the beginning of Lent (although there may also be a few people celebrating February 14th for other reasons), and during Lent all the Alleluias, like the Gloria, are removed from the liturgy.

A beautiful place to keep the Alleluias during Lent
…and giving the job to the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Instead we have the Lent Gospel Acclamation, which has the exact same role. It heralds the Gospel. We sing (or say, but singing’s better) it before the (relevant) Gospel verse, and repeat it afterwards; then, completely focussed and wideawake (because of the injection of new oxygen caused by singing), we listen to the Gospel.  In some parishes, they repeat the Acclamation again after the Gospel, which means the congregation is singing it at least three times.

Lots of options

There are different forms of words for the Lent Gospel Acclamation, and they also differ in each country-group, so we end up with lots of them.  I’m not sure why there is so much variation, as they all replace the simple word ‘Alleluia’, and no-one seems to feel a need to vary that from week to week, but I just work with what I’m given.

Hunting the Bonnacore (mythical beast)
Volmar and I attempting to subdue the Lent Gospel Acclamation

We’ve now been doing this for a few years, and I have to admit that my heart and that of Volmar the Vebmaster both sink when we realise it’s Lent Gospel Acclamation time again.  This is because they are tricksy little things and it’s hard to get a good grip on them.  Somehow they always manage to get in behind you and bite you on the bottom, however hard you try to keep them in order.  This year, for example, I was reasonably sanguine about them after putting a lot of work and organisation in over the last two years.  Ash Wednesday looked all right…..and then my nice neat system fell at the first hurdle as I had to write a third one for Canada for First Sunday of Lent Year B, because the Missal used a different one.

Sheep tightly jammed into sheepfold
How many different Acclamations?
Lots and lots of options

The problem arises because each country-group Missal can choose any of the optional Lent Gospel Acclamations to go with any set Gospel verse, which offers a dizzying number of possibilities.  Most parishes don’t actually want to have a new Acclamation every week as well as the new Gospel verse.  So what I have done is take a default setting for every week, choosing the one that is used most often in the Lectionary, so that you can actually sing the same Acclamation every week if you want to;  and where the Acclamation in the Missal is one of the alternatives, I’ve set that as well (so you can stick with the words exactly as in the Missal if you prefer).  For all the country-groups except  the Canadians, the default setting is the first standard Lent Gospel Acclamation, but for Canada it is the fifth on the list.

Nun reading at lectern
Hooray for women cantors even if they can’t read the Gospel
The problems of labelling

I started out by giving them letters instead of numbers, but that turned out too confusing.  We have numbered them according to the order in the Missal, but it’s still not foolproof as the Sundays of Lent are themselves numbered, and the Years are designated by different letters, so both obvious markers could cause confusion.  I thought about Roman numerals, lower-case letters and different alphabets, but they all have drawbacks.  Various useful typographical marks aren’t accepted as elements in filenames by the computer.  So the form we settled on is that the first number in any name is the marker for the top-and-tail, and later numbers refer to the Sunday of Lent. Thus Lent Gospel Acclamation 1 (US) 1 Lent A, for example.

America, Canada and Australia/New Zealand all use the same set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, but OZ and CAN do not use Nos. 3 and 6 in their Missals.  I thought about renumbering in consequence, but decided against it. The UK and Ireland have their own set.

In addition, the Saints’ days which fall in Lent have to use Lent Gospel Acclamations instead of Alleluias.  Since March is a busy month (St David, St Patrick and St Joseph among others), this is a whole further group.

Further possible complications

Sometimes I have to transpose the Acclamation down a tone, because the Gospel verse would otherwise feel uncomfortable for the Cantor;  I thought about doing a separate list of these as well, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.  Most Acclamations are in G or F, and they are all 4/4;  this is to keep things as modular as possible, so if your congregation particularly likes one Acclamation, it’s easy to reuse it, even if it isn’t the one set in the Missal.  And I can easily transpose anything for you if you e-mail me (singenofbingen@gmail.com).

How does it work in practice?

When we post the music for the appropriate Sunday, this means that every week there is a setting of the Lent Gospel Acclamation with that week’s Gospel verse, and often two, because there is the default setting (usually Lent Gospel Acclamation 1) as well as whatever is written in the Missal.  It’s not as complicated on the ground as it sounds when you try to explain it.   On some Lent Sundays,  we have the same Gospel verse as a different Year, but a different top-and-tail, so it’s possible to end up with three options, but usually it’s only two; and of course, you only need one for any given Mass.   We are trying to keep this simple (I realise it may not sound like that!), and it’s easier in practice than it sounds.

Making them work

Like Alleluias, these are musical miniatures, but they do have a function, and they have to work.  To be succesful, they must be clear, attract attention, encourage participation, stop people being distracted and give the words their full weight.  This is why everyone sings the top-and-tail, even if only the cantor sings the verse.  That’s quite a lot of work for four bars of music.

Teacher reading to class
Paying attention and enjoying it?

The Acclamations need to be a call, but not jubilant like the Alleluia, more of a formal introduction.  The format for both Alleluias and Lent Gospel Acclamations  reminds me of the old advice about speaking to a group : you need to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  It is a deliberate framing device.  Some of the words are trickier than others; I have tried to be ceremonial without being musically pompous.  They don’t need to be slow, just comfortable talking speed for the verse.  Over the course of Lent, the Gospel verses start spare and become slightly more elaborate; I have tried to follow the same development.

Always trying to catch up

As evidence of the tricksiness of the Lent Gospel Acclamation, I have to mention that only this year did I discover that there are even two more available for the US and CAN Lectionaries.  These two don’t get set in the Missal for the Lent Sundays, so I don’t actually need them for this year; but in the interests of completeness, and giving you the full set of options, I will try to set them before next Lent season……and then I will find that there is still more to do, before I have got all the Lent Gospel Acclamations sorted out and musicked.  I wish you a happy, holy and musical Lent.

Mini-dragons attacking people
Lent Gospel Acclamations refusing to lie down

© 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.