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.


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Mood music : setting the tone for Psalm 68/69

One psalm, two (very different) tunes

There’s a psalm coming up this week for Twelfth Sunday Ordinary Time A, where the translation of the words has meant that I’ve set the US and the other versions completely differently. It is Psalm 68/69, which begins ‘Save me O God, for the waters have risen to my neck’, although this unforgettable verse is not part of Sunday’s psalm.  It is too long a psalm to use in its entirety,  so a selection has been made of which verses to include.  All the Anglophone lectionaries use the same verses for this Sunday, but because of the different translations, the mood of the psalm feels quite different,  so it has two contrasting tunes.

Sea monster in waves
Darkness, billows and monsters
Verses, stanzas and Responses

As usually happens, the psalm stanzas are the same (or nearly) between the UK, Canada and Australasia, although their lectionaries vary in their choice of response.  The US often shares a response with Canada, though not always, and sometimes with Australasia as well.  But its stanzas are always different, though it rarely makes as big a change in mood as it does here.  For the Response, the US and Australasia have ‘Lord, in your great love, answer me’; Canada has ‘Lord, in your steadfast love, answer me’, and the UK Grail version is ‘In your great love, answer me, O God’.  Both of the last two seemed to be to be slightly more relaxed (and ‘steadfast love’ is a favourite collocation for the Canadian lectionary), but because of the stanzas, I ended up setting the OZ Response as a cheerful and confident appeal, and the US one as more fearful and desperate.

Where the mood comes from

Psalm 68/69 is quite a long psalm (37 verses), and runs through several different emotions.  It feels to me as though the US version is mirroring the mood of the first half or so of the psalm, and the other translation is more simply focused on the actual verses chosen for use as the Responsorial Psalm. These are only a small part of the whole, chosen mostly from the last verses of the psalm, when the terror and agony of the first situation has resolved because God has rescued the psalmist. Of course both translations are of the same parts of the psalm; but the emphasis, the overall mood, seems to be different.

Psalm 68/69

Let’s look at the whole psalm first.  It starts with the psalmist up to his neck in water, sinking into the mud, unable to find a foothold.  The waves are beginning to crash over his head.  He is desperate.  This image is like a recurring dream in the Book of Psalms, and I talked about it when I was discussing  water and water images.  This is definitely the waves of death rather than the water of life.  The protagonist goes on to explain that he is in this plight because of his enemies, who unjustly accuse him, and God is absent and not helping, although the singer has not yet given up hope of divine intervention.

drowning people underwater
the perils of the deep, even worse upside down… and where is the other leg?
Explanation or looming disaster?

With impressive aplomb he neatly pivots and hands to God the risk of the divine reputation being damaged because he has not rescued the one who calls to him.  This is where the first stanza of our Responsorial Psalm comes from : ‘It is for you that I suffer taunts, /that shame covers my face’ in the UK and others’ version; ‘For your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face’ for the US.  He goes on to describe himself as ‘a stranger to my brothers,/ an alien to my own mother’s sons’ (UK+) or ‘an outcast to my brothers, a stranger to my children’ (US), where we can see already how the strong language darkens the US version compared to the mood of the UK+ one.  The stanza ends ‘I burn with zeal for your house / and taunts against you fall on me’ (UK+) or ‘Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me’ (US).  Burning with zeal can be a positive thing, but being consumed by zeal could easily tip over into fanaticism; and ‘taunts’ are easier to deal with than insults and blasphemy.  Interestingly, all these words meaning ‘insults’ are translated in the King James Bible and the Authorised Version as ‘reproaches’, which links immediately to the Passion narrative, but sounds sad rather than violent and dangerous.

The bits we don’t sing

I found that the mood of this stanza and the Response dictated two different treatments for this psalm, even though after this the stanzas are more positive and talk about the Lord coming to the rescue.  The stanzas in the middle section of the psalm as written, again a part that we don’t use on Sunday, are a problem for many.   Our hero reminds God how cruel his enemies have been to him, and calls on him to avenge him and repay pain for pain, culminating in ‘Blot them out from the book of the living’ (v.29),  another terrifying image.  The psalmist offers various suggestions as to ways in which God might make his enemies suffer : blindness, palsy, traps, desolation and so on.  He is at least planning for it to be God’s vengeance rather than plotting to do evil to them himself, but I’m clutching at straws here.

Imprecatory or cursing psalms

So Psalm 68/69 is one of the embarrassing psalms that has curses in it. These imprecatory psalms worry many people.  We know they were written long, long ago, in a different society with different rules and values.  They are pre-Christian, and we are meant to be followers of Christ, so maybe we should omit any mention of these difficult bits of the Bible (people say hopefully). 

The Bible is not politically correct

The trouble is that there are a lot of difficult bits of the Bible, from the massacre of unaware people on a regular basis as God gives their land to his favoured ones, to the cruel games played by people like Jacob and Joseph, to the appalling way that women are regarded as collateral to be handed over to preserve a man’s safety (Abraham twice, his own wife; the daughters of Lot, and I could go on, I haven’t even moved out of Genesis yet).  We can’t pretend that these bits of the Bible aren’t there, but we are glad that Jesus felt free to say,’You have heard….but I say to you’ (Mtt 5.17ff), so as to give us a clearer idea of God’s preferences (loving our neighbour instead of cursing him or killing his children).

Foreshadowing and fulfilling prophecies
Crucifixion scene on a living tree
They gave him vinegar to drink mixed with gall

However, this particular psalm is quoted in the New Testament (even the nasty part seemingly approvingly by St Paul in Romans 11.9),  and lines of it are particularly familiar in a Christian context, though it’s easy not to notice them in our translations (both UK+ and US).  In the King James and the Revised, the references are easier to spot.  Vv20f is ‘Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness : I looked for some to take pity..’, which is one of the movements in Handel’s Messiah (which does indeed break your heart).   The ‘zeal for your house’ reminds us of Jesus in the Temple;  and v21 of this psalm says ‘in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’, which is again quoted in the Gospels (Mtt 27.34, John 19.28).  The Messianic echoes and implications are the main reason why we are comfortable with using (parts of) this psalm.  But if you want to sing it to a cheerful and confident tune, you need the UK+ version rather than the US one.

What is that in the water?

I said the later part of the psalm is more positive, and so it is; it talks about praising God with a song (always a good idea), and reflects on God’s kindness and care for those who need him.  There’s one more verse, however, where the different translations again give a very different impression.  ‘Let the heavens and the earth give him praise, / the sea and all its living creatures’ (v35) in the UK+ translation sounds like one of the cheerful lists that we find in many of the Creation and praise psalms, especially towards the end of the Psalter.  But I find the mood of the US version seems darker : ‘ Let the heavens and the earth praise him, the seas and whatever moves in them!’  There is the would-be cheerful exclamation mark, but what that line suggests for me is the monsters moving in the deep, Leviathan, sharks and Moby-Dick, so I felt entirely justified in keeping to a minor key.  This isn’t fish swimming in the waters, it’s something mysterious, and ‘moving’, which makes me feel wary.  God may play with the water monsters (Ps  103/104.26), but the rest of us are more likely to give them a wide berth, admiring but not getting too close.  Same psalm, two moods, two tunes.

so gentle when you get to know him

© 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.


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