The Easter psalm (117/118) : the power of repetition

The last psalm of the evening, the first psalm of Easter

I’ve done other blogs on the Holy Week music and on the Easter weekend specifically, but I want to look at the Easter psalm on its own, because we do in fact sing it again and again.  When we finally make it to Psalm 117/118, at the Easter Vigil, it feels like the moment when Easter finally arrives.   We have had bonfires, processions, vats of holy water, the drama of the light starting so tiny and spreading out from hand to hand to fill the church (and how symbolic is that);  we have gone through a long sequence of readings (longer or shorter depending on what your parish can cope with); we have sung a different psalm after every  reading;  but once we get to Psalm 117/118, the Easter Mass is really under way and can move forward to the Gospel. It is The Easter Psalm, and it’s lucky that it’s so great, because we sing it over and over again at Easter and for the octave (and in Year B, even yet again on the fourth Sunday of Easter).

Christ leaving tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit
Between the shortest and the longest

It never comes back in exactly the same shape, though, and I’m always surprised, looking it up, to find that it isn’t one of the alphabetical or very long psalms. The psalm before it is the tiny Psalm 116/117, shortest of all the psalms, and the one after it (118/119) is the longest of all the psalms, and is, in fact, one of the alphabeticals. In fact, Psalm 117/118 has thirty verses, so it’s middling as far as length goes (but what a lot there is in it!).  I’m sure it’s only coincidental, but it is fun that just as Easter falls between the shortest and the longest day, so the Easter psalm sits between the shortest and the longest psalm.  But that way leads to madness and numerology.

painted Easter eggs
as full, they say, as an egg is of meat

Unlike many psalms, we actually use nearly all of it (just not in one go). Some psalms never get used on a Sunday, some we only use part of because they contain sections which feel inappropriate in the light of the New Testament (curses etc), but this psalm is like an apple, good all the way through.

Several poems strung together : forms..

And its form is interesting as well. It has sections like a litany, parts which are choruses, repetitions, accumulations, long verses, short verses……it’s a most rewarding psalm.  It’s like a sampler of different options; you can (and the Church does) take sections out and use them as free-standing poems, but there is also a long overarching narrative.    Repetition is neatly itself repeated as the recurring trope, not just the standard Psalms parallelism but even within single lines (v 11, v 13).  There are other psalms which use repetition to make a litany (Ps 135, Ps 148), but here there is just enough to enjoy as a litany, and then we move on to something else.

…and content

The form is very rich, but so is the meaning.  It has the whole human salvation story in a nutshell (at this time of year, perhaps we should say eggshell) : the just man attacked and thrown down by his enemies, but protected and raised up by the Lord, whom he will sing to and praise forever.  Also, it’s one of the psalms most easily appropriated to a Christian foreshadowing, helped by the fact that Jesus actually quotes it himself (the corner stone  and subsequent verses, Mtt 21.42,  Mk 12.10,  Lk 20.17).    This psalm quotes or is quoted by so many others (not to mention the references to or from other books of the Bible) that you can hear echoes chiming all the way through : the Lord is at my side, I do not fear; trust the Lord, not princes; the Lord is my strength and my song;  the Lord’s right hand has triumphed; I will enter by the Lord’s own gate;  Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes; the Lord is our light….and so on.  It’s like a compendium.  And for us the echoes go forward (into the New Testament) as well as back, because these are the words that we hear from John the Baptist, from Jesus, from St Paul.  This beloved psalm is quoted repeatedly, and it reverberates like a great bell.

Using it in the Easter liturgy

It starts with the word Alleluia!, one of the hallmarks of Eastertide, and a reminder of Easter for the rest of the year.  The word occurs only twentyfour times in the Old Testament, and only in Psalms, and only in the last third of the book of Psalms (thank you, Internet) : three surprising facts in a row.  So it’s a significant word, and unlike the infuriating ‘Selah’, on which opinions differ, we do actually know what it means (hurrah for God) and that it is a shout of joy.  So the best possible start to a psalm in this position in the Easter liturgy, so good in fact that on the psalm’s first outing, at the Vigil, it forms the Response, all on its own, and we sing it three times.

The Risen Lord with attendant angel musicians (every home should have some), probably singing alleluia
Easter Vigil version : 3 x 4 lines, Rx 3 x Alleluia

Alleluia is usually written with an exclamation mark, as I did above, but note the way that the US and OZ versions of the psalm for the Easter Vigil use full stops instead, and the UK version makes the triple Alleluia a crescendo : ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!’.  The CAN version has three exclamation marks.   The variation of these ways of punctuating it makes us think about the force of the Response.  I like the serious three-full-stops version particularly, because as we haven’t had any Alleluias for six weeks, it is as though we are feeling our way back to it, trying out how it sounds, learning to rejoice.  When I set it, I was trying to emphasize the slight strangeness or dislocation of this, so I’ve gone for a sort of grave barbaric tune rather than just flourishes of trumpets.  Carmina Burana rather than the Hallelujah chorus (and do click on that link, it’s brilliant).

The strophe starts with the first two verses, which works well, as v 1 is the burden for the whole psalm :’Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,/for his love endures for ever’.  It gives the psalm structure, because it is repeated at the end, and the second line is the element which creates the litany section, which immediately follows.  Then the strophes in the Vigil version jump to the lines in the middle which seem to foreshadow Christ most directly:’I shall not die, but live […] the stone rejected by the builders has become the corner stone’.  Three solid four-line strophes, each with the triple Alleluia as the refrain.     ( I need another word for the bits that the cantor sings.  I’m using strophe to avoid confusion with verse, but the only alternative I can think of so far is stanza.  So you can have Italian instead of Greek, but that’s no improvement.  I’ll keep thinking about this.)

Easter Sunday version: same strophes, different Rx

Within hours, we are singing the same psalm again, on Easter Sunday morning.  We have the same three strophes as in the night, but a new Response : ‘This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad’.   This is the verse of the psalm directly after the lines about the corner stone.  It is a long Response, and you don’t want the congregation to have trouble remembering it, you want them to sing with joy and gladness (see Isaiah 12, Easter Vigil Fifth Reading).   It needs a solid tune of its own, but it has to go with the tune for the strophes.  I kept that the same, as I wanted to keep the solid connection between the Vigil and the Day Mass.   The daytime congregation should be fine to cope with a longer Response, especially as they haven’t already been singing at intervals for the last hour or so, as they would have been the night before.

everybody wideawake and joining in the singing
2nd Sunday of Easter version : 3 x 6 lines, different Rx

The next Sunday (Easter Octave, Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday) has the same psalm again.  Only it isn’t.  This time we have three strophes of six lines each, starting with the litany section of the psalm, while the Response is the first verse which starts the litany section (which was the first line of the first strophe of the psalm last Sunday, I hope this is clear).  The middle strophe is a different bit of the psalm which we haven’t had yet, and the third strophe is the ‘corner stone’ four-line verse plus the Response from Easter Sunday.  Actually, that’s only for Year A.  For Year C, the corner stone strophe is the middle one, with another part of the psalm forming the last strophe.  Year B has a different middle strophe, and the corner stone back in as last strophe.  (I feel like the Cat in the Hat at this point : ‘Oh the fun we can have!’  And each country group has slightly different words.)

Putting it to music

You want people to realise it’s the same psalm, but you can’t use the same tune, as the strophes are half as long again.  Eventually I decided to go with the shape of the first strophe and Response, and emphasize the litany element.  (I’m hoping that as the words are the same, the congregation can spot that it’s the same psalm without my labouring it; also, I don’t want them to get bored.)  With a litany, it means writing the strophe to accumulate momentum as it goes along, because if you’re going to repeat a short line three times, it has either to grow or peter out, it can’t stand still.  So I went for waves of triumph getting bigger each time.  This was fun to write, because you increase until it can all tumble back down the notes into the Response.  But it’s also got to work for the subsequent strophes which are not in litany form.

Forever, everlasting and has no end

The UK version  uses ‘has no end’ instead of ‘is everlasting’, and I found it irresistible to echo that in the music of the Response, so it just keeps rolling on to the next line until there aren’t any, when it’s still waiting.

Female charioteer with four in hand
the danger of the music running away with you

When I set the CAN version, a couple of years later, the words were slightly different, so I wrote a new tune altogether, and that was in 3/4, which is really good for accumulating momentum, though you have to be careful not to get faster.  When this psalm comes back yet again in Year B (Fourth Sunday of Easter), the words are from yet other verses of the psalm, but I set it in 3/4 for all the different Lectionaries because the rhythm felt so rollicking.  That time, the Response is the corner stone verse itself.


We bless you from the house of the Lord

This is one of the great encouraging psalms.  This is partly because it shows the singer moving through peril to safety and bliss, not just hoping for help, but having received succour, and finding himself safe at last in the haven where he would be.  The last few lines (see heading for this section) are a message to those of us still on the road; it’s almost as though the Communion of Saints is sending us a postcard of encouragement.  ‘The Lord God is our light’ : the light showing in the windows of the house we are all trying to reach, and how the sight of that light lifts the hearts of those still walking on in the gloom!

Easter candleholder
light shining in the darkness

Its repetition at Eastertide only adds to its force, because that sort of encouragement is extremely cumulative.  It’s not surprising to discover that it is many people’s favourite, Martin Luther for one, William Cowper the poet for another.   Many people have made it their own, using it to pray so often that its words rise spontaneously when it seems appropriate.  Cowper writes touchingly of how this psalm made him brave to cope with bullying as a small boy at school.  He later spent time in an asylum following severe depression, and frames his account of his recovery in the words of this psalm (vv 17, 18 and 29).  Elizabeth I  quoted v 23 when she heard that her sister had died and she herself had become Queen.  This spontaneous quoting of it is exactly what Jesus is doing when he makes the lines about the corner stone his own, and it shows how familiar and dear to him the psalm must have been.   As before, this makes us realise again that the Psalter isn’t just our best prayer book.  It was his as well.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.

The Gentle Guide to my Holy Week music

The hill of the skull, a mountain to climb?
Icon crucifixion
The central, not final, event

Holy Week is a daunting prospect for church musicians. There is so much to do, so many different services, several extra musicians if you’re lucky, because it’s the holidays, and a bad time of the year for coughs and colds.  It’s like Christmas but on a much bigger scale, and it’s not remotely cosy and cuddly, but elemental and dark. This is not an attempt to tell anyone how to do it; I just thought I would walk you through the options in my musical settings, and hope that someone finds it helpful.

I find it helpful to think of it as a walk, because you only have to take one step at a time.  Don’t worry about the Vigil while you’re doing Maundy Thursday; don’t worry about Isaiah while you’re responding to Genesis.  We’re all travelling together, and the Church has laid out the path clearly over the last two thousand years.  We just have to walk along it, one step at a time, and we’ll get there.

Maundy Thursday

We have already had Palm Sunday (hosanna), so the next liturgical event is the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday, which most parishes don’t need to worry about, as it is for the assembled clergy of a diocese and happens in cathedrals. Here you would have much more in the way of musical resources than most parishes have, so I imagine most people will go for big four-part settings.  But I have set the Chrism psalm (88/89) just in case anyone wants a simpler setting.  It is the same psalm as for the feast of St Joseph last week, which feels appropriate, but with a different response. Instead of ‘the son of David will live forever’ to emphasize Jesus’ parentage through Joseph (slightly odd, because Joseph is not part of the direct line, but never mind), we have ‘Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord’, which is a wonderfully encouraging note to strike before we go down into the valley of the shadow.

The Sacred Triduum (the holy three days) only starts after the Chrism Mass, with the evening Mass on Maundy Thursday. We call this ‘the Mass of the Lord’s Supper’, but I was delighted to hear a non-native English speaker refer to it as ‘the Mass of the Holy Dinner’, because that is exactly what we mean, only we are so used to ‘the Last Supper’ as a phrase that we don’t think about its original meaning.

Last Supper, Cranach the Elder
Holy Dinner at a round table

This is a long, complicated and very beautiful service.  With the first reading we have the original Passover story, because this is the reason why Jesus is holding a formal dinner with his friends.  The psalm (115/116) neatly picks up this reference (responding to God’s goodness, celebrating formally with the cup of salvation), and carries us across to the story of the Messiah, connecting him to the sacrificed lamb of the Passover, ‘precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his faithful [..] I am your servant, the son of your handmaid’, and then moves brilliantly to the Eucharistic Sacrifice by using Paul’s line in 1 Corinthians 10 ‘our blessing cup is a communion with the blood of Christ’ as the Response.  Thus we have the whole circle, and I could draw a lovely diagram if I knew how to do it with this software.  It is elegant and economical, liturgically speaking, and a three-verse psalm has done the whole job.  It’s quite a long Response, and it’s not out of the psalm itself, and I know I fulminate against both those things occasionally, but here is an example where it works superbly well.

Then we have the Gospel, the footwashing, Communion and the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament.  There are ancient and modern hymns and anthems for these parts of the liturgy (Pange lingua, Wash me throughly, Ubi caritas etc) but no more psalms till the next day.

Good Friday

An unexpectedly serene and confident psalm (30/31) for Good Friday, when we have a Liturgy of the Word and Communion and other parts of a special service (the Adoration of the Cross, the Reproaches), but no Mass.  But this psalm does have a dreadful middle section, and the two moods within the psalm are so different that I had to write it as two tunes, as I was saying in my last post.  The US and CAN versions have four verses, with v2 as the terrible part; UK and OZ divide that verse into two, so there are five verses overall.  This means that I can start on a positive note, dip into the middle verse(s), and come out again for the last part, so the two tunes seem to work with the congregation, especially as the Response stays the same.

Trying to get this psalm onto fewer pages is really difficult, and I couldn’t improve on 4 pp for CAN.  But you do only need 2 pp at once; once you’ve finished p2, ditch those sheets and use the second pair, as I have put the Response on again at the end.  By careful squeezing I got everyone else’s version on to 3 pp.  Although it’s Good Friday, this is actually an easier psalm to sing than Palm Sunday (and you’re already the other side of that one):  the psalmist is so confident and serene that he even has time to think of others in the last verse, and encourage them to be brave (which is of course exactly what the Lord does in Luke’s Gospel, ch 23 : ‘This day you shall be with me in paradise’).

Saturday night, the Vigil

And on to the Easter Vigil.  Lots of music, lots of choices, some of the best words in the whole year.  Many parishes do shortened versions (understandably), but I’ve tried to pace and pitch the music so that it’s not too much to manage.  You will not be hoarse at the end even if you have to cant all the psalms, as I’ve used the instruments to bring in the colour of high notes where I wanted them.   I’ll just go through and make a couple of comments on each.

First Reading psalms : either 103/104 or 32/33

This is a real choice, as both psalms include beautiful nature poetry, as you would expect after the reading of the Creation.  I’d probably choose 32/33 myself, because I like the swing of it.  That one has twinkling stars, the other one has twittering birds, so you choose.  I do like the stars being made by God’s breath in the earlier psalm.  I was once waiting for a tram, under a streetlight in Prague, with the temperature at minus 25 degrees, and if you puffed out a breath all the moisture in it instantly froze and reflected the light as separate sparkles.  I created stars with my breath, and it was wonderful.  CAN and UK please note that the final flourish on the recorders is only printed in the extended version as I couldn’t fit it into the compact.

Second Reading psalm 15/16

This follows the reading on the nearly-sacrifice of Isaac, which is a difficult one to respond to (I know it’s about representation and archetypes, but I still respond to it as a parent rather than anything else).  The US words are a bit unwieldy, but all the other country versions are a lullaby, because of the confidence in the words.

Third Reading, Exodus

These are glorious words, but hopelessly irregular (the words were outsourced to prophets rather than psalmists).  I cannot find any way that works to telescope the pages, so you will need someone to turn over for the person on the piano/organ/keyboard, even with the piano copy.  This one was great fun to set and to sing.  It is exciting, and a wonderful story, so make sure the words are clear.

Pharoah's horses in the Red Sea
The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea

Fourth Reading psalm 29/30

Another joyful psalm.  Emphasize the contrast words, because that is what drives the movement (night/day, mourning/dancing, anger/ favour, moment/life, tears/joy, life/grave).  The US version has two instruments, because we were lucky enough to have them available when I was writing it.

Fifth Reading, Isaiah

This is a fun psalm in all the versions even if they get their water of salvation differently.  UK and CAN have to pump from wells (so the music does), the US has springs (so the music bubbles up and runs over), and OZ confusingly has both, so I just concentrated on making it watery.  This time I managed to get the final flourish even into the compact format (not US).

Peaceful holy well
Holy well where you would need a bucket

Sixth Reading psalm 18/19

This nearly came badly off the rails, as I mixed up my everlasting with my eternal and thought OZ and CAN had the same words, but they are not the same, and luckily I spotted it in time.  We had this psalm in Lent, so there might be a folk memory of the tune in the congregation if you are lucky.

Seventh Reading psalm 41/42 +42/43 or 50/51

Another one where you get an alternative (unless you live in Australasia).  41/42 + 42/43 is a lovely psalm (as well as having the longest label in the book), but it’s also good to be offered the positive verses of Psalm 50/51.  The mood has darkened again slightly with these psalms, away from the ebullient joy of the psalms in the middle section, because we are now coming up to the big moment.  This is the last OT Reading, so we go back to thinking about how much we are longing for the Redeemer and how sad we are at our part in causing his death.  Yearning and patient waiting is the note here.

Easter Vigil Mass psalm 117/118

Now we have arrived at the psalm we are going to use repeatedly  for a couple of weeks, sometimes with a different Response, sometimes with different verses (this is a big psalm).  Here the Response is the ancient triple Alleluia, incantatory and soberly joyful (note the full stops, not commas or exclamation marks).  This is your first proper Alleluia since before Lent began, and you have to warm up into it.  This is why the Easter Vigil is so long.  Enormous joy has to be approached with care.  We kindled a tiny flame at the beginning of the Vigil: now it is a proper bonfire, a feu de joie,  a conflagration of celebration.

and Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath

Easter Sunday Mass psalm 117/118

Same psalm, different Response : now we can do more than just stutter our Alleluia, we have a story to tell and we can frame it in words.  We can rejoice ourselves, and we can call others to come and rejoice with us.

So much emotion, so much music.  It’s not surprising we feel exhausted by the end, but it’s positive exhaustion which will keep on giving.  It has been a long walk up the hill, but the view from the top is sublime.  Well done all choirs, church musicians and especially music directors, who have to remember to congratulate and thank everyone else but might not get thanked themselves.  I am extremely grateful to you, especially of course if you have used any of my music!  Happy Easter, alleluia, alleluia.

He hath op’d the heavenly door/And man is blest for evermore

© 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.