A name of power : who was Melchisedek?

A mysterious figure

In the psalm (109/110)  for Corpus Christi Year C, there is a reference to Melchisedek.  This is one of only two references to him in the Old Testament. Here are the words in Genesis 14 :

‘And Melchisedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine;  he was priest of the Most High God.  Then he blessed him [Abram, who’s just returned from winning a major battle and freeing Lot from captivity] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth; and praised be the Most High God, who has handed your oppressors over to you!’  And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.’

And that is absolutely all the information we have about Melchisedek in the Old Testament, apart from the reference in Psalm 109/110 :’You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’ or ‘…in the line of Melchisedek.’  Different translations of Genesis are not sure who gave the tithe to whom, and the words can vary slightly (I took the translation above out of the Jehovah’s Witness version, because I thought it was probably the most literal).  You can see how early a part of the salvation story this is by the fact that Abram is still missing the extra syllable God will give him later.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181
Full of significance
Here he is in nineteenth-century stained glass

I’m not qualified to discuss all the later meanings added on to the figure of Melchisedek.  There are old Jewish traditions about him, he’s mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, he’s mentioned by some of the Gnostics, St Paul considers him a central figure in explaining how Jesus did not need to be related to Aaron or Levi and yet is the Great High Priest  (this is all in the Epistle to the Hebrews, because it’s an interesting Jewish theological question), and what that means, is that this psalm is quoted in the New Testament more often than any other, all on this Melchisedek point.

Names in poetry and songs

But having read the account from Genesis, you now have as much information as the psalmist of this particular psalm, who we think might well have been David.  I want to discuss the power of proper names in poems and songs, and specifically the difficulty of setting them to music.  Proper names are awkward because they are too specific and often not euphonious.  It works if the name is of someone with mythical or enhanced status (Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour…),  but it’s difficult to avoid bathos where it’s just someone less important.   Wordsworth wrote several poems which start with the name of the person he’s addressing, like the ‘Milton’ poem, but it doesn’t really work attached to a name that means nothing to the reader.    Try it yourself, with the names of people you know, and it’s hard to repress a snigger.  This is the whole basis of the joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Generic goddesses or proper names

The Greeks, the Romans and European poets up to the eighteenth century handle this by using nymph or goddess names for their (real) sweethearts, but a specific reference name is much harder to deal with.   So we have ‘Jenny kiss’d me when we met’  interestingly described as a ‘Rondeau’ (musical dance form as well as a type of poem),  Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone,  which is a madrigal;   but it’s hard to deal with a name and surname, unless a comic effect is desired (‘Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins’).  Of course there are exceptions (Barbara FrietchieBarbara AllenEleanor Rigby ), but on the whole, it’s easier to deal with people famous enough to have one-word names (Napoleon (Shelley), Shakespeare  (Ben Jonson).  Whitman avoids Lincoln’s name in his poem, just addressing him as ‘O Captain! my Captain!’.

Names with exotic sounds

But there’s one group of names, often but not always single words, which are in the text because of their sound and sometimes their overtones.  They are characterised by an incantatory quality, often marked by exotic strangeness.  They can be geographical, historical, romantic; they can be totally normal in one context but like magic or hilarious words in a child’s ear.   Lear’s  The Akond of Swat  is one of the first that a young reader comes across and a good example (and there’s another poem about the same gentleman by George Lanigan, less well-known, same idea, quite different, extremely funny).    It doesn’t even have to be poetry : Kipling’s great grey-green greasy Limpopo has created magic for children even in prose.

There’s a poem by W.J. Turner called Romance, which describes this perfectly, where the force of the poem lies in the magic exotic names of the places (cf. Marlowe’s Persepolis or Ilium).  I came across this poem as a child; I still don’t know anything about those places, and I don’t want or need to; but ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, they had stolen my soul away’ indeed.  John Masefield’s Cargoes is similar, but he uses exotic words as well as names (though sadly I have never yet managed to use the word ‘quinquireme’ casually in a sentence).

Names of power
Beautiful dawn
Clouds of glory from my garden

With names of people, it isn’t pure sound usually, though Tolkien is a master of this, as you would expect (Galadriel, Faramir, Tom Bombadil).  There’s a lot of foreign-naming going on in nineteenth-century poetry, part of the contemporary passion for the exotic. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a good example (Kubla Khan, Xanadu).   Swinburne is another (Aholibah).  The Brownings tried, but don’t seem to me to succeed (just calling Italy ‘Italia’ is not enough, and Garibaldi is unfortunately suggestive in an English pronunciation).   The names to conjure with are mostly those with reverberations, which come as it were trailing clouds of glory, to coin a phrase.

Names of mystery

However some of the most powerful magic comes when there is nothing but a name : look at Shelley’s Ozymandias.   Sometimes it’s a name with just a bit more, which does not illuminate, but adds to the mystery : Hereward the Wake; Herne the Hunter; and even (I would argue, and so would Christopher Robin)  Winnie-the-Pooh. 

Let’s get back to Melchisedek
Melchisedek, name of power and of mystery

Melchisedek is a classic example of an incantatory name, because we have so little other information; and just because there is so little of it, it’s all very significant.  Who is he?  He is described as ‘king and priest of Salem’.  ‘Salem’ could be Jeru-salem, but is also the same word as ‘shalom’, so this person is ‘prince of peace’, to use Isaiah’s formulation.  Being king and priest is highly significant, not just in a Christian or Davidic forerunner context, but because it means you outrank others in both spheres (imagine if Charlemagne had been the Pope as well).  Look at the trouble Henry VIII caused by making himself head of the Church in England, and that was even without invoking the priesthood; and one of the reasons Charles I was so difficult to deal with was because he believed so strongly in the divine right of kings; – but this is to raise the claim to a whole new level.

Melchisedek in landscape
Bringing forth bread and wine almost like a picnic

What does Melchisedek do?  He appears with no context; he brings out (of where?) bread and wine; he blesses Abram (presumably by laying his hands on his head, so Abram has had to bend or even kneel before him); and he praises God by a name which shows that he means The One True God, not anyone local or subordinate; and then he disappears again, to reappear only in Psalm 109/110, which plays absolutely fair in not adding any further information, but using the same incantatory name.

Melchisedek qualifies for a feast day
Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Melchisedek is significant enough to make it into the Roman Liturgical Calendar.  His feast day is August 26th.  For the Eastern Orthodox, it is May 22nd.  For the Armenian Church it’s July 26th, as one of the Holy Forefathers.  I was very excited to discover this, and went hunting for a feast of the Holy Foremothers, but sadly this does not exist, though I did find a feast of Holy Translators, which I trust includes people like Catherine Winkworth.    Melchisedek’s importance for the Church is mainly because of the use St Paul makes of him, as indicating a pre-Levite and pre-Aaronic priesthood,  in which Jesus can be the great High Priest ‘according to the line of Melchisedek’, which I’m not qualified even to discuss.  I am just concerned with the practicality of setting proper names to music.  At least Melchisedek is one where everyone knows how to pronounce it (I always worry about Massah and Meribah, in Psalm 94/95), but it presents problems of its own.

Melchisedek modern icon
Modern icon, with classic attributes again
Setting  Melchisedek to music

Melchisedek is a name, a word of four syllables.  I try to avoid using anything smaller than a quaver, especially for the Response, so you’re looking at 2 crotchets or quarter notes minimum, which is half or two-thirds of a bar, if not a whole bar.  You can play with rhythm but not duration : you need all four syllables.  And it’s not just in the Cantor’s part, it is in the Response; and it is (mostly) the last word of the Response, so it is full of emphasis, it has the cadence.  These are the unavoidable considerations, and I’m actually rather glad that this name does not come up as often as (say) Zion or Israel.   Words like ‘ordinances’ are similarly tricky.

Variation in the Responses

It’s a sizeable chunk in the Response, and the words around it vary according to the different Lectionaries.  US and OZ both have ‘You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchisedek’, but they have different strophe words (OZ follows the same strophe words as the UK Lectionary. Mostly.).  UK has ‘You are a priest for ever, a priest like Melchisedek of old’, and CAN has ‘You are a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedek’, which gave me the most trouble of all.

The US version arranged itself neatly into a 3/4 rhythm, with the stresses falling naturally as the tune lollops along, so the Response set the mood for the whole psalm.  The UK Response seemed to have a more exotic or even other-worldly feel, and the rhythm was more flexible, so that came out in 4/4, but with a modal, haunting little tune.  I didn’t want to lose the impact of the name, so I treated the ‘of old’ as a part of the title.  OZ shares the US  Response but the UK verse words.  As though to rub it in, the second half of the fourth strophe is the same word-for-word as the UK Response, but combining the two together didn’t work, so I started again, and that is a completely different setting, in 4/4.   Somehow that arrangement of words in the Response doesn’t seem to need the haunting quality; I think ‘in the line of’ is much more straightforward than ‘of old’, maybe.

The CAN Response was awkward because there were just so many words in it, and the rhythm was not flexible.  Ideally, you don’t want a Response to be too long or too complicated (I’ve written about this before), because the congregation has to pick it up quickly and not forget it in between its appearances, so I try to keep it to four bars or eight if it’s a quicker flow.  ‘You are a priest for ever’ is already half of a Response. ‘According to the order of’ is a lot of syllables, even before you get to ‘Melchisedek’.  I had to do a lot of saying it out loud before I could fix a rhythm which worked, and I was surprised to find that I could relate it best to the UK modal tune  (the strophe words were slightly different, but it was easy to adapt the tune).  When I looked at the UK and CAN Responses carefully, they were each five bars, which surprised me again, but I think that’s one reason why they feel slightly uncanny, unbalanced (in a good way), and this preserves the exotic element which I didn’t want to lose.

See how an expert does it….

Psalm 109/110 starts ‘Dixit Dominus’ in Latin, and because it’s a neat, short psalm with wonderful words, many great composers have set it.  It’s part of Vespers, for a start (Monteverdi and Mozart). Because of the Melchisedek line, it’s useful as celebratory music for Church celebrations, like Zadok the Priest is for royal events, with all those repeated ‘May the King live for ever’s.  Here’s a link to the part where Handel sets the Melchisedek reference.   He does it as (mostly) runs of semiquavers, so you only really hear it as the choir comes down to the triumphant conclusion.  He’s following the music not the words, and you’d never get away with it as a Responsorial Psalm, but it’s a lovely piece of music.

Melchisedek, Abram, servants….and God as well

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