Psalms feature heavily in our music this morning. The richness found in the Book of Psalms has endeared it to many. As a result, it has rightfully found a lasting place in the worship of God’s people. As poetry for all the seasons of our lives, what better way to worship our God than through the Psalms? The Book of Psalms is in effect a songbook, a collection of timeless, beautiful texts that were likely sung to a variety of accompaniments such as stringed instruments, perhaps a harp of some sort. Details are lost to history and remain mysterious, but one can see this as a blessing of sorts for musicians through the ages. The lack of information has freed artists to immortalize these beautiful poems by applying a staggering amount of resourcefulness and creativity in their interpretations of them.
The Psalms run the gamut of human emotion and experience, yet even from the darkest depths of despair come steady expressions of faith, hope, and trust in a bountiful God.
Hymn 179 is based on Psalm 27 and is paired with the enduring chorale tune from 1609, Christus, der ist mein Leben, by Melchior Vulpius. This is a fairly brief chorale, as chorales go, but it packs a powerful punch, having served as the basis of many choral and organ works through the centuries. Two examples are found in worship this morning: Johann Pachelbel’s charming set of variations, and Thomas Gieschen’s luminous prelude on the tune.
Hymn 209, based on Psalm 89, is a wonderful Russian hymn by Dimitri Bortniansky (1751-1825). Born in the Ukraine, his compositions include operas, along with many other vocal and instrumental works. In 1881, Tchaikovsky edited Bortniansky’s sacred works, ending up with a huge collection of 10 volumes. The Chancel Choir’s anthem by Russian composer Ippolitoff-Ivanoff (1859-1935) is a favorite in the choral literature. Bless the Lord, O My Soul is based on verses from Psalm 103. The depth and richness of the harmonies are hallmarks of Russian choral style.
Even this morning’s organ postludes are based on Psalms (93 and 68, respectively). You may want to follow along with these Psalms as the postludes are played to see how British organist/composer Peter Hurford (b. 1930) interprets the texts. Hurford selected the following verses, which are printed directly under the titles of each piece: Psalm 93: 1-3–The Lord is King, and hath put on glorious apparel: the Lord hath put on His apparel, and girded Himself with strength. He hath made the round world so sure that it cannot be moved. Ever since the world began hath thy seat been prepared: thou art from everlasting. And from Psalm 68: 1-3–Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered: let them also that hate Him flee before Him. Like as the smoke vanisheth, so shalt thou drive them away: and like as wax melteth at the fire, so let the ungodly perish at the presence of God. But let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God: let them also be merry and joyful. It is not unusual for the Psalms to inform instrumental writing–as here–without benefit of any words being sung. Akin to other programmatic ideas in music, a composer is thus free to interpret the poetry in a purely musical way.
Going back to the start of our worship, I know you will enjoy singing Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty (Lobe den Herren), a perennial favorite. Its brisk tempo and dancelike character make this one of the best known hymns of praise in all of Christian hymnody. Many organ and choral works have been based on it. One of this morning’s preludes is a processional by British organist/composer Martin Shaw (1875-1958), which cleverly alludes to the chorale throughout and inexorably leads to a full organ statement of the marvelous hymn to close the work. As Shaw himself says: "The great tune on which this Processional is founded first appeared in the second volume of the Stralsund Song Book (1665). It was there set to the hymn Hast du denn, Jesu, but in 1680 it was transferred to Neander’s magnificent song of praise, Lobe den Herren, with which it has ever since been universally associated."