Monday, September 17, 2012

Music and Theology

What does a musical setting of a psalm tell us about the God who is worshiped? Does a musical setting impose or reveal an interpretation of the libretto?

Here I look at Psalm 4 based on the instructions of Suzanne Haik-Vantoura as best as I am able to follow them at this time in my life.  Does it help me interpret the words ?

First of all - the verses are clear (and often different numbering from the English). They lie between each opening and each full cadence.

So verse 1 is the inscription, sung as a single breath. (The first return to 'e' is via an ornament, revia, rather than a return to the tonic via a cadence.) The cadences in this psalm are:
  • mercha-silluq, (f#-e) verses 1, 2, 4,  
  • munach-silluq (b-e) verses 3, 5, 7, 8,
  • atenach-silluq (a-e) verse 6, and 9 (though 9 may allow for an extended plagal cadence). 
Verse 1 - starts and ends on tonic as do all verses
Of the 9 verses, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 all have a mid-point defined by an atenach (a, sub-dominant). The verse comes to a rest at this point and therefore separates the words of each verse into two phrases. Verses 1 and 5 therefore have no mid-point rest. Such verses may be divisible, for breathing, but are more like a single thought than two. It is to be noted that verse 5 is the one quoted in Ephesians 4:26 and that it is close to the instruction given to Cain before his anger stirs him up to murder.

In this psalm, verses 2 and 3 share a somewhat rare ornament, the melisma pazer, and in this case the ornament resolves in both cases as g-f#-e.
Showing the pazer - ornament g-f#-e
This imitation in the music suggests to me a response. The one who prays says: When I call answer me, my God my righteousness.  And the voice responds: Children, each of you, how long will you humiliate my glory? your love empty? your seeking a lie? Selah

The dialogue is severe, yet merciful and gentle. The ornament is not fierce but is determined to raise questions against the self-confidence and even the assumptions of the one who prays.

Verse 4 prepares for verse 5 noting that prayer will be answered - indeed has been answered with a rebuke. Verse 5 begins the instruction and as central verse stands out because of the lack of a mid-point rest.

I do not use angry here since it is not the word generally translated as angry for its primary sense.
Shudder (רגז) and do not sin, promise in your heart where you lie down and be mute Selah
Shudder is what the earth does when its foundations are shaken at the presence of God (Psalm 18:7) (18:8 Hebrew). Shudder is a frame in Psalm 77 (verses 17 and 19 Hebrew). Shudder is what the peoples do on recognition that יהוה reigns (Psalm 99:1).

We could do with a bit less anger, and a bit more shuddering these days - what do you think?

Verse 6 then gives specific instruction - like Spike Lee's film - do what is right. Offer offerings of righteousness and trust in יהוה.

In both verse 6 and 7, the atenach is approached from below rather than from the dominant (munach) as in verse 8. The effect is that verse 8 has a greater rest than the prior two verses.

Verse 9 shows an interesting set of ornaments around sleeping - it seems a bit chaotic.
Verse 9 encompasses death and resurrection - even for the one who is alone.  Such hope does not allow one to 'sin the more' - as Psalms 5 and 6 will illustrate.  Holiness has a reality that is incompatible with sin.

For the music transcription see here. And here the English.

The Psalms are critical for learning the faith - any faithfulness that relates to the God of Abraham in any tradition that regards the Psalms as the Word of God. Without such rebuke and holding in trust and being held in trust, our civility to each other cannot hold.

In recent days, a hockey fan friend of mine, Matthew Larkin, has quoted Psalm 39 in rebuke to the owners and players alike.
heed the words of the psalmist: for man walketh in a vain shadow; he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.
And a dear musical friend has been helped by Psalm 91 in a deeply troublesome situation.
"Because he loves me," says the Lord, "I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
He will call upon me, and I will answer him:
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation."
Both are real and tangible uses of the Psalms - the right sort of uses of this wonderful set of poems.
Ps 91 - perhaps also - 'because he attached himself to me'.