Saturday, March 1, 2014

The original music of the Psalms

Music does not lend itself to a wordy analysis but I have produced nonetheless a few images of scores to see(!) if the repeated songs in the Psalter use similar tunes.

For emerging examples of this music, you may browse this shared resource which I have created a piece at a time with a computer program that I have written (in Oracle PL/SQL). This program reads directly from the online Leningrad Codex and produces a score in Music XML (extended markup language). If you have a music program (Musescore works fine), then do download a file and see it in its raw unedited form. And contribute - what instruments would you use? What mode? How would you interpret the ornaments?

All tunes in the Psalter are similar, you might say. Sure - but look at the score for Psalm 114. The original patterns in the music clearly reflect the patterns in the words of the text. See this article by David Mitchell for discussion of this music and its relationship to tonus peregrinus.

David Mitchell, precentor at Holy Trinity, Brussels, has a forthcoming book on the Psalms of Ascent currently in the production stages. This is a delightful work. I am very grateful to him for a draft copy to help my research and to Sue Gillingham of Oxford for putting us in touch.

My program does not reflect Mitchell's alterations to Suzanne Haik-Vantoura's approach, but I have followed him in using a semitone for the revia downward moving ornament (often but not always appearing with the geresh as in Psalm 114). The paired ornament is called revia mugresh (read right to left of course).

With 5 notes (six including the ornament that begins the second half of verses 2 to 8), the musician has created a simple but widely varying set of phrases. This poem as a range from e to C. The range of the poems of the Psalms runs on first glance from c# below the tonic e to the occasional high E an octave above the tonic, though this is rare.

The repeated songs: Psalms 14 and 53, 57-60 and 108, 40 and 70, seem to know of each other's presence as if indeed the one were developed with knowledge of the other. They are too big to work with in images so I have put them on the shared resource. Explore these files, and sing them to hear the similarities.

Of the chorus in Book 5 (Psalms 107:1, 118:1-4, 29
The refrain of Book 5 of the Psalter
Mode 3 (same notes in this case as mode 2)
Give thanks to Yahweh for it is good, because his loving-kindness is forever.
and 136:1 and all its other verses), this one line is always exactly the same. So the music is not random when varied as above, nor is the composer/redactor unaware of deliberate repetition. With its rest on the good on the sub-dominant A, and the final implied five-one cadence B-E, neither choirmaster, nor chorus, nor orchestra seems to tire of this phrase.

I decided, by the way, to use ado-nai as a two syllable abbreviation for the tetragrammeton. I think I could have let the program interpret the word blindly, because the music frequently implies that it is three syllables rather than two. Mitchell's forthcoming work suggests as much and soundly critiques the Yahweh form of the mid-20th century. The results I forget in detail, but they were close if not equivalent to Ye-ho-veh, with the stress on the third syllable. I suggest singing the name in my English versions as ee-aa-oo-eh - all vowels, and the choirmaster may determine the syllable count as required. In any case, let eyes be opened (shades of Eden) and ears unplugged (Isaiah 35:5). Let us hear these ancient words (Psalm 49:2) and his/her song in the night (Psalm 42:9) in a new form that is really very much older than seemed possible.