Friday, 26 February 2016

The Psalms of Ascent

I have mentioned Dr David Mitchell's book, The Psalms of Ascent, before on this blog. It has been rare till now that we would get a scholarly book on the Psalms written by a musician. He also knows how to put the skeptical scholars in their place.

His contents in brief are:
Chapters 1 to 7. The Songs of Ascents were composed as the liturgy for the ark of the covenant’s entry to Solomon’s temple at dawn on 15 Ethanim, 959 BC.
Chapters 8 to 10. How the Songs of Ascents were sung at the temple’s dedication.
Chapters 11 to 13. Restoring the lost music of the Songs of Ascents.
Chapters 14 to 15. Implications and conclusions.

The Psalms of Ascent are in every chorister's repertoire. And they are well worth the detailed study that this book affords. Readers will be captivated from the first pages to read on. It is a novel way to approach these psalms, and at times the book reads like a novel. One can hardly put it down. It is, however, scholarly, and the novice in scholarship will get a good introduction to the centuries that have given us these songs, and many comments on them in Rabbinic and Christian tradition.

Chapter 1 gives us a clear history of interpretation of the Psalms of Ascent with a structural analysis based on their vocabulary and story line. This is a very helpful section grasping the unity of these psalms. I find more signs of trouble in them than is inferred from the serene language that he points out.

Chapter 2 explores the interpretation of the Psalms with respect to their numerological structure. I am a little skeptical of this, but it does work. Mitchell is definitely persuasive in his demonstration of the structural unity achieved by the gematria. He also considers the problem that is my concern, that the letters of many words will add to the same number. His resolution is plausible but not entirely convincing to me. This is partly because I am highly mistrustful of Solomon. Beloved he may have been (Psalm 127), but someone with that much power (a bit like the emperors of China) is not to be adulated when he begins his reign not with peace but with assassinations and then uses power to amass wealth and even more power and pleasure.

Chapter 3 puts these psalms within the tradition of the feast of Tabernacles of ancient Israel during the period of Solomon when the tribes were not yet divided between Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Here as in other chapters he grounds his inferences in Jewish tradition. Most of us who sing in choirs are blithely unaware of the history of the tribes in the promised land and of the Mishnah and Talmud. It is delightful to be so well-introduced to both the history of the temple and the traditions following the destruction of the second temple by the Romans.

Chapter 4 places the psalms in the period of Solomon. Then chapter 5, my favorite, traces the history of the ark. He begins with a description of the cherubim, hardly cherubic:
The keruv or cherub is a being whose general type is known to us from ancient eastern iconography. It was not a winged man; much less a little flying putto or baby boy. Rather it was a being combining human characteristics with those of fierce animals and birds, and representing a solar or stellar deity. 
This is the novella within the book and it is fascinating.

Chapters 6 and 7 explore the occasion for the writing of these psalms and who wrote them. Again a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Beginning with chapter 8, he begins to explore the musical environment. While I thoroughly enjoy the clarity of the preceding chapters, it is these that I find the most important in the book. Readers of this blog will know that I have produced all the music for the entire Old Testament in a public place where anyone can get it and read it with a music program and therefore do the arrangements needed to restore the ancient music and hear the text as it was meant to be heard. I am neither a scholar nor an arranger, just a herald. Chapters 9 and 10 are a fascinating set of possibilities for instruments and voice combinations.

Beginning in chapter 11 he searches for traces of the Temple Song. In chapter 12, his introduction to Haïk-Vantoura's work is second to none. In chapter 13 is the music for all the 15 Psalms of Ascents. This is the ultimate subject of the book. Chapters 15 and 16 close the book with additional commentary on why the psalms were collected so underlying the importance of the Psalms to generations to come. Also included is an essay on the power of music not to be missed if you had any doubts about the good.

Mitchell's work is very clear here. I strongly encourage musicians to buy this book and use the ideas with the music on this blog as a starting point to reinvigorate our reading of lessons. People will hear both the foreignness and the relevance of the text to us and preachers will have to learn more music too. This is not a small matter but it goes way beyond the confines of academic study of the Bible.


I met Dr Mitchell in Oxford in 2010 where he was presenting the musical reconstruction of several psalms based on the work of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura. The impact of that music stayed with me and I worked to be able to read the Hebrew accents myself and in fact to learn to sight-sing the text based on the accents. This is a freely given review of work that has been very important to me in both my recent projects.

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