Saturday, March 26, 2016

The beauty of the inscriptions of the Psalms

If you don't read music, please get someone who does to sing these to you. If you don't read Hebrew, please look up the verses. (I have put the links in - so hover should do it).

In Book 1 (Psalms 1-41) we have several (37 or 38 depending on what you count) Psalms that are inscribed 'of David'. The inscriptions are variable, rarely using the same accent combination for something as simple as mizmor ledavid. But the music is beautiful, so perhaps the formality of a tabular approach to life has not occurred to the poets. The inscriptions make use of both primary (atnah) and secondary (ole-veyored) cadences or for that matter, neither.

Psalms 4:1 and 5:1 are subdued, with neither primary nor secondary cadence.


Psalm 7:1 as a reel may be set in the pronounced chromatic hypodorian mode that gives no sense of rest.
Psalm 9:1 is the first to begin on a note other than the tonic. As such this connects it to the prior psalm. It is the first of the Acrostics, each of which celebrates the psalm that precedes it.
After being so used to cadences on the subdominant or the second, the opening of Psalm 44:1 is striking. Psalms 47:1, 49:9, 85:1 begin identically. Psalms 36:1, 61:1, 69:1, 81:1 are almost identical in accents, but simply with a repeated meteg (silluq) which is not required.

Wickes (1881 :35) complains that these poets are not using the dichotomy consistently. And so they aren’t. They likely had not heard of it. Not one of the corrections that he proposes is required for the music. The idea of continuous dichotomy should be removed from discussion. Music is subject to more nuanced shape than a hierarchy, a concept that is overused in most professions.

Forty-six psalms begin their music on something other than the tonic. What is the reason for each unique beginning? Psalms 1 and 2 are themselves unique as a pair. Psalm 1 begins on an f# perhaps showing that the psalms do not stand alone. 2 begins on a g, implicitly linking it with 1. Psalm 22 is perhaps the cost of being a king (reflecting the prayer and answer of 20-21). Psalm 40:1 begins with an ornament.

The ornament is confirmed in the Aleppo codex as well as in the Leningrad codex. So it stands out in Book 1 at its beginning. Psalm 41 reverts to the simplicity of the early Davidic psalms. 

One could give an excuse for each of these psalms since there are frequent strong connections between psalms, but perhaps this exercise is too subject to imagination. Nonetheless, the inscriptions are integrated with the music. 

And looking further, Psalm 70 imitates the opening of Psalm 40. This is of course suitable since almost all the words (39/47) of Psalm 70 are in Psalm 40. (Psalms 40, 70, and 89 share the same shape in verse 1). 

All the Psalms of Ascent are connected to each other in this sequential way. And the last five psalms 146-150 are joined similarly as a group. Here is Psalm 147:1 beginning on the f#.


This set of examples demonstrates clearly that the statements in Wickes that concern the impact of accents across verses and paragraphs must be rejected:

"Logically, a verse may be closely connected with the one preceding or following it; but musically and accentually no such connection exists." (1881 :23). He is oriented towards his dichotomy model whereby every phrase decomposes itself into two using the disjunctive accents (1887 :20). As such he is stopping in the middle of a musical phrase rather than hearing its completion. Also he is biased toward the dissociation of each verse from any other “Each section or verse was then treated as an independent whole; and, whatever its connection in sense with the verse preceding or the verse following, had its musical division assigned to it, quite irrespectively of them.” (1887 :27).

Reference: Wickes, William. 1881. A treatise on the accentuation of the three so-called poetical books on the Old Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, with an appendix containing the treatise, assigned to R. Jehuda Ben-Bil'am, on the same subject, in the original Arabic. Second treatise 1887 on the 21 books. Edited and republished together 1970. Two treatises on the accentuation of the Old Testament. Ed. Orlinsky, with a prolegomenon by Aron Dotan.

This post extracted from here with the odd adjustment.



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