I love words, especially when they describe things in such detail that I can picture it in my mind. However, I am not much of a fan of poetry. Most of it leaves me somewhat cold, except for Mary Oliver’s poems. Somehow or other, hers speak to me in a way I don’t find in other poets.
Sometimes I have a problem with the Psalms. The poetry doesn’t rhyme, but that’s okay. I grew up listening to the Psalms done in the King James English, the English of Shakespeare’s time, and to me that’s poetry. Even so, often the psalms start out praising God, among other things but then turn into whining sessions. Thank you, but I can whine quite well on my own without needing King David.
I was delighted when I ran across Psalm 47 today. I started to read it, and my mind started playing a recording of this Psalm as set by Orlando Gibbons in the early 1600s. Written for eight voices, it is very much like listening to Messiah, but without having to wait for Christmas or Easter to hear it.
There’s been so much glorious music written for the church, some in Latin, some in English, some in German, and other languages. For me, it’s a joy when I run across a piece of Scripture that starts my mind playing and sometimes singing along with a piece of music with which I’m familiar. Somehow it makes the text more accessible, especially those done in the old style and language. Gibbons’ version of “O clap your hands” is a bright, joyous piece of music; there’s a richness to it and, in my mind, it is a beautiful marriage of lyrics and melody. I think that’s one reason I like church music so much, especially from the Baroque period. It’s written to the glory of God and incorporates scripture, parts of the liturgy, and prayers that can be sung by choirs of not just clergy but lay people as well.
I went to church with my husband right after we were married. He was Roman Catholic; I was Episcopalian, so since he wouldn’t go to my church, I went with him. I didn’t attend the Roman Catholic Church in our town for very long. There was little music, and much of it was sung almost listlessly. Even in the Baptist church, music was an important part of the service, and the hymns and anthems sung in the Episcopal church were like deep drafts of oxygen when I was feeling spiritually short of breath.
When I stopped going to church with my husband, he asked me why. I explained that I missed the music. His response was, “You don’t go to church for the music.” Wrong thing to say to a former Southern Baptist turned Episcopalian who was also a music major and lifelong choir singer. Yes, I go to church for the liturgy and the Eucharist, but I also go for the music, the chants and the anthems, and even the hymns. There are hymns with tunes and sometimes words that go back a thousand years or more. How can I compare that to a piece from a contemporary composer I never heard of and to whose music I can’t relate?
There are some great contemporary composers, like Rutter, Vaughan Williams, and others who reach past the banal and into the sublime. They use scriptures, prayers, and they use other religious texts. Yes, I can I like Taizé for its meditative qualities and also its harmonies. I love hearing congregations from the African churches because they also sing in harmony and with joy. It’s not how loud the music is; it’s how joyful, solemn, or even emotive it is.
I was glad to run into “O clap your hands” in the psalm because I hear it in a musical form where different parts are singing polyphonically. It is complex and interesting while also being worshipful. No one style of music will suit everybody. Still, I’m glad that I can go back in time and hear pieces like “O clap your hands” which help me to feel so many emotions and also to retain texts I wouldn’t be able to remember if I relied simply on documents. I would never miss what I haven’t heard, but having listened to it, I can rejoice that such a setting is still available after 400 years.
I think music is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and I’m glad that we have so much of it to hear, enjoy, and with which to connect. I’m happy there is music to thank God in such beautiful ways, and I’m glad that psalms, scripture, and other sacred texts are available for us to hear not just is written words but through the ears, voices, and instrumentations of composers who sought to worship God through music.
I think I’ll listen to Gibbons again. I invite you to give it a try. Perhaps you won’t like it, maybe you will. Perhaps you’ll find a new way to praise God in it.
Four Settings of “O Clap Your Hands” (Psalm 47)
Composer: Orlando Gibbons. The Oxford Camerata.
Composer: John Rutter. Choir of Somerville College, Oxford. Conductor: David Crown.
Composer: Ralph Vaughn Williams. Christ Church Cathedral Choir. Conductor: Stephen Darlington.
Composer: John Leavitt. Covenant Christian High School Concert Choir.
Image: Evensong Rehearsal in the quire of York Minster, found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also estate manager and administrative assistant for Dominic, Phoebe, and Gandhi.