by Linda Ryan
Omnes gentes plaudite. Psalm xlvii.
O CLAP your handes together (all ye people) : O syng unto God with the voyce of melody.
For the Lorde is hye, and to bee feared : he is the greate kyng upon all the yearth.
He shall subdue the people under us : And the nacions under our fete.
He shall chose out an heritage for us : Even the worship of Jacob whom he loved.
God is gone up with a mery noyse : And the Lorde with the sounde of the trompe [trumpet].
O syng prayses, syng prayses unto oure God : O syng prayses, syng prayses unto our kyng.
For God is the kyng of al the yearth : syng ye praises with understandyng.
God reigneth over the heathen : god sitteth upon his holy seate.
[The princes of the people are joined to the people, of the God of Abraham : ] for God (whiche is very hye exalted) doth defende the earth, as it were with a shylde. – BCP Psalter 1549 *
I think it’s a pretty well-known fact that “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” as William Congreve once said. I know that a lot of people use music to calm down, to get energized, to use as a mantra, to meditate to, and to keep occupied while driving down the highway or sitting and waiting for a bus. Music is a gift that humankind has been using and enjoying probably forever. Campfire sing-alongs were probably a part of prehistoric life, and it’s for certain that minstrels and musicians and storytellers have always been welcome, especially in areas where entertainment is lacking. One of the earliest and most important of traditional singing were the prayers and songs from the Bible.
One of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church was the music that I heard there. It had a depth and a richness that I didn’t hear in other churches, although I’m sure many of them had comparable music. But this was music that stirred my soul, it captivated me, and it wasn’t like reading a book of Victorian love poetry. When I read the Psalm for this evening, I immediately started to smile because in my mind’s ear, I heard the Psalm being sung in an eight-part rendition written by an Englishman named Orlando Gibbons in the year 1622. It was an old favorite of mine, an anthem called O Clap Your Hands.
References said that the music was composed as a graduation piece when he received his music degree, but was also a part of the Ascension Day liturgy. Now, 1622 sounds quite old, but we know that the words that he used actually came from a much older source, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer’s Psalter. It encompasses the whole of Psalm 47 with the exception of the first part of verse nine, and it closes with the Gloria Patri which used to be common practice.
I was feeling kind of droopy as I read through the readings for today in preparation for writing this reflection. I came across this one. I decided I needed to hear it again, so I got on my trusty iPod and before they even got to the bottom of the first page, my mood had shifted and suddenly life was a lot brighter. There something about this piece that creates energy and enthusiasm and in addition, helps me remember the words of Psalm 47. That is one of the benefits of music — it helps us remember things that might otherwise be forgotten.
How did we learn to recite our ABCs? We sang it. In Bible school, how did we learn our Bible verses? We sang them. Even when we got to things like English grammar and how of a legislative bill becomes a law, or even multiplication tables were the subject of songs simple enough in melody and in words to actually appeal to young children who sang them to learn some fairly complicated words and ideas without thinking of it as learning something complicated. It was just fun.
Probably almost every religious community at some point in time sings together, whether it is hymns, Psalms, canticles, prayers, anthems, oratorios, or cantatas. We can sing out in the world anywhere, but people might look at us as if we were slightly deranged, but in church we can sing boldly as well as prayerfully, and we can appreciate the musical efforts of our choirs and instrumentalists all the way from the tiny cherub choirs to the most senior choir that usually sings at the main services. Music is an important part of our Christian life, just as it is just as it was in Jesus’s day. David sang the Psalms, even danced to them. I’m sure Jesus and the people in the synagogue sang the Psalms as well. They’re easier to remember that way.
The Episcopal Church, among some others, delight in the richness of music. We sing Bach chorales, and hymns that he harmonized, we sang things from Mozart and a number of other great classical composers. it’s stuff we don’t usually hear out on the street and usually it does not have a bass line that almost obliterates the melody altogether. This is music that can be sung and not shouted. This is music that encourages thought and prayer and not migraine headaches and deafness from the volume. This is music that is a gift from God. It enables us to draw closer to God because it focuses our thoughts on God and our responses and reactions to God. It encourages us to sing with the “voice of melody” even if we can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Not everybody can be a Pavarotti, but everyone can make a joyful noise. And that’s what Christianity should be about — making a joyful noise unto the Lord our God, the King of all the earth.
Maybe we won’t hear this anthem in church come Sunday but it’s one that the has been sung for nearly 400 years and it still being sung. I wonder — in 400 years will people sing music from Beyoncé? Or Michael Jackson? Or even the Beatles? Perhaps, but I imagine that among musicians in the church, O Clap Your Hands (among others) will still be sung with joy, reverence, and enthusiasm.
So this week let’s make a joyful noise, clap our hands and sing praise to God. Maybe it will be in the shower, maybe in the car, maybe under your breath as you rush for the train, or maybe out in the in nature on a long walk, or even just sitting quietly at home. I think you’ll find the joy in the energy and the prayerfulness in it. I know I do.
*Psalm 47 from 1549 Psalter, found at St Matthew’s Choir, Ottawa Facebook Post, accessed 5/25/17.
Image: by Evan-Amos