It’s impossible to know how many musical settings of the 23rd Psalm there are. In The Hymnal 1982 alone there are four settings (Hymns 645, 646, 663 and 664). Choral anthems and solo settings may well run into the hundreds. Herbert Howells, John Rutter, Leonard Bernstein…Bobby McFerrin… Duke Ellington (on his 1958 album Black, Brown and Beige)…the theme song to the television program The Vicar of Dibley…a parody version, Sheep by Pink Floyd…the list could go on and on, and become stranger and stranger.
The enduring quality of a particular tune or text is always of interest. Why does Bach’s music hold up so well, no matter what is done to it? Synthesizers, tuba quartets, jazz singers – they all do honor to Bach in some fashion. (I made up the tuba quartet actually, but I won’t be surprised if such arrangements do exist). In the same way, there is a universal truth and strength found within Psalm 23 that shines through any setting. Far wiser minds than mine could define that truth, but I know that when I hear Bach or say the 23rd Psalm I am comforted, and I am certain that God is there, protective, strong and true.
Psalm 23 will be read or sung this coming Sunday, on this day sometimes known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”. While at St. Alban’s we won’t be singing the Pink Floyd version this Sunday, we will hear those words of comfort in several other versions
One of those, My shepherd will supply my need, is based on the hymn tune RESIGNATION. That tune is from an 1835 collection called Southern Harmony, which came out of the rural American south and is found in The Hymnal 1982 at number 664. The final phrase, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” is interpreted in Isaac Watts 1719 psalm collection as “no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home”. Like much folk music, the tune is disarmingly simple, yet eloquent, and uses a pentatonic scale. Five notes – equal to the black notes on the piano are all that is needed. Starting on the piano’s F# and using only the black keys, you would find that the tune always bring you “home” to F# at the end of each of the four musical phrases. For most of us, is there anything more comforting than coming home?
From so little comes so much. At only six verses Psalm 23 is one of the shortest of the psalms. Could King David have imagined all the different ways his words would be used?
Sonya, You are fabulous as usual. I will think of you and St. Alban’s this Sunday. I am preaching where Shell Kimble is priest in charge – Oxon Hill, I think. Love, C.
“Could King David have imagined all the different ways his words would be used?”
King David’s only response would have to be that only the Lord knows how He plans to use our efforts for His glory.