(re-worked from a posting on April 26, 2012)
It’s impossible to know how many musical settings of Psalm 23 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). As with Psalm 23 there is a universal truth and strength found within that shines through. Far wiser minds than mine might be able to define that truth, but I know that when I hear Bach or say the Twenty-Third Psalm I am comforted, and I am certain that God is there, protective, strong and true.
One version, 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 in its use of the 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.
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?
I am in France this week with a choir from St. Alban’s, and this Sunday they will be singing Virgil Thomson’s choral setting of My shepherd will supply my need at The American Cathedral in Paris.