Psalm 118: The Music

(NEWS FLASH: Cornerstone URC has switched to a new website, which may affect some of the links I’ve posted to their music recordings.  Leave a comment or contact me if you happen across any broken links in the archives of URC Psalmody.)

O praise the Lord, for He is good;
Let all in heaven above
And all His saints on earth proclaim
His everlasting love.

Yesterday Jim published an excellent piece on the text of Psalm 118.  Today, it’s my turn to follow up with a look at the three settings of this psalm in the Psalter Hymnal.

232, “O Praise the Lord, for He Is Good”

It may seem like a strange comparison, but the text of certain psalms reminds me of pizza dough.  They come with their own shape, yet they must be molded to fit the musical “pan” assigned to them.  If you’ve ever worked with pizza dough, you know how challenging this feat can be.

With patience, care, and a lot of hard work, the creators of this setting of Psalm 118—for the most part—accomplished their goal.  “O Praise the Lord, for He Is Good” eliminates some of the cumbersome repetitions in Psalm 118:1-18 without sacrificing their significance.  In some places, on the other hand, the text had to be “stretched” to fill some gaps in the rhythm.  This alteration is also made seamlessly.  Where the grammatical structure of the psalm is too complex to represent in poetic verse, the authors have simplified it nicely.  Overall, this is a good and usable versification.

HEAVENLY FOLD, the tune of number 232, possesses a special quality enjoyed by relatively few psalm tunes: its ever-present exuberance.  Although the melody is rather subdued in the first line, it immediately explodes to a high C, then rises even higher to a triumphant E in the second line, while the other parts (especially the bass) boost the expansive harmonies.  The musical tension rises in the third line, ending on a deceptive cadence but quickly resolving into a brilliant V7-I progression.  As you can already tell, I have a strong admiration for this tune.  When played well, it pairs perfectly with the joyful text of Psalm 118.

234, “The Glorious Gates of Righteousness”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “what about number 233?”  For reasons unknown to me, the editors of the Psalter Hymnal decided to place “The Glorious Gates of Righteousness” after the Genevan setting “Let All Exalt Jehovah’s Goodness,” even though number 234 is a direct continuation of number 232.  Thus, we’ll address “The Glorious Gates of Righteousness” first before returning to consider “Let All Exalt Jehovah’s Goodness.”

Like “O Praise the Lord, for He Is Good,” the text of number 234 is workable.  My only complaint is that it renders Psalm 118:23 very poorly; “This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” becomes “How wondrous are the ways of God,/Unfathomed and unknown.”  I would commend to you this alternate wording of the third stanza (modifications in bold):

The stone the builders have despised
Is now the cornerstone;
How marvelous this work of God
Which to our eyes is shown!

This is the only real slip-up in the text of “The Glorious Gates of Righteousness.”  A keen observer might point out that the eighth stanza is unnecessary (since the seventh treats Psalm 118:28, 29), yet this concluding stanza balances the text and functions as an aesthetic cap (especially when numbers 232 and 234 are sung together).

Despite its beautiful melody line, this is a prickly tune; in fact, as much as I love number 234, I cringe when I see it listed in the bulletin as the opening song.  ZERAH seems to reach unusually high in all four of its parts, and then presses even higher in its last three measures.  Even singers that haven’t passed out by that point can’t hold the melody successfully.

Although it’s hard to find an alternate six-line C.M. tune, there are still several options.  In this situation, the most practical solution would probably be a key change to B-flat.  A good deal of the tune’s brilliance will be lost, but at least you won’t have to call an ambulance each time you sing it. Perhaps, if you have a very adventurous organist, you could experiment: play all but the last stanza in B-flat, then rise to B or C for the last verse.

Switching to a regular C.M. tune isn’t out of the question, since each stanza of number 234 has only four lines (two of which are repeated to fit the six-line pattern), but your congregation will need some degree of musical experience and some careful direction in order for this to proceed successfully.  If “The Glorious Gates of Righteousness” is re-used in a new hymnbook, I’d like to see it accompanied by a different tune altogether, which would resolve all of these issues.

233, “Let All Exalt Jehovah’s Goodness”

The direction to sing “triumphantly” at the head of number 233 almost goes without saying.  Although “Let All Exalt Jehovah’s Goodness” is not a complete versification of Psalm 118, its text and tune both contribute to form a brilliant and uplifting psalm setting.

Linguistically, however, number 233 is a whopper.  Composed by the irrepressibly elegant Dewey Westra in 1931, this single selection contains all of the following words: hence, vaunting, paternal, mitigate, salutation, elation, fathom, and jubilation.  In addition, there are several lines that could stump even an experienced grammarian: “But not to death delivered me,” “Nor fathom it in any wise,” “Then be our thankful sacrifices/Upon the sacred altar laid,” and “My God, in glory none excel Thee.”  This is not to say the lyrics must be revised, but they certainly require some unusually careful thought on the part of the singer.  For the same reason, this selection probably would not be a wise choice for a children’s choir (as an example).

NAVARRE (a tune for Psalms 98 and 118) was composed by Louis Bourgeois in 1544 and harmonized in 1565 by Claude Goudimel.  This is one of the most familiar Genevan settings and shouldn’t present the average congregation with any difficulties.  The single challenge for accompanists is to determine the actual length of the half notes at the end of each line (should an additional pause be taken?).  As the sheet music indicates, this is indeed a triumphant and fitting tune.

Service Music Ideas

For a short prelude, I like playing two stanzas of number 233 followed by three of 234.  If you need something a little longer, you could bring 232 into the mix.  “Let All Exalt Jehovah’s Goodness” would also function by itself as an excellent postlude.  In any case, Psalm 118 is a song that deserves regular attention in Christian worship for its focus on God’s greatness and his plan of salvation.

O Lord, my God, I praise Thy Name,
All other names above;
O give Him thanks, for He is good
And boundless is His love.

–MRK

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