And now, for something totally different.
I will admit that I am experimenting right now with different types of writing — I’ve already mentioned the need I feel to learn to address the primary sources rather than the secondary. I particularly feel this need when working with pieces of music for performance that relate directly to the lectionary text of the day. So, all last week, I worked on practicing just that by addressing the text of one of the songs that I sang last Sunday in church. That text was drawn from Psalm 27, as set by Frances Allitsen in the sacred parlor room classic, “The Lord is My Light.”
For a three-minute-long song, it carries a lot of baggage in my mind and my soul. First of all, it is a song in the category of “big lady” songs…the type that you may have bad memories of from your childhood in church — you know, the memory of the funny-sounding-wobbly-voiced-too-loud-soloist (who in many cases might have been the pastor’s wife), the one who sang the frightening music. Second, it also falls into the category of songs where they would say, oh, give it to her — it doesn’t have to sound pretty, just powerful. Third, the song is associated with a dark time in my church-going history, connected to the life of a church in turmoil and about to split into pieces….at that moment, the pastor chose this song as the solo she wanted to hear (luckily, not sung by me) and I’m pretty sure that it was chosen for its musical relationship to the martial character of “Onward Christian Soldiers”, not for its message of comfort and redemption.
And so, faced with singing this song and knowing that it was right to sing this song at this time, I found it necessary to figure out just HOW to sing it. Because of all this baggage and because of what the music evokes in my brain, I knew that if I was going to actually sing this without it being simply a shout fest, well, I knew that I had work to do (and not just the mastering of the pitches and the rhythms).
Before we talk about the text, let’s spend a moment with the composer. And frankly, it is only a moment that we can spend, as we know very little about the amazing list of female ballad composers from the 19th century in England. Frances Allitsen, was actually MARY Frances Allitsen, born Mary Bumpus (yes, I would have wanted to change my name, too). She is the composer of over 200 songs, a romantic opera, a variety of piano and symphonic music, a graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music, and a concert singer in her own right. Today, we know her for one song — “The Lord is My Light (Psalm 27)”. Sadly, this is often the fate of composers and many are fortunate to be remembered even for the one song. Ah, but what a remembrance — this song is set in every key for every type of singer; it is performed by classical vocalists, gospel singers, choirs, jazz singers, orchestras, string ensembles — just about any musical configuration you can imagine. Why? Okay, the music may not be the most compelling tune you have ever heard, and at this point, we may consider it “antique” and probably “quaint”, but the music and the text as Allitsen chose to set it come together completely to say to the listener, through the words of a Psalm, the message of Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
At Calvary Baptist Church in DC, we are, as I have mentioned before, a lectionary-based ministry. But sometimes, for the sake of an important series, we do step off the path a bit, and right now is one of those times — we are in the middle of an amazing sermon series on The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The Gospel reading for the Third Sunday after Ephiphany was supposed to be Matthew 4:12-23, according to the standard lectionary, the calling of Peter and Andrew, James and John, the text that quotes directly from another of the lectionary passages of the day, Isaiah 9:1-4: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” The reason for the particular grouping of texts for this Sunday was, the common theme of light. But, because of our series, we read Matthew 5:1-16, otherwise known as the Beatitudes.
And so, I read the commentaries…I read the footnotes…I meditated on the text. I analyzed the differences between the editing of the text by the composer and the editing of the text by the creators of the Lectionary. And then, I finally got it.
The Psalms, in general, are (in more “today” terminology), the soundtrack of the Beatitudes. That may seem a simplistic analysis, but bear with me. Let’s look specifically at Psalm 27.
You may have seen, particularly in the Psalms, “headings” above the text…for example, you will often see “A Psalm of David” printed above a specific psalm text, or “To the leader”. These superscripts are actually in the original, and often contain terms for which we cannot find a translation. We suspect that some of the words may refer to a tune or be some other direct musical instruction. But there are sometimes, other headings, generally added by an editor or translator, designed to help guide the reader in the understanding of the text. In my older edition of the NRSV, the heading above Psalm 27 is “A Song of Confidence”. That heading fits perfectly to my old understanding of this psalm and in many ways, it fits the musical setting by Allitsen in so many ways, a setting with its march like quality of music for victory in battle. But my new Oxford Annotated translation carries the heading (which, in this editon, actually appears as a footnote): “Longing to find the Lord in the Temple despite obstacles.”
I realized finally, that, the reason that Psalm 27 is so confusing to me, and that Allitsen’s setting has bee so difficult for me to approach, this reason is that Psalm 27 combines two different psalm genres: the song of trust (which we hear in vv. 1-6) and the individual petition (vv. 7-14). And an individual petition, the cry for protection and safety and preservation and oneness with God, the individual petition is a cry for comfort. And that cry shows both our human failing and our trust, because if we had no faith, would we cry out at all? In our fear and with our entreaties, we show that wear poor in spirit; we are mourning; and with faith of the Psalmist, we too can know the safety of the Temple and the high rock; we can realize the peace and comfort of the Kingdom of Heaven.
There is a reason that we continue to sing the Psalms, and that reason is rooted, not just in their beauty as literature, nor just in their value as historical hymn and prayer. The humanity of the Psalms leads us that place in our deepest spirit where we can truly understand the gift offered to us by the Beatitudes. Just like the solo or hymn that comes before the sermon, they give us a musical moment in which we can understand, a soundtrack for our humanity.