Simcha Song (Ps 81)

Midrash on Psalm 81 (1-4, 8, 11)

Composition, lyrics and audio © Alexander Massey, 12 Sep 2011

I love those old songs that have two melodies that overlap each other; one melody is like a fast patter song, and the other lyrical, and the two ‘converge’ in one rich texture. The music for Simcha Song was written in early September 2011 to welcome a new member of the Jewish people in a ‘Convergence’ (conversion) ceremony with the London Ruach Chavurah community. The words came much later, when I was preparing for a celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of my friends Wendy and Brian. At the time, I was also studying the third book of Psalms, and my lyric is my free-wheeling response to selected verses from Psalm 81.

The first section/voice is designed to reflect the sense of exuberant joy in the opening of the psalm, and reworks themes from verses 1-4. I wanted this piece, ideally, to be accessible to everyone (including non-religious people) who might be present at a celebration so that as many as possible could enjoy taking part. I was concerned that some attending a celebration, especially a religious celebration, might find the mention or concept of ‘God’ controversial or alienating.At the same time, given my own convictions, I would not be happy excluding the God principle (however that might be defined). So ‘Sing joyously to God our strength’ has been transformed into ‘consider what’s the Cause that draws applause, and just what makes the darkness [literal or metaphorical] scatter, and puts food upon our platter, and makes every person matter and complete’. Each person can decide for themselves how to interpret my lines (religiously or non-religiously).

Now as we rest from toil and trouble all our hearts begin to bubble; from our merry rabble tumbles happy babble.
So with all our hearts aflutter let’s put on our party schmutter, chitter chatter, utter, natter, yatter, but …
Through the noise and roars we should stop and pause, and consider what’s the Cause that draws applause,
And just what makes the darkness scatter and puts food upon our platter and makes every person matter and complete.

Verse 8 reads: ‘In distress you called and I rescued you; I answered you from the secret place of thunder, I tested you at the waters of Meribah [word root: ‘bitterness]’. The words of the second section/voice introduce a note of sadness. At every celebration, the truth is that usually someone perhaps feels the absence of a loved one, some sense of loss, the ending of an era as a new one begins, or they may be struggling with some private troubles. To feel both joy and sadness is real, and we cannot truly feel one without the other being also possible.

At this moment of great gladness,
Bless all who feel sadness.
Tears and laughter both play their part.
Love brings healing; open your heart.

The third section/voice picks up on verse 11: ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt; open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.’ What are the forces that liberate? Hope, inspiration, openness, love, community, commitment to action. I couldn’t resist playing with the last line of the original Hebrew verse. What celebration – especially a Jewish one – would be complete without food?

Let us join as One in hope and inspiration,
Free our hearts and minds and souls in celebration,
Open wide our hearts, our hearts and minds for love so sweet;
And let’s not forget, no, not forget our bodies: let’s eat!

There are touches of musical word painting throughout this song. In the first section/voice, the music and the sounds of the words themselves reflect the busy, bouncing, babble of a celebration. At ‘through the noise and roars, we should stop and pause’ (bb 9-11), there are musical rests (moments of silence) after ‘roars’ and ‘pause’ – the music does what the words say. In the second section/voice, ‘gladness’ (b 21) has a cheerfully rising motif, while ‘sadness’ (bb 24-25) dips downwards at the end, and ‘laughter’ (b 27) has a rippling motif. Throughout the second section/voice the notes are generally longer, which introduces a thoughtful, lyrical counterpoint to the first section/voice. The third section/voice, which is more buoyant than the second, uses higher notes and a swinging rhythm; the words ‘free’ (b 38) and ‘open’ (b 41) stand out as the highest notes of the piece, with ‘open’ bouncing into prominence through syncopation, and, for that moment, the third voice is the only one singing.

Performance notes:
  1. This is a 3 part round of a 48 bar tune. If the singers are confident, everyone can learn all 48 bars and sing them as a round.
  2. In order to be more inclusive of the less musically confident (or to save learning time), the 48 bars can be split into three 16 bar sections, and singers can choose to sing whichever section they feel most comfortable with.
  3. Singers are encouraged to work out their own performance version of this. For example, because the words are rich in meaning and go past very quickly, it works well to sing the whole 48 bars slowly the first time, so that listeners can hear what is there. Then it’s good to have just two voices singing as a round, so that we can hear how the parts fit alongside each other (e.g. voices 1 and 2 in bb 10-11 / bb 26-27). The nonsense syllables provide an opportunity to have a vocal interlude of music without actual words – a nigun as a 3 part round. And, of course, it’s important to have all three voices going at once by the end!
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