Composition and audio © Alexander Massey, October 2011
Psalm 150 not only completes Book 5 of the Psalms (tehillim), but is the last of all the Psalms. As such, its message is particularly important as a summation – a vision – of what our central intention should be in prayer and liturgical song. The Psalms cover a huge range of human experience and emotion, including anger, pain, doubt, sorrow, yearning, hope, pleading, revenge, wonder, as well as – of course – praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 150 focuses on hallel ‘praise’, a word used many times in this text. It is recited as part of daily morning prayer in the psukei d’zimra (verses of song), and in the musaf amidah (standing prayer in the late morning service) at Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year); and v3, mentioning the shofar (ram’s horn) is found in the repetition of the morning amidah at Rosh Hashanah.
References to the shofar call can be found in Psalm 89:16 (used at Rosh Hashanah), and Numbers 10:1-10. The latter passage, from the Torah portion B’ha’alotecha, is the source of some of the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah, in which the sounds of the shofar mark three ideas: malchuyot-kingship (“I am the Lord your God”), shofarot (“you shall sound the shofars/trumpets”), and zichronot (“they shall be a reminder of you before God”).
The music is a 32 bar canon for four voices, to represent the interplay of multiple sounds described in the psalm. The open fifths (tenor: bb8-9, 10-11, 13-14, 22) and the figure on t’ruah (tenor: b24) evoke the call of the shofar, as do the rapid single-pitch triplets (tenor: bb 21, 23) (although these could also be heard as the clattering cymbals ..). The word t’ruah (lit. a ‘joyful sound’) is the name of one of the traditional call patterns on the shofar, and is at least nine rapid blasts, similar to the setting here on the words hal’lu hu b’tziltz’lei t’ruah.
- Hallelujah! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in the firmament of his power!
- Praise him for his mighty acts! Praise him according to his exceeding greatness!
- Praise him with the sound of the shofar! Praise him with the harp and the lyre!
- Praise him with the tambourine and dance! Praise him with stringed instruments and the pipe!
- Praise him with sounding cymbals! Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
- Let every thing that breathes praise the Lord! Hallelujah!