Written and first performed for the Oxford Unitarians service at Harris Manchester College, Yom Hashoah 5774/2014
Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 23 January 2014
Many commentators have seen this psalm as expressing total confidence in God. The King James Bible translates the opening line as “I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” as though help is expected, and understood to be available in the hills. In fact, the second half is actually a question, so it should read: “I lift my eyes up to the hills. Where will my help come from?” In other words, the poet is not confident there is any help coming at all. Moreover, the question is ‘from where’, not ‘from whom’ – so in the opening moment there is no helper figure in sight, or perhaps even in mind. In my English lyric, I have aimed to clarify this reading with my addition of “Help! Help!”. In the second verse, the speaker then names God as the source of help.
The subsequent verses then switch to the second person singular – ‘you’. This could well be a second speaker responding to reassure the first. Verse 4 begins ‘Hineh!’, meaning ‘stop, and really pay attention!’; the speaker seems to be trying to convince someone of his claim that God really is present (hence my taking a little licence to translate this as ‘surely’). There is another interesting turn in the language. The opening verse is asking for help (ezer). But the second speaker does not pick up on this word. Rather, he substitutes the word shomer, meaning ‘guard’ or ‘watch’, which is ambiguous – while God is described as being fully present, and never sleeping, He is not actually described as necessarily stepping in to help. Nevertheless, the word shomer is used in various forms six times in the psalm, reflected in the English as either ‘Guardian’, or the verb ‘guard’. Given that seven is the traditional Jewish number symbolizing perfection, I wonder whether the use of shomer only six times is an intentional clue about imperfection and lack of resolution in this psalm.
The verbs beginning with the letter yud could be translated as the future tense – ‘God will …’. But they could be translated as expressing a wish – ‘May God …’. In my English version of the psalm, I have explored this possibility by having the last two verses begin with ‘may’, which turns them into blessings. In this wording, they also convey some ambiguity, with both the hope that they will come true, and therefore the subtle implication that they might not. The wording avoids expressing any certainty that all will be well. In his commentary, Rabbi Benjamin Segal writes: “This may indeed be one of the clearest indications of the nature of biblical faith. Trust does not erase doubt. The glass is first and foremost half full, but there is no attempt to hide the fact that partially, it is empty.”
The ambiguity that I see in the words of Psalm 121 is echoed in the tonal ambiguity of the piece. Using the Jewish Yishtabach mode throughout made it possible to alternate between a brooding atmosphere (B minor / E minor), and more optimistic mood (G major).
The frequent use of the interval of the minor second points to the uneasiness lurking under the surface of the whole psalm (‘eyes’, ‘earth’, ‘slip’, ‘slumber’, ‘surely’, ‘strike you’, ‘night’, ‘guard you’, ‘evil’); but there are two important moments (bb20 and 32) where this minor second takes on a positive character when the music resolves into the major (more on this in a moment). There are further subtleties in the use of the minor second. The lowest occurrence is C-B. This is reserved for the lowest, ‘earthy’ moments of: the ‘eyes’ (b1, NB before they are ‘lifted’), ‘earth’ (b11), ‘slip’ (b13, of the foot on the earth), ‘strike you’ (b25, ie being struck down). The next lowest, G-F#, is used for the ambiguity between ‘help’ or its potential absence: helping coming (or not) in b6, God’s ‘slumber’ (b14), the questioning tone of ‘surely’ (b15), the danger of ‘night’ (b26). The highest minor second, C-B, retains some of this ambiguity, but ultimately resolves to a more comfortable place: ‘slumber’ (b16) and ‘sleep’ (b17) resolve to the major with ‘God’ (b20); ‘evil’ (b28) resolves with ‘may’ (b29) and ‘guard’ (b32). There is also a more hidden sub-narrative with these ‘minor second’ cross-references via the following:
b14 ‘slumber’ >> b16 ‘slumber’ (exact echo a 4th higher) >> ‘sleep’ (b17) >> ‘God’ (b20) >> ‘night’ (b26) >> ‘evil’ (b28) >> ‘may’ (b29) >> ‘guard’ (b32)
I read the psalm as having a three-part structure. The first section is bb1-11. The Hebrew text of this is a chiasmus, which is a mirror structure (sometimes of exact words, and sometimes of meanings). In this case, it is an abcd-dcba pattern:
(a) Esa einai (b) el heharim. (c) Meiayin yavo (d) ezri?
(a) I lift my eyes (b) to the mountains. (c) From where will come (d) my help?
(d) Ezri (c) mei’im YHVH oseh (b) shamayim (a) va-eretz.
(d) My help (c) from God the Creator (b) of heaven (a) and earth.
The mirrored concepts are:
a) lift eyes [implied: from earth] / earth
b) mountains / heaven
c) from where / from God
d) my help / my help
The music of section one has been composed to copy this same chiasmic structure. The beginning of the mirrored tune in b6 brings a more positive mood as the speaker affirms that there is help from God; but this mood diminishes by b10, and the return to earth.
Sections two and three (bb12-22, 23-35) have been treated strophically, as I see similarities in their literary structure. Each section begins with fears, and hopes of what will not happen – hence the minor keys -, and ends with affirmation of what God will do – hence the major key which is confidently stated by reaching the dominant note (D) in the penultimate bar and resolving to the tonic (G).
- Although this is a solo, given that there could be one speaker in the first section, with a response from someone else from section two onwards, two singers could perform this piece, or even a third person could sing the third section.