Shiru Ladonai Shir Chadash (Ps 96)

Music & Audio © 2019 Alexander Massey

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In Jewish scripture and liturgy we are often encouraged to ‘sing to the Lord a new song’. How many times can we sing a song before it’s no longer new? What happens then?

If we like a song, and it becomes part of our regular communal prayer, it can enhance our experience both of prayer, and of community. The downside is that we can start to take a familiar song for granted, and not pay attention to the words, intention or prayerful dimension. For liturgy and prayer, does that mean we should then look for a new tune, or compose a new one? Perhaps. As a composer, I find it spiritually and emotionally nourishing, as well as intellectually stimulating, to write a new setting of prayer book or Biblical text. It renews my engagement with the prayer, its connection to Jewish history, its ideas, its texture, and heart. A skilful musical setting can illuminate meanings old and new, and help us connect emotionally with the words.

At the same time, we should not rely on the composer, the singers and musicians, the leader of the service, or even the text, to take us into God-connection. Each of us is also the pray-er – the one who prays. We must bring the text into ourselves, and we must bring ourselves into the text, into the prayer. Making ourselves present before God, we can open our attention to words we know well, and music we know well. And in that moment, we can notice what we notice, in the music, the words, in ourselves, in the world around us, knowing that thismoment is new. And so, singing familiar words and music, we are, in fact, singing to God a genuinely new moment of song.

The verses of this psalm are found, in almost exactly the same form, in 1 Chronicles 16:23ff, which tells the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem amidst great celebrations. On Friday evening, at the Kabbalat Shabbatservice that brings in the sabbath, a sequence of psalms is sung for the days of the week, and Ps 96 represents the second day (Monday). Midrash Tehillim(ancient Jewish commentary on the psalms) suggests that the threefold repetition of Shiru(‘sing’) in the opening verses alludes to the three traditional prayer times of morning, afternoon and evening.

The musical setting, and choice of verses

The psalm has 13 verses, and I have set seven of them (see below). These seven include the core themes of the psalm, as well as offering a satisfying literary structure that provides a clear progression of ideas. The threefold repetition of the imperative Shiru ladonai (vv.1-2 – ‘sing’) finds an echo in the threefold imperative Havu ladonai (vv.7-8 – ‘ascribe’), and the threefold Y’(vv.11-12 – ‘let’), providing an opportunity to adapt these lines into three verses with an identical melody; and the shape of the melody responds to the contour of the verbal repetition. These three verses move from a focus on one person or group, to include all humanity, and finally all of nature and the created universe. Verse 13 switches away from the activities of me/us, the peoples of the earth, and Creation itself, towards what God will do with God’s qualities of justice and faithfulness. The metre of the text shifts as well, and I have reflected this in a new musical section with its own distinct character.

It is fitting in this time of climate crisis to sing a universal, unifying psalm that encompasses the mineral earth, the plant and animal kingdoms, the air and heavens, and the human family. If our life is a song, who should we sing this to? ‘Sing to the Lord’. What should we sing? A song of renewed awareness, and renewed commitment to God, humanity, and all Creation. What better time to sing Psalm 96 than at Shabbat, the time in the week when we reconnect to our vision of peace for all, and a world made whole once more.

This was composed for a concert based on Book 4 of the psalms, for the Society for Old Testament Study Conference, Oxford University July 2019. These verses are an important part of Yom Kippur liturgy, with the themes of sin and mercy, compassion and forgiveness. This project is a lovely example of how Biblical scholarship, music, Christianity and Judaism can evolve in harmony.

The words:

Shiru ladonai shir chadash, Shiru ladonai kol ha’aretz. Shiru ladonai bar’chu sh’mo, Bas’ru miyom l’yom y’shuato.

Sing to the Lord a new song, Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless His name, Proclaim day after day His salvation.

Havu ladonai mishp’chot amim, Havu ladonai kavod va’oz. Havu ladonai k’vod sh’mo, S’u minchah uvo’u l’chatsrotav.

Ascribe to the Lord, kindred of the peoples, Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of His name, Bring an offering, and come into His courts.

Yism’chu hashamayim v’tageil ha’aretz, Yiram hayam umlo’o. Ya’aloz sadai v’chol asher bo, Az y’ran’nu kol atzei ya’ar;

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the seas roar, and all that is in them; Let the fields exult, and all that is in them; Then shall all the forest trees sing with joy …

Lifnei adonai ki va, Ki va lishpot ha’aretz; Yishpot teiveil b’tzedek, V’amim be’emunato.

… in the presence of the LORD, for He comes, for He comes to govern the earth; He will govern the world with justice, and peoples with His faithfulness.