How long, O Lord

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

For the first three weeks in August 2015 we have a special lectionary series on the book of Job, and it’s accompanied by a study that our ministry team has called “Listening generously/ Living in community.”

As a musical marker of the season, we’ll be singing a round, “How long, O Lord” (Malcolm Gordon). It’s set for four voices, but in fact it’s a round in three parts with a counter-melody that constitutes the fourth voice.

The text is inspired by Psalm 13; it imitates the psalm’s three-part structure, but enhances the sense of dialogue by having God reply explicitly in the middle section. In the original psalm, the psalmist is asking for an answer in the middle section, but the answer is only implied:

Psalm 13 (NRSV) “How long, O Lord”
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
How long, O Lord, will you forget?
How long till you let your face shine on us?
O Love
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
I have heard you crying out,
I have come to recue you, my child.
O Love
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Unfailing love – my heart rejoices;
Light to my eyes, heaven’s sweet graces to us.
O Love

Like some of the most enjoyable rounds to sing (think of “Dona nobis pacem”), “How long, O Lord” has a different melodic character in each section, so that it builds up into a varied texture as the voices enter. What is notable about this round is that Gordon has matched each section’s melodic character with the way the dialogue unfolds.

First the soul laments – this lament section is restricted to the lowest part of the song’s range, and is almost entirely confined to the interval of a fourth:

How long O Lord 1

The reply comes in a reassuring lilt, descending over the interval of a fifth from the octave above the first section:

How long O Lord 2

In response, the soul rejoices. The response is in the upper part of the song’s range, leaping up a fifth and escaping to the note above, the melodic climax of the song:

How long O Lord 3

We have a whole narrative in miniature here, which is satisfying in itself; but in the worship context there is an extra layer of interest in singing this song as a round.

There is a suggestion in this music that the dialogue, the relationship, is ongoing. And we notice that different singers are at different points in their dialogues at any moment.

How does it talk to our experience of lament psalms and of Job’s story when we find that we get to journey repeatedly through searching – receiving – responding?

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