Ye gates, lift up your heads

Katrina DowlingMusicLeave a Comment

Recently we explored the meaning of antiphon and antiphonal in Sound returning sound. My basic definition of antiphonal music as we now us the term, and as it has been used for much of its history in church music, is:

a performance style in which the ensemble is divided into distinct groups, which perform alternately and together

Even if you’re not familiar with this musical term, straight away you might be thinking of the psalms and other Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry is often structured in parallel or paired units that are amenable to this type of performance.

This beautiful poetic device can be seen, not only in the large structure of Hebrew poetry, but also at the small scale, for example when two successive lines are paired in meaning, such as:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it

In this pairing, the second line is a paraphrase of the first; it restates each idea in a new way. Images proliferate. The paraphrase opens out more depth in the meaning as it lingers over each statement.

As Ruth apRoberts has pointed out, Hebrew poetry is uniquely translatable into other languages by virtue of its play on these parallelisms, which she calls meaning-rhymes – thus, we are extremely lucky, because we can enjoy this feature of Hebrew poetry in English and other translations.[1]

Psalm 24 is full of these paired lines. Here’s the psalm side-by-side with a popular metrical paraphrase which, you can see, successfully retains both the meanings and structure:

  Psalm 24
New Revised Standard Version
Metrical paraphrase of Psalm 24
The Scottish Psalter (1650)
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, The earth belongs unto the Lord,
and all that it contains;
  the world, and those who live in it; The world that is inhabited,
and all that there remains.
2 for he has founded it on the seas, For the foundations thereof
he on the seas did lay,
  and established it on the rivers. And he hath it established
upon the floods to stay.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who is the man that shall ascend
into the hill of God?
  And who shall stand in his holy place? Or who within his holy place
shall have a firm abode?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, Whose hands are clean, whose heart is pure,
  who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.

             and unto vanity
Who hath not lifted up his soul,
nor sworn deceitfully.
5 They will receive blessing from the Lord, He from th’ Eternal shall receive
the blessing him upon,
  and vindication from the God of their salvation. And righteousness, ev’n from the God
of his salvation.
6 Such is the company of those who seek him, This is the generation
that after him enquire,
  who seek the face of the God of Jacob. O Jacob, who do seek thy face
with their whole heart’s desire.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! Ye gates, lift up your heads on high;
  and be lifted up, O ancient doors! ye doors that last for aye,
Be lifted up,
  that the King of glory may come in.                          that so the King
of glory enter may.
8 Who is the King of glory? But who of glory is the King?
  The Lord, strong and mighty, The mighty Lord is this;
  the Lord, mighty in battle. Ev’n that same Lord, that great in might
and strong in battle is.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates! Ye gates, lift up your heads;
  and be lifted up, O ancient doors!                                              ye doors,
doors that do last for aye,
Be lifted up,
  that the King of glory may come in.                            that so the King
of glory enter may.
10 Who is this King of glory? But who is he that is the King
of glory? who is this?
  The Lord of hosts, The Lord of hosts, and none but he,
  he is the King of glory. the King of glory is.

Let’s look at a metrical setting of Psalm 24 that contains a variety of antiphonal effects. Andrew Thomson (1778-1831) took verses 7-10 of the Scottish Psalter’s Psalm 24 and set them to the tune he named after his church, St. George’s Edinburgh. He doesn’t use alternating groups of performers to highlight the paraphrase-pairs, though; instead, he uses antiphonal music to accentuate the asking and answering of questions in this portion of the psalm. Thomson also introduces some repeats of lines and adds Hallelujahs and Amens.

Here’s an outline of how he divides a four-part choir to sing in distinct groups. Verse 2 is an exact musical repeat of verse 1 (that’s strophic musical structure), but even within the single verse setting, Thomson deploys the choir in four different groupings and four different musical textures. I’ve indicated the voice parts as All, S (soprano), A (alto), T (tenor), B (bass). There’s a recording, courtesy of the Highland Harmony Singers, if you’d like to listen to it at the same time:

verse 1 Ye gates, lift up your heads on high;
Ye doors that last for aye,
Be lifted up, that so the King
Of glory enter may.
All, 4-part harmony
  But who of glory is the King? TB, 2-part harmony
  The mighty Lord is this; SAT, unison (at octave)
  E’en that same Lord that great in might
And strong in battle is—
SAB, 3-part harmony
  E’en that same Lord that great in might
And strong in battle is.

 

repeated text; All, 4-part harmony

 

verse 2 Ye gates, lift up your heads; ye doors,
Doors that do last for aye,
Be lifted up, that so the King
Of glory enter may.
All, 4-part harmony
  But who is He that is the King? TB, 2-part harmony
  The King of glory, who is this? SAT, unison (at octave)
  The Lord of hosts, and none but He
The King of Glory is—
SAB, 3-part harmony
  The Lord of hosts, and none but He
The King of Glory is.

 

repeated text; All, 4-part harmony

 

coda Hallelujah (x 5)
Amen (x 3)
All, 4-part harmony

The overall result is indeed impressive, especially with the Hallelujahs and Amens, and this setting has traditionally been associated with majestic occasions. In fact, I’ve been referring to this setting as if it’s for a four-part choir, but the majesty and the enjoyment of the antiphonal effects is all the greater if we sing it as a song for the entire assembly singing in four voice parts – the recording above from Highland Harmony Singers is an example; they describe it as ‘choir with congregation (tutored)’. Visit Psalm Singing Online to hear more of their singing, mostly from the Scottish Psalter of 1650.

Antiphonal effects in music can remind us of the value of everyone in the community taking part in the singing, and the rewards of taking part tend to suggest that singing in worship is not a specialist role, but is the role of every social being: ‘the world, and those who live in it’.

 

[1] Ruth apRoberts, ‘Old Testament Poetry: The Translatable Structure’, Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 92/5 (1977), 987-1004.

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