Psalm 150

Matthew 28.16-20

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Trinity Sunday

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Sirius XM satellite radio’s classical station, Symphony Hall, played the top 76 classical pieces as chosen by their staff.  Usually when a radio station does the top anything over a long weekend, it’s like the top 300 or top 500 hits, but when you’re dealing with symphonies and concerti and such, you can only squeeze 76 pieces into a three-day weekend.  A number of listeners, myself included, tried to guess what the number one classical piece would be, and most of us guessed wrong.  I would have said it is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the choral symphony that gives us the Ode to Joy our choir just shared with us.  But Beethoven’s Ninth only came in second place.  I wonder if any of our choristers can guess what piece came in first – it is a choral piece.   It was Bach’s great B minor mass, and I have to say, I can’t disagree with the choice.  The B minor is a magisterial and profound piece of music.  But with all due respect to Bach, this morning I’d like to focus on the two pieces our choir is bringing us on this Choir Appreciation Sunday, the Beethoven Ode to Joy and the 150th psalm.  One reigns more or less supreme in the world of classical music, the other stands as the musical climax and capstone of the entire psalter.

       “O friends, let us sing more cheerful songs, more songs full of joy!

       Joy, bright spark of divinity.

       All. creatures drink of joy at nature’s breast;

       Just and unjust alike taste her gift, she gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine.

       You millions, I embrace you.  This kiss is for all the world!

       Children, above the starry canopy there must dwell a loving Creator.

       Do you fall in worship, you millions?  World, do you know your Creator?

       Seek God in the heavens; above the stars is where God dwells.”

These words which we spoke together at the beginning of worship are part of a poem by eighteenth century poet, playwright, philosopher and physician, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller.  It is the poem adopted by Ludwig von Beethoven for the fourth and final movement, the choral movement, of his ninth and final symphony.  This morning’s choir anthem, “Ode to Joy,” takes Beethoven’s ninth as its root and inspiration, and it is a favorite of many choirs, congregations and classical listeners alike.  It stands as the first major symphony to include a choral movement; and it was also the longest symphony for its time, clocking in at around 70 minutes of music.  In fact, here’s a piece of musical trivia for you:  when the compact disc – for those of us old enough to remember CDs – was first being engineered, the technicians needed some parameters about just how much music could reasonably fit on a disc while still preserving the musical quality.  They decided that the best rule of thumb would be that you have to be able to fit Beethoven’s entire 9th Symphony on one disc, which is why most CDs now hold approximately 70 minutes of music.

One of the reasons the ninth continues to resonate to this day I think is because it is such an inspired marriage of music and words.  von Schiller’s poem is an ode to both creator and creation, from the lowest - “Even the worm can feel contentment” - to the most sublime - “and the cherub stands before God.”  And it is insistent throughout that humankind are brothers and sisters to one another because we are all alike children of the Creator.  “Thy magic power reunited all that custom has divided, all men become brothers under the sway of thy gentle wings.” And from a poetic and musical point of view is the interplay of the words “Friends” and “Joy,” in German “Freunde,” and “Freude,” throughout the movement.  Since he was 22 years old, Beethoven had been wanting to put this poem to music, and finally, at the end of his career, he made it happen.  The Ode to Joy and the Bach B minor mass, each in its own way a testimony to the work of God in creation, and in the opinion of many if not most, constitute the two greatest hits in classical music.

Our choir’s other anthem this morning is also a greatest hit of sorts, the 150th and final Psalm.  There are more beloved psalms – the 23rd of course comes to mind – there are longer psalms – Psalm 119 goes on for 176 verses – and there are more majestic psalms, but the 150th really stands as the apex of the psalter.  Like Beethoven’s 9th, it is not only filled with joy, but it is also the grand finale of a grand and wonderful work of art:  “Praise the Lord!   Praise God in the sanctuary; praise God in the mighty firmament!  Praise God for mighty deeds; praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness!”  But then, unlike nearly every other psalm, it focuses, not on the “why” of praise, but rather on the “how” of praise:  it summonses the sacred symphony:  “Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp!  Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe!  Praise God with clanging cymbals; praise God with loud clashing cymbals!”  If there were ever any doubts that the book of Psalms constitutes among other things Israel’s hymnal, this final psalm puts them to rest.

Late in his career, Duke Ellington composed three sacred pieces.  The first “Concert of Sacred Music,” as they came to be called, was performed at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the second at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City and the third at London’s Westminster Abbey.  The first is built largely around the biblical story of creation and contains pieces like In the Beginning God, New World a’Coming, and the probably best-known Come Sunday.  The third sacred concert centers on the idea of Love, God’s love for us and our love for one another.  But it is the Second Sacred Concert that came to my attention this week because like the book of the Psalms, it concludes with a rousing rendition of Psalm 150; the piece is called Praise God and Dance. 

“Praise God with the sound of the trumpet; praise God with the sultry harp, praise God with the sound of the timbrel, and dance, dance, dance, dance - dance, dance, dance, dance.  Praise God with the sound of the string instruments, the organ, the cymbal, the loud high sounding cymbal, let everything that has breath praise God, Praise the Lord, praise ye the Lord, praise God and dance, dance, dance, dance…”

Sound familiar?  It’s taken straight from the Psalms, like the anthem our choir will be singing in a couple minutes.  In fact, let’s just take a couple minutes and listen to Ellington’s take on Psalm 150; this recording is from the 1969 All-Star White House tribute to Duke Ellington.  The original version is over ten minutes long, but this abbreviated version comes in at about two minutes.

[recording, Mary Mayo, vocal]

That was just the vocal, so we didn’t hear the jazz instrumentals that had all those barcelonés dancing in the aisles, but I think we can still hear the sense of wonder and praise and joy that both Ellington and the psalmist want us to feel.  And isn’t that one of the things music does best?  It invites us to hear and participate, yes, but it also invites us to feel, to experience, to internalize that wonder and praise and joy in ways that words alone cannot quite convey.  And so it falls to prophets like David and Beethoven and Ellington – and Karli and our choir - to open a window to the divine that we might be touched with the kind of holy harmony that unites the universe, and brings a soothing solace to the human soul.

Amen.

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