Sunday, March 16, 2014

Indexing Psalms and Music

by Meridith Murray

Those of us who are church musicians are always looking for new insights into sacred texts. Music scholarship can help us find and carry these discoveries to our choirs, congregations, and pastors. Such is the case with a book published just before the end of 2013, Psalms and Music by Max Stern of Ariel University (Jerusalem). I am well acquainted with this work because I had the privilege of indexing it. (There are actually three indexes: an Index of Scriptural References, an Index of Composers, and a General Index.) It was a treat for me to be able to contribute to a treatise that coincides with my academic background (a degree in music history from the University of the Pacific), and a still greater pleasure owing to the depth and breadth of the scholarship I found there.

Since Stern is based in Israel, his work is perhaps not so well known in the United States, but this book (and its companion work, Bible and Music, 2011, both published by Ktav Publishers in Brooklyn, NY) is a resource of real significance for church musicians and scholars. Max Stern (b. 1947) is a composer, conductor, musicologist, and music critic whose compositions represent a synthesis of East and West in contemporary and traditional genres. He received the Israel Composers’ League Lieberson Prize in 1990 and an award from the Japanese Society for Contemporary Music in 1991. Stern has also participated in international festivals and conferences as composer, conductor, and lecturer.

In Psalms and Music, he treats the history of psalm settings, from early Christian church music to modern jazz and Mediterranean pop-rock. For the indexer, Psalms is the “metatopic”: everything in the book relates to this one subject. Thus the entries become Psalm categorizations, Psalm settings, Psalmody, Psalms by type, occasional Psalms, Psalters, and of course, just plain Psalms: Temple psalms, Hallel psalms, Hallelujah psalms, psalms for morning and evening prayer, for Easter, Hanukkah, Purim, and the Tenth of Tevet. It is a long list.

As for the music, Stern chooses examples from every age—Baroque polychoral style, for instance (Schütz, “Danket dem Herrn, denn er ist freundlich”), to neo-Hasidic music (Schlomo Carlebach, “Eso Enai”)—for analysis and  commentary, emphasizing the composers’ common goal of capturing the spirit and spirituality of the chosen psalm text.

An Appendix, occupying nearly half  the book, lists each of the 150 psalms and the musical settings they have fostered. For Psalm 1 (“Blessed is the Man” / “Beatus Vir”), we find 35 compositions, the earliest by the noted Slovenian Protestant Primož Trubar (1508–86), and the most recent by such  composers as Levente Gyongyosi (b. 1975, Romania) and Jane Marshall (b. 1924, Texas). Psalm 150 (“Praise Ye the Lord” / “Laudate Dominum” / “Singet dem Herren ein neues Lied”), at the end, finds 111 settings, by such composers as Clemens non Papa,  J. S. Bach, Ives, Kodály, and Max Stern himself. Next comes a list of settings that use more than one psalm or a psalm and another biblical text; discography; bibliography; and my three indexes.

I thought briefly about indexing this remarkable Appendix, too, but the result threatened to grow longer than the main text. In any event, the wealth of information to be found here delights in its admixture of familiar names and titles alongside the new and recherché. Psalms and Music is thus both a compendium and a highly detailed work of reference. Stern’s claim is sweeping, and in the end convincing: that the Book of Psalms is “one of the foundations upon which is erected the edifice of Western music.”

Meridith Murray is a freelance indexer and church organist.

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