One Dozen PSALMS for Small(er) Church Choirs

Singing psalm settings is a wonderful practice for choirs of all sizes in churches of all denominations. If your choir is small(er), consider adding some of these well-written pieces to your choir’s repertoire either this year or in the future.

  1. The Twenty-Third Psalm – Psalm 23 (2-part mixed, keyboard, opt. treble inst.) | T. Shaw, Concordia
  2. Wait on the Lord – Psalm 27:1, 11, 14 (2-part, keyboard) | T. Shaw, Concordia
  3. Sing Praises to the Lord – Psalm 30:4-5, 11-12 (Unison/2-part, keyboard, opt. treble inst.) | T. Shaw, Kjos
  4. Create in Me a Clean Heart – Psalm 51:10-13 (SAB, organ) | C.F. Mueller, G. Schirmer
  5. God Be Merciful unto Us – Psalm 67 (Unison, organ) | D. Pinkham, E.C. Schirmer (recording)
  6. O How Amiable – Psalm 84:1-3 (SAB, organ) | C. Schalk, MorningStar
  7. O How Amiable – Psalm 84:1-4 (SATB, organ) | R. Vaughan Williams, Oxford
  8. Bow Down Your Ear – Psalm 86 :1-3, 5, 11 (Unison, piano) | A. Miller, Augsburg Fortress
  9. Jubilate Deo – Psalm 100 (Unison or SA, organ, opt. percussion) | D. Wood, Augsburg Fortress
  10. Psalm 117 (2-part mixed, keyboard) | T. Shaw, Concordia
  11. Psalm 121 (Unison/2-part, piano) | T. Shaw, Choristers Guild
  12. Psalm 150 (2-part mixed, organ) | J. Harper, Oxford

© 2016 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Songs of the Season: NUNC DIMITTIS

Presentation at the TempleMany composers have written choral settings of the Nunc Dimittis, and one of the most hauntingly beautiful is by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (listen to it on YouTube). This canticle of the Christmas season was sung by Simeon, as a blessing on the infant Jesus, and it is recorded in Luke 2:29-32. During this season of Advent, as you wait on the Lord and hope in his promises, consider the circumstances that produced this stirring song.

Waiting is never easy, for children and adults alike. Children (and some adults, too) find it difficult to wait for Christmas morning to arrive, while adults (and some children, too) find it difficult to wait in line at the stores or on the roads. No one really likes to wait, which makes the story of Simeon all the more meaningful. When Jesus was eight days old, Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple so purification rites could be performed, according to the Law. And the Holy Spirt caused Simeon to be there at just the right time. Who was Simeon? He was an old man, a patient man who knew what it means to wait on the Lord. God had promised Simeon that he would live to see the Lord in the flesh. So for many years Simeon waited to see Jesus, until finally, at the end of his life, he did. He held Jesus, and he worshiped the Lord. His blessing on the child is an expression of thanksgiving for God’s gift of salvation, offered to all nations of the world. His words were so profound that Mary and Joseph were astounded. Simeon blessed them, too, helping them to understand, at least in some small measure, the gravity of what was taking place. Simeon was a man of patience, yes, but he was also a man of peace. He begins his blessing by saying, essentially, “Now I can die in peace.” What enables someone to face death so quietly, with such serenity? Faith in the Child. To all who patiently wait for his coming, to all who put their trust in him, the Lord offers blessing beyond measure. Truly, this is good news! (adapted from Behold He Comes: Advent Reflections)

Choral Settings of the Nunc Dimittis

Nunc Dimittis, A. Pärt | Difficult (SATB, a cappella)

Nunc Dimittis, H. Helvey | Moderate (SATB, organ) ~ listen to a recording here

Nunc Dimittis, F. Mendelssohn | Moderate (SATB, a cappella)

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, R. Vaughan Williams | Easy (SATB, organ/piano)

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, T. Shaw | Easy (SA/TB, soloists, piano)

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Songs of the Season: GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO

Angels Announcing the Birth of ChristUndoubtedly, one of the most well-known songs of the season is that of the angels: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” (“Glory to God in the highest!”). This month, carols like “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” echo through churches and shopping malls alike, quoting their song and reminding us of the mysterious events of that first Christmas night (Luke 2:8-14). Countless composers have been drawn to this song, especially since the “Gloria” (in its expanded form) factors so prominently in Western classical music. One of my favorite settings comes from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Op. 37 (listen to a recording here). During this month of Advent, consider again the awe and wonder of the angels’ message and be renewed in your own worship of God.

On the night Jesus was born, God sent an army of angels, the most powerful spiritual beings in all creation, to proclaim his peace on earth. And, the people to whom that host of angels spoke, the very first people to receive the good news, were shepherds! At that time shepherds were so low in the social strata, so despised by the upper classes, their testimony was inadmissible in court. Yet God used them to begin spreading the news of his Son’s birth. What a contrast—lowly shepherds in a field and heavenly angels in the sky. For many years, angels have captured peoples’ imaginations, and their portrayal in songs, paintings, poems, sculptures, films, and even Christmas ornaments is abundant. But, certainly, one of the most fascinating things about angels is their keen interest in the mystery of salvation. The apostle Peter writes that the good news of the gospel is something “into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12). And Jesus himself told his disciples there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7). Even though they played a part in its unfolding, God’s gift of salvation and the love he shows for his people astounds the angels. An angel told a virgin she would bear the Son of God—this is amazing. Angels proclaimed God’s peace to society’s outcasts—this is fascinating. An army of angels, with the power to rescue Jesus, was held at bay during his betrayal and arrest—this is perplexing. Angels rolled the stone away from Jesus’ tomb—this is miraculous. Angels received Jesus at his ascension into heaven—this is awesome. And now, in joyful wonder, angels surround God’s throne, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). Thanks be to God for his message of peace and salvation. (adapted from Behold He Comes: Advent Reflections)

Choral Settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo

All Night Vigil, Op. 37, mvt. 7, “Glory to God in the Highest,” S. Rachmaninoff | Difficult (SSAATTBB, with divisi, a cappella)

Gloria in Excelsis Deo, D. Cherwien | Difficult (SATB, with divisi, opt. Woodblock, Triangle, and Log Drum)

Glory to God in the Highest, R. Thompson | Moderate/Difficult (SATB, a cappella) ~ view a performance here

Glory to God in the Highest, G. B. Pergolesi | Moderate (SATB, keyboard)

A Christmas Gloria!, T. Shaw | Easy (Unison/2-part, piano) ~ children’s choir

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

Songs of the Season: BENEDICTUS

Jacopo_Pontormo_031Another canticle, perhaps less well-known than Mary’s song, is the Benedictus of Zechariah (recorded in Luke 1:68-79). This has not garnered the extensive musical treatment that the Magnificat has, but American composer Dan Forrest recently wrote a moving anthem on this text, with additional original lyrics by R. C. Sproul (listen to a recording here). During the month of December, as the days become shorter and much of the natural world enters a period of dormancy, take a moment to reflect upon Zechariah’s promise of light and life.

Not long before Jesus was born, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, a priest, and gave him a wonderful promise—he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son named John, who would prepare people for the coming Messiah. John would preach judgment for sin and call people to repentance. Because he and Elizabeth had no children and were very old, Zechariah knew this would take a miracle, and he could not believe it (Luke 1:18). And because of Zechariah’s unbelief, the Lord removed his ability to speak. When it was time to name his son, Zechariah could not fulfill his fatherly obligation to name the child. Instead, Elizabeth said to call him John. But their relatives were confused—why not name the boy “Zechariah,” according to custom? Finally, Zechariah wrote “His name is John” on a tablet, and after this the Lord restored his speech. What he said next is a Spirit-inspired prophecy abounding in thanksgiving and praise to God, the Redeemer. He recounts many of God’s actions in redemptive history, he acknowledges John’s role in preparing people for the Lord’s forgiveness, and he recalls God’s promise of light to those enslaved by the darkness of death—“the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” The prophet Malachi, to whom Zechariah refers, first spoke of this “sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). What a beautiful picture of the Messiah bringing light to the dark places of our lives. This promise of light finds its fulfillment in the one who referred to himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Through his Son, God offers light to those living through the darkest of circumstances, and he offers life to those walking through the valley of the shadow of death. This is good news! (adapted from Behold He Comes: Advent Reflections)

Choral Settings of the Benedictus

Benedictus, Op. 34, no. 2, E. Elgar | Difficult (SATB, organ)

The Morning and Evening Service, Op. 10, C. V. Stanford | Difficult (SATB, organ)

Benedictus in A, J. Goss | Difficult (SATB, a cappella)

Blessed Is the Lord (Benedictus), D. Forrest | Moderate (SATB, piano, with opt. violin, cello, and drum)

Blest Be the God of Israel, arr. M. Burkhardt | Easy (SATB or Unison, organ)

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.


Songs of the Season: MAGNIFICAT

Madonna of the MagnificatThe month of December brings with it the strains of much beloved music. One of my favorite works—and one of the first major choral works I ever sang with a choir—is J. S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243), first performed when Bach was Thomaskantor in Leipzig. [You can view the full score on IMSLP, order Schirmer’s choral edition through JW Pepper, and listen to Philippe Herreweghe’s stunning interpretation on YouTube.] Composers through the centuries have been fascinated by Mary’s canticle of praise to God, and their highly varied settings testify to the the depth of emotion contained in her song (recorded in Luke 1:46-55). During the increasingly busy season of Advent, taking some time to reflect on the circumstances that brought about one of the very first Christmas songs can help restore your hope, peace, and joy in the goodness of God.

When Mary heard the good news—that Jesus was coming and she would be his mother—her world was turned upside down instantly. From that moment on, everything in her life was different from what she had imagined. Her plans, her hopes, her dreams were all challenged. At first, the angel’s words did not make sense to her. How could she give birth to a child—the Child? But Gabriel reminded her that all things are possible with God, he reminded her of the truth she already knew about God, and Mary responded in humble obedience. Understandably though, she needed someone to talk to, someone who could support her. So she left quickly to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who helped strengthen Mary’s faith in the promises of God (Luke 1:45). In response, Mary sang a song of praise to the Lord, a song rich in scriptural truth. Her concern for the poor is striking, as is her deep understanding of God’s acts in redemptive history. Mary’s song demonstrates her faith in the good and wise purposes of God. Could it be that she sang this song more than once, throughout her pregnancy and beyond, as a way to remind herself of God’s faithfulness? Perhaps, as new mothers do, she even sang this song as a lullaby to Jesus himself when he was a baby. When faced with the unexpected working of God in her life, Mary looked to him, recalling the Lord’s goodness to his people in the past, and was able to move forward in faith. Truly, the Lord is mighty, his name is holy, and his unfailing love endures forever. (adapted from Behold He Comes: Advent Reflections)

Choral Settings of the Magnificat

Magnificat in D Major (BWV 243), J. S. Bach | Difficult (SSATB, soloists)

Magnificat, R. Clausen | Difficult (SATB, a cappella)

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, R. Vaughan Williams | Moderate (SATB, organ/piano)

Mary’s Magnificat, A. Carter | Moderate (Soprano solo, SATB, organ)

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, T. Shaw | Easy (SA/TB, soloists, piano)

© 2015 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.

New Advent devotional

ebook cover - adventTimothy Shaw has released a new Advent devotional (as an eBook), Behold, He Comes: Advent Reflections, which is available through Amazon: click here. These 25 daily readings for December are ideal for use by individuals, families, and churches. Each day’s reading includes an excerpt from a carol or hymn, scripture passage(s), a short reflection, application questions, and a prayer.