One of my choristers, who is a PhD music student and theologian has made some interesting connections between the two works, even though the texts were written many hundreds of years apart (the music only a few years apart). The Handel, from the Psalms of David, and the Bach by Martin Luther after the protestant reformation. I'll talk about this in a later post, this evening though, I'll spend some time with Psalm 110 (or 109 if you are looking it up in the Vulgate)
The psalm is one of the five psalms commonly said or sung at the Roman Catholic office of Vespers, and is closely related to Psalm 2 ("Why do the nations so furiously rage together?"), each of them having been interpreted as a Messianic prophecy, however, what I find interesting is the context for which the psalm might have originally been written. There is no doubt that there is prophetical reference towards the birth of Christ - but perhaps it was written originally as a coronation psalm for an old testament time King? In the context of our concert, and in pairing with the Bach, it makes great sense to draw on the Messianic prophecy.
I've put the literal translation under the text in italics for each line, followed by a more "poetic" English translation in bold at the end of each verse. (translations taken from Ron Jeffers "Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, Volume I)
Very clearly, the Messianic prophesy in this psalm is easy to trace. There is much reference to the "king" sitting at the right hand of God (a line which is quite prominent in all Christian Creeds), and the line "You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedech" refers to the ancient "high priest" Melchizedech. Although Melchizedech is in biblical terms a very mysterious individual, he is though to have been the most "Christ-like" character in the time of Abraham, who brought with him to Abraham gifts of bread and wine - which is an unmistakable link to The Last Supper (keep this in mind when we talk about the Bach in a later post). The psalm prophesies "you ain't seen nothing yet" by placing the Messiah in the same league of Melchizedech.
1. Dixit Dominus Domino meo:
Said Lord to Lord my:
Sede a dextris meis
sit at right hand my
Donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum
until I shall make eniemies your stool of your feet
1. The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.
2. Virgam virtutis tuae emittet Dominus ex Sion
Rod of power your shall send forth Lord from Zion;
Dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum
rule in midst of enemies your.
2. The sceptre of your power the Lord shall send forth Zion: Rule thou in the midst of your enemies.
3. Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae
With you power on day of might your,
In splendoribus sanctorum ex utero ante luciferum genui te
in splendor of holy ones; from womb before light-bringer
3. The power to rule is with you on the day of your strength, in the splendor of the holy ones:
4. Juravit Dominus et non paenitebit eum:
Has sworn Lord, and not will repent of it
Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech
You are priest for eternity according to order of Melchizedech.
4. The Lord has sworn an oath and will not repent of it: You are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedech.
Dominus a dextris tuis confregit in die irae suae reges
Lord at right hand your, destroys on day of wrath his kings.
5. The Lord at your right hand destroys kings on the day of his wrath;
6. Judicabit in nationibus
He shall judge among heathen,
Implebit ruinas, conquassabit capita in terra multorum
he shall pile up ruins; he shall shatter heads on land of many.
6. He shall judge among the heathen; he shall pile up ruins and scatter skulls on many lands.
7. De torrente in via bibet
Of torrent in way he shall drink;
Propterea exaltabit caput
therfore he shall life up head
7. He shall drink of the torrent in his way; therefore he shall life up his head.
(N.B. Handels's setting is in 8 movements including the Gloria, however he divides Verse 4 in to two movements, with the 5th movement starting at "tu es sacerdos in aeternum" and group verse 5 and 6 into one movement).
The thing that interests me the most is that this Prophesy, is written in the present tense - which leads me to believe that, although it does have an undeniable reference to Christ, there must be a 2nd person involved here. Another King - in the time of David. Perhaps ... it IS King David? (Oh, it's not Abraham ... he sat at the LEFT hand of God apparently).
The most debated line in the whole psalm is the first line. "The Lord said unto my Lord". Who is the 2nd Lord? I've also seen a translation "The Lord said unto my master" which makes a bit more sense when talking about a King's coronation, for as we know, in the Christian and Jewish faith, there is but ONE Lord (and you shall worship none other etc...) So the translation of "Master" makes a bit more sense. However, the Latin is clear "Dixit Dominus Domino Meo" There are two Lords (capital L, Lords). Then again, maybe this was just a polite form of address of an inferior to a superior ("yes, my Lord") making the second Lord a "lesser" Lord. (The Hebrew, by the way, uses two different words for Lord, both meaning the same, and does not show hierarchy between the two - and besides, I'm not going to go there, as I have no qualifications to go there).
Obviously the text has been embraced by the Christian church for it's Messianic prophecy, being placed in such prominence to be sung at every evening service, and used as an antiphon at the same office. It has been set by numerous composers, including Palestrina, Pergolesi, Scarlatti, Vittoria, Zelenka, Michael Haydn and Mozart to name a few, and not surprising considering the Psalms regular use had strong potential for a repeat performance in the Catholic Church.
Next installment - the Text and the Music - How does Handel set the text?