A Passacaglia of the Psalms

Most readers of the Bible know this Psalm as “His steadfast love endures forever,” the line repeated every verse.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and brought Israel out from among them,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who divided the Red Sea in two,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who led his people through the wilderness,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who struck down great kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and killed mighty kings,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and Og, king of Bashan,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and gave their land as a heritage,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
a heritage to Israel his servant,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
and rescued us from our foes,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

A passacaglia is a musical term (often interchanged with the term chaconne), and was a form that originated in 17th-century Spain. Its meaning has changed some throughout history, especially into the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the main characteristic of containing an ostinato (or obstinate repeated line) remains consistent throughout all passacaglias. [The history of passacaglia is truly fascinating, though, and I doubt you will be disappointed in exploring!] Generally, then, a passacaglia will have this repeated line in between improvisatory sections, or other developmental moments.

It is not hard to see why I would call Psalm 136 a Passacaglia of the Psalms. The insistent repetition of His steadfast love endures forever is indeed a textual ostinato, and as the Psalms were the worship texts of the Israelites, one can only imagine that perhaps these words were sung with a repeated melody. Unlike a theme and variations – where an initial theme is stated and then exploited through development rhythmically and harmonically – this Psalm resounds with a passacaglia that becomes the insistent pumping heart for its writer, readers, and singers.

His steadfast love endures forever should be a reality that helps our hearts in their daily rhythm. The psalmist employs this passacaglia amidst remembrances of God’s work – at times severe (to Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt), but always merciful (His steadfast love endures forever). It becomes an engine; waves crashing in on a shore, receding, and coming in again; blood leaving and returning to your heart; a breath coming in and going out; flowers opening and closing for the sun and moon. The lines are not a repeated as labors, but as rhythmic catalysts. They propel and ignite.

With this energetic thought in mind, comparison to the usual musical nature of passacaglias (as far as mood and atmosphere goes) proves difficult. Almost across the board, passacaglias are sobering, sometimes dark and brooding, at times mournful. I do think this Psalm is sobering. The Psalms are faithful to be quite honest about the human condition (Psalm 88 is a great example); penitential psalms and psalms of lament certainly outnumber psalms of praise. In contrast, though, with our usual expectation from a passacaglia, Psalm 136 is not dark, brooding, or mournful. Although Psalm 136 is sober, it is not somber. Truly, this passacaglia is very “other.” It is, dare I say, a new kind of passacaglia altogether.

I do not mean to assert that I think we should always sing this Psalm, or that it was always sung, in a particularly upbeat way. I actually don’t think that at all. This psalm is usually interpreted in modern Christian worship with an upbeat, diatonically-major musical feel (i.e. Chris Tomlin’s “Forever”). I don’t necessarily have a huge problem with this, but I do think it is perhaps not the intention of the psalmist (but what do I know? This is speculative…). The idea of this Psalm is to remember God’s work, and to remind you of a realer reality than your sorrow, or your momentary happiness. It both sobers and stimulates. It’s musical interpretation seems to beg a paradox, just as its texts present their own paradoxes. Lyrical paradox seems possible, but musical paradox? How do we present paradox in sound and texture?

With a hopeful passacaglia, of course…

[I cannot tell you how much it pleases me that a British composer is the one who brings this to life best for me. Goodness I have such a partiality for 20th British musicians…]

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 5, IV. Passacaglia Moderato

Here, Vaughan Williams sets the obstinate structure of passacaglia against the hope of D Major. How true, it seems, to the psalmist – the psalmist who sets the obstinate structure of passacaglia (a backdrop of remembering God’s humbling works) against the hope of steadfast, unending, covenantal love.

His steadfast love endures forever.