Thursday, December 20, 2007

Psallite sapienter - why?

Chantez vous avec intelligence!  That's how one French translation, following in the grand tradition of the Septuagint and Vulgate, renders zammerû maśkîl, as the Hebrew reads in Psalm 47:7 –

זמרו משכיל

The difficulty here is how to render maśkil, which otherwise occurs only in the superscriptions of the psalms, and is by some considered as denoting a contemplative or meditative psalm; or, a cunning or skilful, artful psalm; or, a didactic psalm.  Its meaning remains uncertain.  Zammerû means something like "sing and play" - the LXX adapted ψαλλειν, originally "to play an instrument" to take on this expanded meaning.  

Modern translations typically give a very flat, uninteresting rendering of the Hebrew, such as the RSV's "sing praises with a psalm" (Ps 47:7); at least some Jewish versions give "a song composed with wisdom" or "a skilful song", in order to try and translate maśkîl.

ψάλατε συνετω̃ς

Now consider what ancient translators made of this two-word phrase.  The Psalter according to the Seventy, in accordance with its usual tendency of turning concrete terms into abstract concepts, renders the terse Hebrew as ψαλατε συνετως (calling this Ps 46:8, because of its different method of numbering the psalms and their verses), "O chant ye with understanding".  Here the translators seem to have based themselves on the implied suggestion in the Targum that maśkîl is related to a common word for prudence and comprehension, and have translated accordingly.

psallite sapienter

This Greek interpretation is what lies behind the psallite sapienter ("sing ye wisely", as the Douay gives it) of the Ambrosian Psalter, Mozarabic Psalter, Roman Psalter (Jerome's first revision of the Vetus Itala), Gallican Psalter (his more popular second attempt), and today's Neo-Vulgate.  Augustine has psallite intellegenter (that is, as the French quoted above puts it, "sing psalms intelligently").  Only Jerome's third try at the Psalter, his so-called Hebrew Psalter, gives a fully verbally different rendering: canite erudite ("sing ye with erudition") – which means much the same.  

(Addendum: I finally have the Versio Piana to hand. It reads "psallite hymnum" – a pale imitation of the Masoretic text, without anything of note; how... nice.)

Now unsurprisingly, greater minds than I have considered all this in depth.  One of my sources for all this is the Dominican Fr Stephen Ryan, considering this in the context of Psalm 46(47) as a foreshadowing of the Ascension.  But more important still is the use of this phrase by the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now gloriously reigning as Pope Benedict XVI.  Michael Miller has a useful article condensing three of the good Cardinal's articles on liturgical music, and inter alia describes Ratzinger's meditation on psallite sapienter.  I refer those interested to these, since there seems no point in rehashing what is better expressed elsewhere.

Chrysostom says, "What is, To psalm wisely? When ye have learned, it says, what things have been done, [it means] considering the greatness of the things told.  It also appears to me to somewhat indicate something else, when it says, Wisely: not with voice only, but also with deeds to psalm; not with tongue alone, but also with [one's] life."  (Expositio in Psalmum XLVI.)

sing ye wisely

Put another way, "Sing ye praises with understanding" (as the Prayer Book Version, now happily allowed to Anglican converts to Catholicism, puts it, following the LXX and Vulgate; even the King James Version gives the same reading): that is what I wish to signify by the name of this blog: one should wisely consider what one prays and sings, suck the marrow out of it as it were, and live nourished and formed thereby.  

God gave us the Psalms that we might praise Him with His own words, in words full of richness divine, effective and informing.  God gave us His revelation and our whole universe, signifying by the ordered, comprehensible though still awe-inspiring nature of the one and the other that there is one truth, learnt through faith and reason, each complementing the other.  Our religion is logical – according to the Logos – it is rational; for our God, though infinitely above everything, is not contrary to reason.  Therefore our rites are not dumb shows, but pregnant with meaning.  This is why I like a bit of lectio divina applied to the collects of the Roman liturgy: the Church, guided and guarded by the Holy Ghost, has produced masterworks of prayer expressing so consisely the doctrine of the Faith, and these ought be contemplated.

As the Friars Preachers say, Contemplata aliis tradere (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, II-II, 188, 6, resp.) - pass on to others what you've contemplated.  Maybe that's what I'm hoping to do.

No comments: