Why sing?

Singers in an illuminated capital of Cantate Domino (Sing unto the Lord, Ps 98) in the Henry VIII Psalter, c.1540. British Library.

In the previous post, inspired by a concert performance in Canberra, we had been discussing how psalms are sung. This piece of string apparently is as endless as human creativity.

But why sing?

First, the poetry was almost certainly written with song in mind. It has come to us in couplets and sometimes with instructions about the occasion or instruments.

The poems contain internal antiphons, or verses that are repeated through the psalm, suggesting the antiphonal or responsorial practice that is so widely accepted today. One example amongst many may be seen in Psalm 80:

Restore us again O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.

Verse 3, quoted above, appears again verbatim in verse 7. After a change of imagery, that same line returns in the final verse 19. This is clear internal evidence that the poet had a responsorial plan in mind, one of the reasons that this practice is so common today.

Another important incentive for singing is the powerful combination of poetry when set to music. Some aspect of life and death are just out of reach,  beyond words. The depths of the poet’s intent can sometime be elusive and oblique. Professor Tom Wright says:

[W]hen you take a poem and set it to music, you add a further dimension still. Music is classic right-brain activity. It creates a new and wider world in which the rational analysis of the left brain can do its proper, though subordinate, work.

Finding God in the Psalms, SPCK 2014, page 24

This encourages that extra level of inspiration or consolation that is somehow beyond semantics.

The British Library recently posted a short report on the appearance in many medieval sacred manuscripts of a text known as De laude psalmorum – ‘In praise of the Psalms‘. 

Detail of text In praise of the psalms, in a 12th century manuscript from the South of France (Aquitaine). BL Harley MS2928 f.192v

This text, excerpts of which appear in liturgical manuscripts such as Gospels, books of devotion and worship from 9th to 16th century, gave reasons for using the psalms in devotion. These included the desire to praise, confession and helping to confront temptation or a feeling of abandonment. The article continues by noting that, since this work was not an official part of church liturgy, its inclusion shows that the authors believed it to be particularly useful.

The text recommended certain psalms for use in certain situations. Start the day, it suggests, on Route 66 — ‘Be joyful in God’. It also includes the advice:

‘nullatenus potest tua propria lingua nec humano sensu tam perfecte miseriam tuam ac atribulacione angustiamque diversarum tribulacione explicare et illius misericordiam implorare quam in his psalmis et ceteris his similibus’

You cannot in any way, in your own language nor in human thought, so perfectly explain your suffering, and the trouble and constriction of various temptations, and ask his mercy as in these psalms and in others similar to them.

The 12th-century Psalter with neumes for singing a prayer, Rogamus te Domine (We beseech you O God). BL Harley MS 2928 f.194v.

In this old manuscript, one of over 190 including some or all of this treatise, the next pages are devoted to a response and prayer with neumes (in dark ink) to cue the singers. The two lines of the ‘clef’ appear to be labelled f (heavy red line) and c.

This one is not likely to appear in our repertoire any time soon.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.