Again this Sunday, no psalm is listed. So following last week’s ‘Beyond menace’ review and as Christmas and a New Year approach, we take a moment to look at another aspect of the challenging experience of recent months, the choice of music.
Few psalm singers around the ridges claim any special musical training and skills. Many do not read music well. Many find natural harmonising the magic of someone else’s mysterious ear.
But such amateur enthusiasts regularly and consistently discover great enjoyment in gathering together to learn parts, sing together, listen to harmonies evolving , and explore the way words and meanings mould musical expression. Their contribution is priceless.
Music will always be a wellspring of peace and wellness in our souls, a source of encouragement and joy. The music of the psalms is a catalyst that infuses new meaning and life into dry verse upon a page. No, it’s more than a catalyst, something that facilitates a process but takes no part in the reaction. For music and words together are much greater than the sum of the parts.
Then comes the deep satisfaction of presenting a psalm in melody and harmony for the inspiration and, yes pleasure, of a listening or participating group of friends in a sacred space.
The wind was decisively taken out of those wonderful billowing sails of three- and four-part singing during 2020-21. No longer could we rise over those rolling waves before the lively but gentle impetus of a fair following wind of musical delight.
Unable to gather to sing, people resorted to new ways of connecting and sharing music. As mentioned last week, music suffers egregiously when squeezed through the narrow confines of internet, copper and fibre. Words and faces can be seen well enough, but pauses and distortions due to limited bandwidth can destroy the beauty of music.
So the era of online under Covid-19 favoured simpler, less harmonised choices for the weekly psalm. As Psalms 96 and 98 (which are set for the approaching Christmas Day) both tell us, we have had to “sing a new song”.
Has this changed the way songs have been drawn from different sources? Probably not much, at least to the casual observer. Seeking relevance, variety and beauty, frequent use has been made of the books to hand — Together in Song, The Emergent Psalter, and Psalms for All Seasons being principal amongst the wellsprings. To these and online resources, the Cantor’s personal library has been a useful adjunct.
Ambitions have had to be constrained. Beloved early and Renaissance a cappella selections have been quite out of reach. However, solo or duo performers without choristers have enjoyed greater freedom in other respects, being less constrained by part allocation, rehearsals and balance.
The chart shows the relative frequency of the various sources of music of the psalms, when sung, from the formation of the new Woden Valley Uniting Church in February through to the beginning of Advent 2021.
A total of 42 songs were presented, no psalms having been sung on seven Sundays. The following comments relate to the sectors of the pie-chart (anti-clockwise from TiS in red).
Our hymn book Together in Song has continued to provide some of the settings. Those by Christopher Willcock and John Bell are reliably enjoyable. On the other hand, many texts in TiS are non-inclusive and dated. Paraphrases of the verses have sometimes been used.
Psalms for All Seasons, with its wide range of stylistic, cultural and regional musical references, has been an excellent standby. Some of the more popular psalms have up to a dozen or more good settings in this book.
Isaac Everett’s book The Emergent Psalter offers modern syncopated refrains which we have used to some extent. His assumption that the verses are read out with the backing of a soft guitar vamp is nice, but does not tick the square of words+music=extra inspiration.
The Cantor’s library of tunes composed at odd times over the years has been used more often this year. Seldom used refrains and settings could now be dusted off and presented with greater ease, as mentioned above. Chord progressions and ideas were already salted away somewhere in the dusty memory banks of my mind. With this new freedom of manoeuvre, I sometimes found myself amending arrangements up till the last minute.
The ‘Folk’ category sweeps up songs by singers like Paul Kelly, Paul Stookey, Sinead O’Connor, Bob Marley and that old friend Trad. People love to hear the old favourites as long as they are not overdone.
The cool richness of a couple of Taizé choruses was a welcome addition. Gregorian chant was used sparingly, although many responsorial settings have the verses sung to a chant-like tone. This is not far from the Gregorian tradition but perhaps more fluid and lyrical, especially to the solo interpreter willing to introduce elements of improvisation.
This information is provided purely for the interest of singers and listeners, rather than with any conclusion or lessons in mind. Choices are often made by feel rather than any concern as to where the song comes from. As always WVUC members are invited to comment or make preferences known at any time.