That small collection of poetry called the Psalms, 150 of them, has long been a favourite amongst poets and musicians in both sacred and secular settings.
Most of the psalms were probably written or evolved as songs, passed down the years by listening and singing in synagogue, church, mosque, market place, monastery or even palace.
Over the centuries in many faiths, a strong tradition of singing the psalms has continued as a golden thread linking poetry, music and the human spirit. For there is something inspiring and thought-provoking about hearing or singing these often strange-sounding verses when set to music. The author’s reticence to propound on any religious matter has been overcome by two widely accepted factors:
- The psalms are songs; music liberates the text in our imaginations and aspirations
- The psalms belong to no particular theological persuasion; inherited from Hebrew tradition, they are recognised and sung in all three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The psalms are essentially poetic and deserve to be sung. Some of them are quite dark and difficult to swallow; read a blog post on this here>
The 150 psalms are broken into 5 books starting with 1, 42, 73, 90 and 107. From ancient times, scholars have tried to group them with varying credibility, The most common surviving labels are:
- The Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143)
- Songs of Ascents (120 to 134), sometimes called a gradual
- Those by David (3–41, 51–71)
- Songs of Asaph (50, 73–83)
- Psalms by the Sons of Korah (42, 44–49, 84–85, 87–88)
About half were said to be written by or attributed to King David. David is also recognised as the Prophet Da’ud and psalm author in Islamic writings [- more here>; and here>.] According to tradition, he accompanied the song with the lute or some sort of simple stringed instrument perhaps like a cithara.
The antiphonal tradition works for us; in response to the text of the psalm or a group of verses, the people engage, acknowledge and affirm by singing a simple refrain, usually drawn from one of the key verses. Theologian Ben Myers, summarising the psalms recently, tweeted:
The invention of antiphony: when my heart broke in two, l taught both parts to sing.
We use both responsorial (people respond to verses by the cantor or choir) and antiphonal (cantors or choir groups call and respond to each other, eg alternate verses).
Both monophonic and polyphonic chant and song are used, the latter more regularly, according to the style and era of the piece.
This site and blog
This site provides some current information on musical offerings, particularly the psalm or psalms set down in the Revised Common Lectionary. While this listing does not apply in the other religions mentioned earlier, it is a structure suggested by practical and local convenience. In the end, the structure does not matter – see the index for any psalm of interest. Sometimes it will focus on music to be sung around town in Canberra and more particularly in South Woden Uniting Church usually meeting on Sundays at 9:30 at the Community Centre in Pearce, a suburb of Canberra, Australia.
You will generally find here:
- Selected music for the coming week’s psalm, usually following the lectionary
- Music for the chosen antiphon (response) or cantor’s verses
- Occasional explanations or remarks on the psalm or music
- Other resources and useful links
The purpose is limited to providing advance information on the psalm of the day and some of the many musical settings available. You may find a little introductory or historical background: no calim whatever is made that these musings can be taken as a theological commentary or academic analysis.
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