The psalms have been sung through the ages all around the world. They have thus evolved with their own heritage and tradition. We imagine monks chanting in dark abbeys or singers with a lute sounding like John Dowland.
However, it’s more accurate to say traditions, since different cultures always adapt and enjoy their own ways. Albeit inspired, the psalms are just songs and you can sing them any way you (and other people) like. If they are to mean anything, then the words and messages must be conveyed meaningfully.
The music must support that cause. This is a cardinal rule (to coin a phrase) in worship.
Australian churches are still in the infancy of building a culture and style, so we are perhaps more free to borrow and choose where we like. On the other hand, South Woden is a small group and this freedom is constrained by our musical resources – who can sing or play what, who is away somewhere with family or travels for a month. We don’t have a lot of sight-readers so tend to simplicity and ease of learning.
Ancient or modern?
Gregorian chant or plainsong styles have been used for centuries. We use them sparingly as they can be colourless to some tastes but have their own beauty. I follow the style, if not the letter, of the Gregorian Missal published by the Monks of Solesmes, a French Benedictine order. See for example Psalm 104, 22 Sep 13.
However, for monophonic interpretations drawn from the St Gallen neume system see The Gradual Project associated with Gregoriana in Slovakia.
Both monophonic and polyphonic singing have long been used according to the style, situation and era of the piece. Recent research in the British Library drew our knowledge of the first practical use of polyphonic writing (organum) back from around 1000 (the Winchester Troparium) to 900 CE, although it was already described in earlier music theory books (eg. Musica enchiriadis c. 895).
Anglican psalms follow a pattern of two lines of underlay or lyrics with the words being adapted by ‘best fit’ by the singers, assisted by commas or other markers in the text, to fit the rhythm of the music. The first text line or phrase of the psalm usually has four chords in a sequence, and the second line has six. Count to 10.
Not quite singing by numbers but certainly following a well-worn path, and when sung with sensitivity and good harmony, very moving. Requires practice. Regrettably we do not sing these regularly unless we have a quorum of sight-reading singers to do justice to the four-part harmony.
A pillar of the psalmody is the Genevan Psalter published by John Calvin in various versions during the 16th century for use by the Reformed church. Originally and still frequently sung in unison, these psalm settings are still used widely, including in Islamic worship into which some of them were translated. Since they are not antiphonal, they seldom feature amongst our choices at South Woden but remain a valued historical precedent.
Orthodox. Russian, Greek, Slavonic and other eastern Orthodox traditions seem to have a rich, deep sonority of their own, moving between major and relative minor modalities. We have adapted some of these chants, drawing particularly from the visionary work of the Monks of Chevetogne in Belgium devoted to ecumenical understanding with the Eastern Byzantine and Protestant traditions. Here is an example >
Using guitar and other instruments, the refrain is taught to the congregation and led in a rhythmical or folky style. It often uses modern harmony voicings including major 7ths and extensions. Of course you find all these delights somewhere in the work of Bach and beyond, so why not enjoy them in the modern liturgy too?
Some antiphons are home-grown, some from sources such as Isaac Everett’s The emergent psalter. We appreciate an approach like Isaac’s that seeks to honour the tradition of the psalmody while adapting to the contemporary culture to connect with people in today’s world.
We draw from folk, Irish and popular singers as well as many contemporary song writers like John Bell and Christopher Willcock.
We tend not to be ‘happy clappy’ but participation and unity in the gathering are often the result of good music presented in an undemanding way.
The verses of the psalm can be presented in any suitable style:
- Reading the text; Isaac Everett suggests an ostinato or background vamp, and even provides the chord to be used. However, we already read the OT and NT portions so I favour singing the verses.
- Fitting to a regular rhythm – this requires paraphrasing the text to fit the metre
- Chanting on one or two notes in either Gregorian or more modern style; this suits some antiphons but not all
- Using a traditional tone – there are many in our resource books – or
- composing a new tune and antiphon for the occasion.
Variety and Familiarity
An example of the search for balance between old and new, traditional and modern, and choice of genre was our 2013 Lent program.
Here is the description that appeared at the time in our church magazine:
Music in Lent at South Woden Uniting
‘What will you give up for Lent?’ We don’t ask that question much these days but in many traditions, Lent was a time for self-denial. That might mean maybe just giving up a little luxury, right through to forty days fasting in the desert! Whatever, self-denial is not an end in itself but is chosen by some as part of the preparation for Holy Week.
Music in Lent (starting 17 February this year) tends therefore to be restrained. During Holy Week the Latin and Eastern liturgical styles included reflective music to set a contemplative or sometimes confessional atmosphere. Many Renaissance composers wrote beautiful settings using the Lamentations of Jeremiah, usually in latin. They were rather extended by today’s standards, half an hour for example for Thomas Tallis’s Lamentationes Ieremiae Prophetae; and J S Bach impressed the good citizens of Leipzig on Good Friday 1727 with a couple of hours of the moving St Matthew Passion.
Well, all this is a long way from the Woden Valley. What muse should grace our gatherings during February and March? We already sing the psalms regularly and include music that reflects aspects of this history as well as some great modern writers. Songs in our red book ‘TiS’ include some thoughtful songs such as Christopher Willcock’s setting of Psalm 22, a text from which Christ quoted upon the cross. Beyond our small songbook, however, we shall sample the creative expressions of other traditions to stretch our thoughts towards people in other cultures.
Music supports our reflections on the journey towards the celebration and joy of Easter Sunday. It will also enrich our weekly Lenten communion observances. There is the opportunity to refer to, if not replicate, the sung eucharist tradition by including short portions of old liturgies set to music. So during our communion or prayers on most Lenten Sundays we shall sing the Kyrie eleison (‘Lord have mercy’) from William Byrd’s Mass in three voices (he also wrote delightful settings for four and five parts but they are rather challenging).
What about the Byzantine and Orthodox, or even rhythm and blues? On 17 March you will hear the psalm set to a Slavonian orthodox chant setting. And blues – that’s a bridge too far surely? Yet if we lived in Savannah or Atlanta we would have grown up appreciating soulful southern gospel lamentations – the blues by another name. In fact, we open Lent on 17 February by celebrating that gospel tradition. I hope in March to include a small excerpt from a major work by Buxtehude (a pre-Bach German composer) who wrote a lovely Lent reflection called Membra Jesu Nostri.
With such a variety of sources, we shall try to weave tones drawn from many traditions as we seek to transform a community hall into a sacred meeting place again during Lent 2013. Please participate in this or suggested music in any way you wish to heighten our sense of unity and meaning in this important season.
And now for something different, how about this version of Psalm 13 by Canadian Steve Bell:
More on the Orthodox
A setting, shortened and simplified for ease of learning, is provided as an example. The arrangement is drawn loosely from a Slavonian Orthodox tune as sung by the monks of Chevetogne in Belgium.
In a long psalm, depending on the flow and meaning of the verses or sections of the psalm, dramatic effect can be gained by switching for a few verses to Tune 2 with its new harmonic structure. In this case, the cantor part is not written out – he or she may improvise against the chords shown. An example, Psalm 71 set to this chant, may be heard here >
This setting has been arranged for the male voices of The Psalms South Singers. It is adapted from a Slavonian Orthodox chant of the Beatitudes as sung by the monks of Chevetogne, Belgium, whose mission is to seek closer understanding between the Eastern (Russian, Greek, Slavic) Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic.
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