URLEY one of the greatest treasures that the church has been given is the “Hymnbook of the Church”; the book of Psalms. The Psalms in the bible depict every mood and emotional state, from fear, utter dejection to ecstatic praise of Yahweh. But every one of the psalms are written with I and Thou in mind. None are an empty soliloquy with no one there. No matter how dejected the mood, God is always there, and even though the psalmist may not be hearing the voice of God, through faith he believes that Yahweh is there. This is one of the messages of the psalms.
We would do well to remember that the early Christians took the synagogue service and adopted it to meet the new faith. The core of the Jewish liturgy was the cantillation of the Psalter. This is one of the greatest gifts that our Jewish Brethren have given us. Some of you may not know, but in seminaries and houses of religious, the 150 psalms are still recited or sung every month.
…And we should make another point. ALL of the psalms were created as SUNG MUSIC. The idea of a ‘recited psalm’ is an oxymoron.
If we were to think about some of the ways that during Mass we use psalmody, in particular the form in the Novus Ordo, the responsorial psalm is one we deal with at every Mass. This form of the psalm, though similar, replaces the “Gradual” in the old rite. This was called the “gradual” because the psalmist sung it while standing on the steps leading to the altar, it was sort of half way up to the altar.
Unfortunately in our day, the responsorial psalm has been subjected to some of the most “colorful” experiments. We all have witnessed the phenomenon of the “helicopter cantor” and the psalmist who takes his or her musical style from the bar down the street. (not that I have anything against bars per se…)
The GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) has this succinct bit concerning cantors/psalmists:
102. It is the psalmist’s place to sing the Psalm or other biblical canticle to be found between the readings. To carry out this function correctly, it is necessary for the psalmist to be accomplished in the art of singing Psalms and have a facility in correct pronunciation and diction.
The GIRM also mentions that the ‘usual’ form of the psalm between the readings, is not the only way that the psalm may be presented: The psalm may be sung straight though, or metrical versions of the psalm may be used as well – for example, the rich tradition of Anglican Psalmody would be possible. Also, (an opinion) if the verses are normally sung by a cantor or choir, why can’t some of our fine composers compose some polyphony for the verses? there is nothing rubrically against this. The use of psalm tones are laudable, but not the only way. And, it should be said, one of the greatest losses in the reformation of the liturgy is the Gradual, and also the Gregorian Alleluia, with it’s “Jubilus” (extended melismatic Alleluias).
However, if we were to think about what might be some virtues of musically good responsorial psalmody, we might come up with the following:
1. Must be easily singable. If you are going to sing a responsorial psalm for the faithful rather than the Gregorian Gradual, surely the response should be singable by the people.
2. It is helpful that they are learnable by amateur cantors. Few of us in the church have the luxury of professional cantors/soloists. Therefore, the people we work with vary in talent and ability. A misconception must be corrected: There is nothing wrong with simple music, but there is no excuse for poor quality music.
3. They must be beautiful—they must have appeal as good MUSIC, not just “something that will work”.
4. The should be composed with good harmony.
It JUST so happens, that there is a great body of psalmody on this very site! – I recommend the Chabanel Psalms, which meet all these requirements most admirably!