Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Making Progress In Chant II: Psalmody

One widespread misconception (after the false notion of the primacy of hymnody) involves the use of the psalms in Catholic worship. On the 6-7 May weekend, I programmed "Shepherd Me O God" for Communion, where I think it belongs. The antiphonal tradition assumes you are singing the psalms. Does that surprise you? If so, perhaps the simple recitation of the liturgical antiphons contributes to the misconception that the psalm's place is after the first reading and only there.

But the liturgical intention is that an antiphonal refrain is sung by all, followed by chanted psalm verses, followed by the refrain, followed by more verses, another refrain, etc.. How long? As long as it takes. A good church musician will be knowledgeable and respectful of the psalm text. In other words, if the verses chanted are Psalm 19:2-7: The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft. One day to the next conveys that message; one night to the next imparts that knowledge. There is no word or sound; no voice is heard; Yet their report goes forth through all the earth, their message, to the ends of the world. God has pitched there a tent for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom from his chamber, and like an athlete joyfully runs its course. From one end of the heavens it comes forth; its course runs through to the other; nothing escapes its heat. You'll do well to insure the inclusion of the whole of it: it's a self-contained unit within the entirety of the Psalm. For an alphabetic psalm like 25 or 34, you might have more leeway to pick and choose verses, as the thematic or poetic delivery of the material can be less consistent. But a basic grasp of Scripture knowledge, especially where the psalms are concerned, is essential to good liturgy. Remember that the psalms are not at all out of place at the beginning of Mass or during Communion. In fact, the Church's first option for us is to use them as part of the ritual dialogue between music leaders and assembly. Hymns, even Gregorian hymns, are another option, farther down the line of preferred options. Thoughts?

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