A bad Response can happen to a good psalm

New Responses for old psalms

I’m currently setting the daily psalms (Australian Lectionary) for a friend in Adelaide. Some of them are already available on the website, either because they are for special feasts so they exist already, or because they are identical to Sunday psalms for other dates. But there are quite a few which I have to write from scratch, and even more where I have to alter the arrangement of stanzas. Very commonly I need to write a new Response for an already familiar psalm, and this can in fact be quite challenging.

Woman explaining to man
me struggling to write a new Response in time for Volmar to post it on line
To change or not to change

If I like the previous version of the psalm, and especially if the stanzas haven’t changed, I have to think of a tune which will fit the words of the new Response but sound and feel as though it was written at the same time as the tune for the stanzas.  Sometimes the mismatch is too great, and I have to start all over again.  One of the favourite ways to change a Sunday psalm to a weekday one is to put the stanza breaks in different places, and this can skew the tune totally.  Then my effort is to forget what I wrote before and write a new tune which pauses in the right places.

Small changes can be very tricky
Dragon
variations differing only in minor features

It’s difficult sometimes to imagine what is going on in the heads of the men who appoint the different versions of the psalms to be used day by day.  I’m not always convinced that the changes are intentional; sometimes they read like a memory which no one has checked.  This happens quite a lot with the Gospel Acclamations or Alleluia verses, where slightly different versions mean that you can end up with several possibilities and it’s hard to keep track (I talked about this a propos of Lent Gospel Acclamations and their sneaky ways).

Psalm Responses not made of psalm

Psalm Responses are often tricky.  They can be too short, too long, plucked from a totally different bit of the Bible, almost unsingable (I grit my teeth for that ‘almost’), and it’s hard to justify this when the Psalms were so clearly written to be sung by people who knew what they were doing, and have indeed been loved and sung by generation after generation, as it says in Ps 144/145.  Taking pieces out of Paul’s epistles to be a psalm response happens occasionally and it always presents problems, because Paul’s words are part of a prose text which was not intended to be sung when it was written (obviously I’m not discussing the parts where he quotes an early Christian hymn or poem); but even more cogently, it was translated as a piece of prose which was not meant to be sung.  It’s not rhythmical; it’s not patterned; it has no balance;  it’s not even particularly well-put, some of the time, as Paul grapples with the problem of formalising this new doctrine and theology for a wide range of audiences: faithful Jews (Hebrews); pagans (Romans); cultured Greeks (Corinthians) and so on. 

A case in point : Psalm 1

But if a Response is set to be sung, I try and write a tune for it exactly as it occurs in the Lectionary.  That’s what I do.  I don’t usually even moan about it, much.  Currently, though, I am sorting out the psalms for the last week of October (30th Week, Yr II), and I have found possibly the worst psalm response ever.  I thought at first it was a misprint of some kind, as it didn’t seem to make sense.  Here it is :

Behave like God as his very dear children.

It’s for Psalm 1, which is the psalm for St David’s Day , and also occurs on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary time, Year C.  It’s a good short psalm, an excellent one to open the collection for any Temple musician, and we  simply sing the whole text straight through without any alteration as our Responsorial Psalm (and without leaving anything out), which is quite rare.  There are three  6-line stanzas, the first about the just man and what he does, the second an extended metaphor about him being like a tree by the river, and the third about the wicked man in contrast, and how he is heading to perdition.  Usually the Response is some variant on ‘Happy the man who trusts in the Lord’, adjusted occasionally to make it less exclusive.

Willows on the riverbank
a just man happy in his proper place
Where is the Response from?

This new peculiar Response is a reworking of Ephesians 5.1, so it’s not even the exact text, which might excuse it.  This version of the words, as often for the OZ and CAN Lectionaries, is from the text of the US psalm as set for the day, word for word, but I looked up the original Ephesians 5 in the US Lectionary, and it does at least make more sense : Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  Still not easily singable, but at least it is easier to grasp on reading.  I was so baffled by the actual Response that I thought it must be wrong, but it isn’t; and then I thought it was just me being dense, so I ran it past whichever of my children was around when I had it to hand.  To a man or woman, they looked at it, took the copy from me, read it again, and then said ‘What?’

No time to waste
12 armed woman
maybe semaphore would help…..

When you’re giving out a Response to be sung as part of the liturgy, you have only a little time.  You need people to grasp the words quickly, because they also need to grasp the tune, and unless you are very lucky, you won’t get any rehearsal time.  With this Response, I think you would have to tell them the words first, and then sing it to them.  It slows things down, but that is better than having the whole congregation (except those with a written text) look at you totally blankly and then not manage to join in.  They need to know that they have it correctly.  (Those with a written text are probably already looking at you blankly.)

A different version (not much better)

I looked up the UK and Eire Lectionary, for purposes of comparison.  The Response there is : Try to imitate God, as children of his that he loves.  This is still clunky, but at least it makes sense.  The exact text is identical to the US version, ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children’ (RSV).  The new Jerusalem Bible translation has  ‘As God’s dear children, take him as your pattern’ , which I rather like, but you’d have to turn it round to make it work as a Psalm Response (Take God as your pattern, as his dear children).  Even though ‘as’ appears twice, that is still easier to understand than the ‘like[…]as’ in the Psalm Response I am struggling with.

Practical considerations

Still, ours not to reason why, so how do I set it?  This psalm has a folk-song tune (it even quotes The Ash Grove) because I wrote it originally for St David, and the stanzas are identical, so I decided to stick with it.  I couldn’t make the words run too quickly, because they are so unclear, but I didn’t want to slow the verses down too much; it needs to keep on walking, like most folksong tunes.  And it needed to stay simple, partly to make it easy to pick up on first hearing.  The original verse tune has some runs in it, for the water imagery, and I wanted to link to that as well.  In the end it came out as six bars.  Ideally a Response fits into four, but it always depends on the rhythm of the words, and this set of words is ungainly, so I couldn’t disguise that totally.

God’s very dear child being looked after
Time for reflection

I tried shifting the rhythm of the words around, to see if that would make the sentence easier to grasp, but it didn’t help.   In the end, I just kept it simple, but I did put a little pause at the end of it so that everyone has a moment to think before embarking on the next verse.  The Response and the stanzas are addressed to two different groups, which I think is part of the problem, so a pause to redirect your gaze is actually helpful.  The verses are good, with some word-painting and a nice contrast between the good man whose ways will all prosper (and the tune goes up), and the evil man, who is heading straight for doom (and the tune goes down).  Simple, but (I hope) effective.  I hope the straightforward nature of the tune will give the congregation time to understand what the Response means, because there’s nothing wrong with the concept, just the expression.

Woman with sword
me going into battle on behalf of my congregation
Psalms are for singing

The whole point of the psalms is to sing them.  The Psalter is the original and best hymn book.  Even though many of us are not allowed to sing in our churches at the moment, at least we can sing in our hearts.  Familiarity is actually an asset for congregational singing; there is no need to keep altering the shape of any given psalm.  Imagine if each Christmas we rewrote the words of carols so that the verses came out differently.  You want people to focus on the sense, not the way it is being conveyed.  It would be good if those who appoint the texts for singing – Responses, Acclamations, set dialogues – could at least consider how easily they trip off the tongue.  David and the other psalmists gave us one of the Church’s most precious resources.  In our own day we need to stay faithful to the essence of their gift.  That means keeping the Response singable.

let’s all keep singing

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass  with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

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