St Patrick and his multiple psalms
I should probably start with an apology. I didn’t realise until this year that the feast of St Patrick had a different Psalm during Mass depending on whether you were in England, Wales or Scotland, or Ireland. This is actually quite unusual, and I thnk it’s because the Saint’s day is classified differently in the different countries. In Ireland, it’s a Solemnity, and a Holiday of Obligation; in England and Scotland, it’s a Feast; in Wales, it’s an Optional Memorial (that might be St David getting his revenge in first, see below).
I only discovered this because of the Mass books at our church, The Parish Mass Book (McCrimmons, 2013 edition), which does the three year cycle in nine conveniently slim volumes, three to a liturgical year, and has a collection of saint’s days in the back. I am, incidentally, shocked to discover that they do not include St David (March 1st) at all, but luckily my Sunday Missal always has, so we’ve had a musical setting for his psalm (Psalm 1) on the website for many years. I think any parish Mass book ought to include all the national saints; how could you leave St David out? What nation better deserves a sung Psalm?
A plethora of psalms
So we’ve had the English/Welsh/Scottish psalm for St Patrick (Psalm 116) available on the website (and two different ones for the US, and one for Australia and New Zealand) for several years already, but the one for Ireland turns out to be a completely different psalm. Luckily, it is one where we already have the verses, but it’s from an area in the Psalter where the numbers go haywire. Confusingly, it’s also just next to the British etc. Patrick psalm. This new one is Psalm 115 according to one set of numbers, 116 according to another, and 116B in the new Grail translation. It comes up elsewhere (not all the same verses) as the Psalm for Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, and also Corpus Christi Year B. Each of those has a different tune, but I thought the 2 Lent B one was the one I wanted here; and of course, the Response (when it’s being used for St Patrick) was quite different.
A special Response?
Writing a new Response for an established psalm is something I find myself doing quite a lot, especially with the Australian weekday settings, and I enjoy it. It’s one of the easier ways to differentiate between the various versions of the same psalm (because there can be quite a number).
When you come to write a new Response, there are various technical issues. How long is it (will it fit into the same number of bars of music)? Does it start with a stressed or unstressed syllable? That affects how you write the first couple of bars.
St Patrick’s one is fun and unusual, though, because it is a question. I’ve written before on questions in the Psalms generally, but it’s rare to have a Response that is a question, even a rhetorical one. I can’t think of any others offhand, although with the psalms, you never say never.
Apart from being a question, it’s quite straightforward; a good, standard length (four bars), no really awkward words like ‘Melchisedek’ or ‘ordinances’, and it starts on a stressed syllable, which always simplifies the rhythm for the congregation. That’s important, because if a Response starts with ‘The’ or ‘A’, everyone needs to engage before the first beat of the next bar, and that has a knock-on effect. It also means the verse before each Response has to end a beat early to allow for the unstressed syllable; and in addition you want everyone (including the cantor or choir, and any emotional- support recorder player) to be able to breathe, without jiggering the sway of the rhythm. But here this is not a problem.
Indeed, I decided to put a strong stress on that first word, because of the sense. Not ‘How can I…?’, but ‘How..can I?’, to show how hard the puzzle is. Of course this is a rhetorical question, because the sense is that there is no way for us ever to repay the Lord for his goodness. There is also an irony here, however, because although Patrick became a great saint, he had a very tough time in his youth, and I imagine there were many times when he was hanging on to God by his fingertips and begging for rescue, rather than counting his blessings.
This is a cheerful and confident psalm, so the Response is a celebration. But what about the question mark? I wanted to acknowledge it, because it’s such a rara avis in a Psalm Response, but I didn’t want the words to sound at all dark and questioning. It is a rhetorical question, after all. At first I just came back down to the tonic for the last word, but the question mark nagged at me, so I let the bass and the recorder do that and I made the voice go up, just a major third (no minor, no threat, no darkness). It’s like an Australian rising inflection, or a teenager one, and you hear it a lot in young Irish voices too, so I reckoned that was just about right for St Patrick’s psalm.
So here it is, with its compact and its lead sheet versions (it’s a Holiday of Obligation, so I’ve treated it like a Sunday psalm), and I hope someone will find it useful. If anyone ever needs a special psalm for a feast (or even just a new Response), just email the website, and we’ll do our best to help. Hail, glorious St Patrick, and have a happy feastday with your multiple psalms.