About Kate Keefe
Kate Keefe was born in Staffordshire, England and studied at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. She has lived and sung in Churches in England, Italy, the Czech Republic, Kenya, Georgia, Russia and the Balkans. Kate writes music for psalms, acclamations, Mass texts and more, for English-speaking congregations all over the world, using the resources available. When the new translation of the Mass came in, she wrote new settings, trying them out at her current church. She writes about church music, the psalms and more, and blogs for The Tablet.
Kate Keefe writes about the Psalms
I started writing music for the Psalm because the shape of the Responsorial Psalm is so attractive. Everyone can join in the chorus. This is the way most of us learn to sing – with nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, sea shanties. Even people who won’t sing hymns – and Catholic congregations are notoriously reluctant, for all sort of historical reasons – will sometimes join in a one-line response.
This means the response needs to be simple, tuneful, memorable and clearly signposted. The verse tune can be more elaborate, more challenging to sing, more complicated; but the jump-off for the response has to be clear and easy to hear, or the people won’t come in when you need them. You can wave a hand at them (if they are looking at you), but the music itself should bring them in; there should be a feeling of pause, of launch, so that people are moved to sing their part in answer.
Often the lines are different lengths, or there are different numbers of lines per stanza, so I may need to insert more music in the middle, but the introduction to the response should be consistent, and it’s reassuring for the congregation if you set off in the same direction after each response. And it must not be boring, because people will be singing it several times, even six or seven.
Follow the words
The words of the Psalm are all-important. If I don’t enhance the words, I have failed. So I follow the words carefully, even a bit simplistically sometimes – if it says ‘up’ or ‘down’, I try to reflect it, but there is a catch here, as most psalms have several verses, and the tune cannot change at every verse, or people won’t see the pattern. The atmosphere needs to be right : pastoral, stately, yearning, positive, thoughtful, whatever (these are all aspirations, I don’t think I am always successful, by any means!). I try to make the waters flow and the trumpets shout.
And the Alleluias
The Alleluias were a slightly later development. They are interesting to write because they are so brief – it must be like painting miniatures. The verse needs to grow out of the response and back into it, like the Psalms do with their responses, but the Gospel verse is single and is usually very short. This is one reason why some of the Alleluias (e.g. the Mayfield Alleluia and the Stuart) carry on softly below the verse and then blossom again after the verse is over. It helps to keep the Alleluia as a compact whole, and encourages people to join in because it’s easy.
- We put ‘singable’ in the website heading because it’s fundamental to what I am trying to do. I apologise for the word, but the fact that it doesn’t really exist shows something about what people don’t always take account of when writing church music! We have tried the music out with different congregations, and people have been brilliant at picking it up quickly, even when I have a psalm that is peculiar in shape (very different stanza lengths). I think a lot of modern church music underestimates the musical ability of congregations, but keeping the structure clear is very important. The cantor needs to be able to cope with extra syllables of text in different lines and different extra lines in different verses, but if s/he is confident, then the congregation will be confident enough to relax and sing their part with conviction. And that is wonderful to hear.
What people say
John Dyer cites Kate’s blog on the Bible and Bechdel, and Jesus’ interaction with women
Do read Kate’s recent blog post on women being given a voice by Jesus
Thank you very much, Kate, for your clever words on church choirs!
Contact Kate Keefe
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