The shapes of psalms: songs, litanies, shanties, lullabies

Psalms come in different shapes as well as sizes

If you want your congregation to join in, it’s very important that they feel comfortable with what’s going on.  If they don’t, they will keep quiet and just watch everyone else.  We long for the days when we can encourage a congregation to join in the singing again, so when the restrictions are lifted, we want everyone to feel ready to take part with confidence.  This means understanding what is going on; and part of this is knowing what shape the Responsorial Psalm is for this week,

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
Is it one of these?

 – because the Responsorial Psalm can take different forms.  I’ve written before about psalm-lullabies, but at least they usually follow the standard shape.  Some of the other types change even the format.   Most often we have the verse + chorus model, with which everyone is familiar from folk songs and Christmas carols.  The verses change but the chorus stays the same, so even those who didn’t know it at the beginning can pick it up and join in freely by the end.  

Dinosaur in a snailshell
…or more like this?

Other liturgies which use the psalms (like the Anglican tradition) sing the psalms straight through without a Response or Chorus. This is beautiful, covers the Psalter more efficiently and is easier to control and practise, but you don’t get the congregation joining in.  Sometimes the choir divides, just as in the cathedral tradition (Decani, the side where the Dean sits, and Cantoris, the other side, for the Cantor), so that the verses of the psalms can alternate; again, no audience participation, but difference in the way it feels and sounds.  Think of it like mediaeval stereo, with the sound coming from alternating speakers, or as God’s Dolby helicopter in a film’s opening.

Psalm as psea pshanty
Jonah and whale
yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

There are a few psalms (and a couple of canticles) where the poetic form is like a sea shanty. I’ve talked about this before, specifically about the Daniel canticle.  Sea shanties are currently having a moment, as part of the pandemic, though I am not at all sure why. Perhaps it’s because, if you’re rehearsing on Zoom, it’s a lot easier to keep together when the lines are short, and anyway, with shanties, a bit of rough-and-ready is already factored in.

Stella maris (Coptic) with goldfish

In a religious context we tend to call them litanies rather than shanties, but the principle is the same. One person (or less often, a group) says or sings a line of text, which varies every time but has something to keep them together. They might be titles for Our Lady : ‘Rose of Sharon’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Star of the sea’ etc. After each brief line, another person (or usually group) answers with their own line, which keeps repeating: ‘Pray for us’, or ‘Alleluia’, or ‘Have mercy on us’, but the pattern is that the first halves change all the time and the second half doesn’t. I used this sort of shape in the Mayfield Mass Kyrie, so that the congregation can ease into singing it after learning just one simple line of melody.  The Agnus Dei inverts this, using the same first half three times, and changing the second half.  It seems to work well, and is easy to pick up.


Verse and chorus
children singing and marking the rhythm by clapping as well ( we could do that with psalms, but some people don’t like it)

One of the things which first attracted me to writing tunes for psalms is the shape of the Responsorial Psalm as we Catholics sing it Sunday by Sunday, with verse and chorus, like so many traditional folk songs or nursery rhymes. Children learn how they work just as they learn turn-taking in speech.  I say this; you answer that.  Some of the oldest forms of tonguetwister and word games work the same way (I am a gold lock…I am a gold key, and so on).  Some of our earliest musical memories are probably this shape; such songs are easy to pick up and join in with. They encourage everyone to take part.

Shapes in the Psalter

If the Book of Psalms is the Church’s first hymn book, it’s a hymn book designed to encourage audience participation, with its repetition and simple shapes.   It’s fascinating to see the shapes already there in the written text of the Book of Psalms, from litanies (Pss 117/118, 134/135)  to songs with choruses (Pss 45/46, 48/49, 66/67).  We can see the shapes of some psalms more clearly than others.  Sometimes a chorus is used to give shape to what might otherwise be a bit unwieldy (Ps 79/80, for example).  I think it’s quite likely that some of the psalms, where there is a short first stanza before the psalm takes a breath and sets off, might well have been sung as we shape them today, as Responsorial Psalms, with that first piece being the recurring Response (see Pss 19/20, 83/84 and 127/128, as well as the several which just start ‘Alleluia’).  In Psalm 106/107, this possible suggested response even comes in quotation marks.  I’m not sure at what stage of translation or editing they would have been added (this is, after all, a very ancient, very foreign text, however familiar),  but I think they indicate something about the way that psalm has been shaped and used, as well as the other psalms where similar phrases occur.

Shaping the Response as well as the psalm

The only slight problem here is that sometimes the Responses we have prescribed for us in the Lectionary can feel too short.  This didn’t matter in the old days, when church musicians were allowed to repeat something (imagine saying to any church musician of previous centuries that they couldn’t repeat an Alleluia or a Dona nobis pacem),  but nowadays this is officially frowned upon and some Responses feel too short to balance the verse length.  I have talked about this before.  And sometimes a Response is just bad (see my complaints about this here).

Mary and choir of angels
you really want me to sing that?
Sailors and marines

Litanies are even easier than the standard Responsorial Psalm (because there is less to remember), but the group/congregation/team has to work harder, as they are holding up half of the song.  They are also less familiar as a shape for the psalm, so it really is worth explaining before Mass what the shape is, if it’s not the standard verse+chorus.  So long as enough people are not taken by surprise, the latecomers will catch up.  Every line (or pair of lines) in a litany/shanty alternates between the singers, and everyone has to stay alert (this is why they are good work songs).  An older form of sea shanty is called ‘chanty’, which is of course a reference to its heritage from Gregorian chant.  No, there I am kidding, but certainly some sea shanties are old, and Phoenician sailors were probably using similar songs to help keep time hauling up an anchor even long before Peter and Andrew were boys learning to fish in Galilee with their father.  A modern version is US Marines singing as they do their morning runs.

another way to use music to keep together (Georgians dancing clasped together)
All together now

It’s not about beautiful singing or developed melody; it’s all about rhythm and keeping together.  Think about the man on the drums to keep the rowers together on the ship in Ben HurThey have to have a Hortator (the man doing the drumming, same root as ‘to exhort’) to set the rhythm because they are working so hard they have no breath to sing (and they are slaves from all over the Roman Empire, so they wouldn’t have come from a shared musical tradition).  With a free crew singing a normal sea shanty, the men are working but not at full stretch, so they can sing at least enough to make the responses.  And the shantyman can improvise and/or make jokes, so long as he keeps to the rhythm, which also keeps the crew listening attentively (just like the Marines).  This is not a technique open to us with our Sunday psalms, however.

Youths singing
Trying to keep together
Making it clear and keeping it simple

Anything can work, so long as the people singing and listening know what the form is.  The usual shape of our Sunday psalms is verse + chorus, and most people are used to that.  The number of verses can vary, the length of the verses can vary, but so long as the movement into the Response is clear and remains the same throughout, you can get away with a surprising amount of variation.  There are even psalms (e.g. Ps 30/31 for Good Friday) where I have needed to use two tunes alternating (though always keeping the same Response), and it’s been fine.  Confidence (yours as well as theirs) is crucial.  Explain at the beginning if you need to, give a clear lead and offer plenty of eye contact.  At the moment, this all feels slightly academic, as our congregations are tiny and behind face masks, but we can nurture the will to sing, and better times are coming.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 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.

For ever and ever : to eternity and beyond?

So many ways to say for ever

There are lots of ways in which we talk about something going on forever. From age to age. Happily ever after. Always. For ever and ever.  Through all eternity. Evermore and evermore. To the end of time. For ever and a day (that’s mathematically correct, you can always add one to infinity).  World without end. In perpetuity.  I like Buzz Lightyear’s ‘To infinity and beyond!‘, and it’s no less clear than many other expressions.   The main difference between ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity’ is that ‘eternity’ has religious overtones which ‘infinity’ mainly avoids, as a mathematical or scientific term.

eternity machine
keeping on keeping on: the first perpetuum mobile
From age to age…to age

Other languages could demonstrate similar collections, from single words (Latin semper and all its descendants) to beautiful or bombastic periphrases. Most Catholics of my generation will remember ‘in saecula saeculorum’ and similar expressions, however vaguely, just because they came up so often at the ends of prayers, when people tend to slow down slightly, so it’s easier to hear.   You can see the same thing occurring in the psalms, where ‘now and for ever’ or a similar form of words flows naturally into an ‘Amen’ or sometimes an ‘Alleluia’ (Pss 40/41, 71/72, 88/89, 105/106 and 113/114 for example).   I don’t think it’s making too many assumptions to think that when ‘now and for ever’ is the last line of the psalm, it might well have been followed by a spontaneous ‘Amen’, such as you often hear when ‘through Christ our Lord’ occurs during the canon of the Mass (and much more frequently among the evangelicals, hurrah for them).  This happens several times (Pss 120/121, 130/131 and 144/145, among others).

infinity in its purest form, and here is a link to a real railway that does the same thing : http://www.panacomp.net/mecavnik-wooden-town-and-sargan-eight-train/
Happily ever after

The wish to see happiness unfolding endlessly into the distance is deeply rooted in human beings.  It is how we end nearly all our stories, once the villains have been routed.  Happy (and distant) endings are what we all desire, from daydreams to marriage vows (’till death do us part’);  and yet we know first that death comes to us all (‘What man can live and never see death?’ Ps 88/89.49),  and second that we know absolutely nothing about anything that happens afterwards.  ‘Till death do us part’ is actually impressively realistic compared with most of our expressions.  When we say it, we are recognising human limitations; it is even more convincing than ‘for ever’ would be, because it is more sober.  But God doesn’t have human limitations, so when the psalmist talks about ‘for ever’, what exactly does he mean?  Is this an eternity we can recognise?

Wedding ring
a ring goes round and round..and round
Reach for the stars

In Greek and Roman mythology, one version of ‘for ever’, of lasting into eternity, was to be turned into a star (or a constellation), like Hercules and the Pleiades.  This was an honour beyond being turned into a tree (Deucalion and Pyrrha, Daphne), or a natural phenomenon (Echo, Narcissus).  Stars are too far away to touch, too distant to see clearly, but beautiful and seemingly permanent, so it’s a good halfway house between Mount Olympus and life on earth.    It’s not even just the pagan Greeks.  The nicely-brought-up, Catholic-in-good-standing  Juliet longs for Romeo,  ‘…and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night ‘, (R&J, Act III, scene 2) .  Some people nowadays aspire to sending their own ashes, or those of someone dear to them, up into space, because to be in space is to be out of time.  Now that the Church has decided against scattering ashes, I imagine this is no longer a possible Catholic option, but being buried or having your ashes placed under a tree is still allowed.

God creating earth
stars outside earth, serenely circling
Dwellers all in time and space

As temporal beings, we find it almost impossible to conceive of being outside time, and it’s very hard to imagine any sort of eternity that doesn’t seem either boring or terrifying in the long term.  Change, immutability, continuity, repetition : we struggle with all of this in the context of ‘for ever’.  Even ‘perpetual light’ means no twilight or dawnings, nothing refreshing or familiar; it sounds intimidating, possibly even bringing  interrogation to mind.   The language we use to address the question doesn’t really work.  What does ‘eternity in the long term’ mean?  The two ideas cancel each other out.  It is surprising how many times ‘for ever’ occurs in the Psalms, but it means different things to different psalmists.

Pharisees vs. Sadducees
Law in 2 scrolls
Lord, how I love your law

We know that one of the points of contention between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was over eternity, specifically life after death.  The Pharisees asserted that it was the reward for a good life, but would not be drawn on what it actually meant or what it might be like, which was very sensible of them.  The Sadducees thought that virtue had to be its own and only reward: people should do good things because they were good, not from any hope of reward.  Austere, but impressive.

Versions of eternity in the Psalms
Jess tree
your children are your future

In the psalms, much of the time the psalmist limits his looking forward to this current life, especially when longing for deliverance from present danger.  Children are frequently seen as equivalent to avoiding mortality (cf. Ps 111/112);  they are not an advantage just because they will defend you if necessary (Ps 126/127) or take care of you in old age or infirmity (Ecclesiasticus 3. 14-16 is the classic text here), but because they give you a way of not being blotted out.  They prevent your name being forgotten (cf. Ps 82/83.5).  Obliteration is the fate reserved for the wicked, and it is seen as terrifying (‘the depths […] the dark […] the land of oblivion’, Ps 87/88).  This is why ‘perpetual light’ is meant to be positive rather than scary, but artificial light has altered our perception.   Children are the human-scale opposite of this obliteration.  God’s mercy has to be extended down the generations or it loses its importance (all those references to children’s children).  ‘Let this be written for ages to come/ that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord’ (Ps 101/102.19).

God dividing light and dark
Immortal, invisible : God dividing light from  darkness (Sistine)
How long have you got?

The huge difference between God and human beings is duration.  Man has a span, ‘seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong’ (Ps 89/90.10), but God is ‘for ever’, ‘from age to age’, ‘he rules for ever by his might’ (Ps 65/66.7).  Paradoxically God is also out of time, and it does not mean the same for him (‘one day within your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere’ Ps 83/84.11), to the extent that even tenses are reversed: ‘Before the mountains were born […] you are God’ (Ps 89/90); ‘From all eternity, O Lord, you are’ (Ps 92/93).  In God’s eyes ‘a thousand years/ are like yesterday’ (Ps 89/90.4), which makes me wonder whether the same person wrote these two psalms which set one against a thousand.  Psalm 101/102, one of the psalms of repentance, specifically contrasts the brevity of human life (‘my days are vanishing like smoke […] like a passing shadow’) and God’s strength and permanence (‘you, whose days last from age to age’), ending with a remarkable stanza which describes how God will outlast even the heavens : ‘Long ago you founded the earth/ and the heavens are the work of your hands. / They will perish but you will remain. / They will all wear out like a garment. /You will change them like clothes that are changed. / But you neither change, nor have an end.’ 

Toasting God

The Psalter shows a growing understanding and increasingly subtle grasp of eternity as we move through it.  In the earlier psalms, it is on a more human scale, and Psalm 17/18 even includes a prayer ‘Long life to the Lord, my rock!’, which shows David (almost definitely the psalmist here) thinking of God as a bigger but still mortal king, who saves him and gives him victory after victory, who will do the same for his sons ‘for ever’; but there is no suggestion of a future eternal life for David to be reborn into.  Human ‘for ever’ is limited to ‘all the days of my life’, as in Pss 22/23 and 26/27.  The good man aspires to live in God’s house or tent for all his life, but is still aware that ‘in your house I am a passing guest, a pilgrim, like all my fathers’ (Ps 38/39.13).  Psalm 60/61 is a pivotal moment, where the psalmist asks ‘Let me dwell in your tent for ever’ and continues even more clearly,’May you lengthen the life of the king: may his years cover many generations’.  We are moving on from children being the only continuation of the just,  to daring to imagine an unending life, for us, in God’s presence.

Eternity as more time or less time

This eternity is pictured as an endless now, and the psalmists see themselves as trees in God’s house or garden, or standing beside a river.  In a time and place where wars kept breaking out, trees seem more permanent than buildings, especially when what you are used to is tents, and they constantly renew themselves (‘still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green’ Ps 91/92.15), as well as being able to proclaim God’s glory and sing his praises (but not in a scary way). The nine or ten psalms that lead up to Psalm 100/101 show a future opening up with no visible term except ‘the end of time’,  and describe this eternal present with serene confidence.   The psalmist is still trying to make sense of it, and different notes are still struck, sometimes even in the same psalm:  Psalm 102/103 talks about God ‘renewing your youth like an eagle’s'(v.5), referring to the myth that eagles could go off on a featherless retreat and come back for a fresh lifespan and new feathers (which I think must be a version of the phoenix myth),  but later compares man to grass and wild flowers, and looks forward to God protecting future generations rather than this one (v.17).

Jesse tree with descendants pictured
Family tree : the patriarchs in order,  from generation to generation, culminating in Christ
His love endures for ever

The psalms in the last third of the Psalter strike an increasingly confident note.  God’s mercy endures for ever, a line that recurs.  So does his justice. These lines are fun to write tunes for, because you can make the music go on running and not come to an end.  He is reliable and faithful.  The history psalms repeat the message and reinforce it : he has always done this, he will continue to do it.  ‘He remembers his covenant for ever,/ his promise for a thousand generations ‘ (Ps 104.8).  And the idea of eternity is less frightening and intimidating because the emphasis now is on God’s love, his faithfulness or his kingdom lasting for ever.  The psalmist is happy to leave the details to God.  The Lord is beyond everything he can grasp, even if he is the (slightly smug and) perfect observer of God’s law who wrote Psalm 118/119, the longest psalm with its emphasis on decrees, rules and precepts; so we need to trust him and leave it to him. ‘I have seen that all perfection has an end/ but your command is boundless’ (Ps 118/119.96). 

The Psalms’ version of heaven
sleeping like a baby

We are heading towards a time beyond time, an eternal present of peace.  The dangers and struggling fall behind, and the psalmist sees himself as a ‘weaned child on its mother’s breast’ (Ps 130/131).  ‘For the Lord has chosen Zion’;  God has chosen the destination (‘This is my resting place for ever, here have I chosen to live’ Ps 131/132.14).   We are all supposed to be there too (‘Those who put their trust in the Lord/ are like Mount Zion, that cannot be shaken, that stands for ever’ Ps 124; and also ‘How good […] it is when brothers live in unity![…] It is like the dew of Hermon which falls on the heights of Zion.  For there the Lord gives his blessing, life for ever ‘Ps 132/133).

A life of eternal bliss

The psalmists get bolder and bolder.  The present tenses keep coming; there are still historical references, but they alternate with present celebration (‘For his love endures for ever’ Ps 135/136), so we stay in the eternal now.  The psalmist calls on ‘you who stand in the house of the Lord’ (Ps 134/135), as though we were there already.  There are still notes of persecution, penitence and exile, but the overwhelming feeling is of a rising wave towards the celebratory last few psalms.  It becomes explicit in Psalm 138/139, which celebrates the might and the reach of God in beautiful and unforgettable words which I’m only not quoting because I’d have to write out most of the psalm, and it’s better if you look it up.  But eternal life is now the explicit aspiration : ‘To me, how mysterious your thoughts, the sum of them not to be numbered!  /If I count them, they are more than the sand; / to finish, I must be eternal, like you’ (vv. 17-18); ‘lead me in the path of life eternal'(v.24).  By the penultimate psalm, we are still being encouraged to ‘sing a new song’, to dance and rejoice, but it’s good to see also that provision is made for sitting down :’Let the faithful rejoice in their glory, / shout for joy and take their rest’ (Ps 149.5).

Medieval band
if only we had the soundtrack
Zion, praise your God!

This is a very joyful eternity, with lots of music (see Ps 150).  It still has a sizeable component of enjoying seeing your enemies vanquished and suffering, which is the big difference between OT and NT heavens, but this is far from being crucial.  The emphasis is overwhelmingly on praise and celebration, and every single created thing taking part in the chorus of joy (Ps 148).  That is an eternity  we can all look forward to.  Science may have done for the concept of the music of the spheres, but we can look forward to hearing the oceans and the mountains singing God’s praise.  I would love to hear that.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021. 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.