Sing a new song
I enjoy being asked to write a tune for a psalm I haven’t set before. Now that we’ve covered all the Sundays of the three year cycle, it doesn’t happen so often that I get to write a totally new tune, but it’s always a pleasure. I never know what sort of tune is going to emerge, but there are a few basic pegs which make it easier for the congregation to pick up quickly, so I will use a hymn idiom or a folksong idiom if I think it’s appropriate. Some psalms are clearly gloomy and have to be in a minor key, like the Good Friday psalm; some are pure celebration, and minor is clearly not appropriate. If there is talk of kings, I find myself using Handel-type melodies and thinking brass. Sometimes I’ll actually quote something relevant (We plough the fields and scatter for the Sunday where we have the parable of the Sower, Luther’s Ein feste Burg when that psalm comes up, Sheep may safely graze for Good Shepherd Sunday, and so on), anything to help grasp and memory.
Psalms for daily Masses
The Sunday cycle does not cover all the psalms by any means. Some are omitted altogether (and I need to write something about that one day); others are used at different points in the liturgy, as part of the Divine Office or for weekday Masses. While our churches were in lockdown, church musicians were often not able to play their part. But some churches did their best to include some music in their digital Masses, some even at the daily Mass, which was most impressive. I was delighted when we had some requests for settings of psalms for daily Masses, ones I hadn’t done before, and we have added them to the website so that anyone can use them.
One fascinating psalm that I recently came across in this way was Psalm 49/50, which I had not needed to set before. It is the Responsorial Psalm for July 1st. I didn’t realise quite how interesting it was, at first, because the Response looks like many others. I nearly always start with the Response, because you have to be able to engage the congregation straight off. It mustn’t be too difficult or off-putting in any way; it needs to be graspable immediately; and then it has to lead into and out of the stanzas easily, so (usually) the Response comes first. This one looks like a standard psalmist’s call to everyone else to praise God. But the stanzas are all in God’s voice, in the first person, which is always slightly tricky (it happens in the Alleluia verses quite often, and it’s easier when it’s in inverted commas, with ‘God says’, ‘it is the Lord who speaks’, or ‘says the Lord’), because it feels like an enormous responsibility to set God’s own words to a tune. The Response is taken from the last verse, so it is actually God speaking, although it doesn’t look like it. I will give the full text as it is given in the Lectionary (Australian, on this occasion), because it’s a weekday liturgy, so a bit harder to track down:
Ps 49:7-13. 16-17. R. v.23
(R.) To the upright I will show the saving power of God.
1. ‘Listen, my people, I will speak;/Israel, I will testify against you,/for I am God your God. (R.)
2. ‘I find no fault with your sacrifices,/your offerings are always before me./I do not ask more bullocks from your farms,/nor goats from among your herds. (R.)
3. ‘I own all the beasts of the forest,/beasts in their thousands on my hills./I know all the birds in the sky,/all that moves in the field belongs to me. (R.)
4. ‘Were I hungry, I would not tell you,/for I own the world and all it holds./Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls,/or drink the blood of goats? (R.)
5. ‘How can you recite my commandments /and take my covenant on your lips,/you who despise my law /and throw my words to the winds?’ (R.)
The other part of Ps 49/50
The words are simple, repetitive, and, dare I say, almost humorous. This is the God from the later part of the Book of Job, who arrives ‘clothed in majesty and glory, wrapped in light as in a cloak’ (Ps 103/104), to answer the questions of this tiny little man who has called him to account. Interestingly, there is an extended section before the part of the psalm which we sing. It starts by setting the scene (The Lord has spoken and summoned the earth, […..he] comes, he keeps silence no longer). He calls everyone before him and starts to speak. Here are our first four stanzas, in one complete run. The psalm divides at verse 16, with what amounts to a stage direction: ‘But God says to the wicked’, and our last stanza is the next verse after the stage direction, which does sound almost as though it’s out of a different text. Then the Response is an adjustment of the last line of the whole psalm, with God oddly referring to himself in the third person. Psalms (and hymns, for that matter) where we sing as if we were God feel slightly strained, because of the mismatch between us and the Lord, so most people singing the Response will think that they are using David’s words (or some other psalmist’s), rather than taking them as God’s own, and the inverted commas only on the stanzas help to give that impression.
Why God is complaining
God is not objecting to his people not carrying out their formal worship, he’s upset because they are doing so only formally. As Hosea explains, God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6.6, quoted by Jesus himself in Matt 9.13, just after that encouraging verse about his coming to call not the righteous but sinners).
Finding the right sort of tune
Setting the Response was fairly easy, because it’s a normal thing for the psalms to say, and the oddity of the speaker’s being God is not apparent or even material; but when I came to the words of the stanzas, they irresistibly pushed towards some sort of folksong tune. They are simple, direct and repetitive (the bullocks and goats recurring, all the beasts, all the birds). The tone seemed somehow familiar, and then I worked out why.
Folk song parallels
It’s like a puzzle song (O no, John and that link is to an amazing Red Army version, which sadly leaves out the last verse), or a ballad (Leezie Lindsay, Raggle Taggle Gypsies). C.S.Lewis described Psalm 49/50 as ‘one of the finest’ psalms, because the standpoint of the human is more humble than usual (Reflections on the Psalms, chapter 2), but in the edited segments we have here, it has a certain humour. God describes his power and might, he enumerates his possessions, like the hero of these folksongs, and the person listening (usually a woman, in the ballads) is persuaded to go off with him. The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’ story is different, because she’s already run off with the handsome gypsies, and the laird describes all his possessions (the goosefeather bed, the house, the land ,the money, the ‘new-wedded lord’) to no avail.
The parts of the psalm that are not included are graver and more stately in tone, more formal. Our last stanza is more like this, and the early section of the psalm is even more solemn. But all the other four stanzas (and five is a lot for a Responsorial Psalm, especially for a weekday Mass) do not have this tone. The language is simple, lots of short words, and the rhythm is attractively clear. I wondered about using a modal or minor tune, useful in folk songs with a darker feel (Miller of Dee, Drunken Sailor), but it just didn’t seem to fit with the celebratory declaration (in anyone else you could call it boasting) that God is doing here. So I decided just to go with it and emphasize the lovely clear rhythms. It sounds jaunty and positive, confident and serene, so I thought that was not a bad portrayal of the first-person singer/narrator.
He who sings prays twice, and my objective is always to get people to sing. I’m hoping that using a familiar musical idiom will make it easy for people to join in, and you don’t need to know anything about folk songs to find their tunes and rhythms comfortably familiar, as they go back into both our own childhoods and the mists of time. At the moment we are forbidden to sing in our churches here in the UK, even once we are allowed back into them, which is a terrible shame. But better times will come, and I hope one day some congregation will be able to join in the chorus for my new folksong psalm.
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