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.

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Bread of heaven, cake, muffin, scone, or hearth cake?

The bread of angels :  Honey, that ain’t no scone

Last Sunday’s First Reading is from the First Book of Kings, part of Elijah’s story. He has just fled for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel and her husband Ahab,  and has gone to hide from retribution (after slaughtering all the priests of Baal) in the desert. He falls asleep in despair, unable to see a way out for himself, but an angel wakes him up, with a jug of water and something to eat.  He eats a little, and goes back to sleep, but the angel wakes him again and insists that he has more to eat and drink, to strengthen him for ‘the journey’ (whereas Elijah had been hoping just to die quietly). He eats and drinks, and then walks for forty days and nights (where have we seen that before?) till he reaches Horeb, the mountain of God. And the story moves on.

Elijah, angel and bread
Elijah with the angel… and supplies

The prophet Elijah

I love this reading. Elijah is one of the most human and engaging of the prophets anyway, because his narrative is more practical than most. God has to keep stepping in to feed him, because he concentrates on being a prophet and forgets to worry about his own needs until it’s too late. His story starts in I Kings 17, and is a corking read, which I warmly recommend, with heroes, villains, food-delivering ravens, a wicked queen, slaughter and smiting, fire from heaven and all sorts of excitement.  There is a great cartoon, courtesy of Welsh television, available on the internet here, which uses Mendelssohn’s Elijah for part of its soundtrack (good call).

I want to focus on one tiny element, though, because it was what struck me on Sunday.  The angel touches him to wake him up, and tells him to get up and eat.  ‘He looked round, and there at his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water’ (1 Kings 19.6, Jerusalem Bible).

Bread in corner
The bread is bottom left
Catering for Elijah

This manages to be both vague and oddly specific.  The same thing happens earlier, when Elijah has no food and there is a drought and a famine.  God tells him where to go, and adds ‘I have ordered the ravens to bring you food there’ (1 Kings 17.4).  The ravens duly supply  ‘bread in the morning and meat in the evening’ (1 Kings 17.6).  When the stream dries up, God has thought ahead : ‘Up and go to Zarephath! […]. I have ordered a widow there to give you food’ (1 Kings 17.9).  Elijah goes off, asks the widow for water, and as she goes to fetch it, he calls after her to bring him ‘a scrap of bread in your hand’.   That ‘scrap’ is interesting; it’s not the usual word for a piece of bread.  Other translations have ‘piece’ or ‘morsel’.  She tells him that she has ‘no baked bread, but only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug’.  She is fetching fuel to cook that into a last meal for her son and herself, ‘and then we shall die’.   Elijah tells her to go ahead, ‘but first make a little scone of it for me and bring it to me, and then make some for yourself and for your son’.  He promises her that the meal and the oil will not be finished before God sends rain again.  She believes him and does as he asks.  Later in the story, the son dies, and Elijah brings him back to life, the first time this happens in the Bible.

Elijah, widow and son
Elijah restoring the resurrected son to his mother
What has the angel actually brought him?

Being a baker myself, I find this really interesting.  It doesn’t sound like a scone to me, more like a flatbread, but then Elijah tells her to make ‘some’ for her little family.  The only ingredients are flour of some kind, oil and water : no yeast, no raising agent, so not a scone.  (She must have put a little salt in it, though.)  So far I have been using the Jerusalem Bible translation, but I thought it might be interesting to see what the other translations might have to offer.

A cake is a loaf is a bread

What about the angel’s catering?  Mostly the translators seem to go for ‘bread’, but there is also ‘cake’, ‘a cake of bread’, a ‘bread cake’, a ’round loaf of bread’.   The same set of words occur in what Elijah requests from the widow.   They are all trying, but they are floundering.  The International Standard Version has, egregiously, ‘muffin’, and the Douay version has ‘hearthcake’, which is possibly the best for those who know what that is, but overwhelmingly I think what we have here is translators not knowing very well what they are describing.  The ’round’ seems to come from the more literal Aramaic translations, and probably reflects what was familiar, but it’s very difficult to make ‘a round loaf’ (not to mention a scone) if you bake it on hot coals or hot stones, especially with no raising agent.  You’re much more likely to end up with something more like an oatcake or a bannock, something you can make on a griddle or a hearthstone.  The Georgians and Turks make lavash, the Mexicans have tortillas.  You roll or pat them out to cook quickly, and then you can tear them into pieces or roll them up.  For a loaf that we might recognise as such, even a flat loaf like focaccia, you need yeast (or raising agent of some kind) and some sort of oven.

Viaticum, journey food

This is food to strengthen Elijah for his journey, like the Passover bread for the Exodus, which is also unleavened and quick to cook.  He doesn’t take it with him; he is described as eating it all before he goes, marching for weeks on one meal, but if this wasn’t a hero story, maybe he could have packed some, because it would fold down easily.  The practical problem would be to stop it getting mouldy.

A scone is not bread

Scones are different.   They seem to be a natural cause for debate and disagreement, from how they are pronounced (skons or scoanes), to whether you put the cream or jam on first (depends whether you’re from Devon or Cornwall; I just put on first whichever is thicker).  But they should always be light, which is why you need either yeast or baking powder or bicarbonate of soda or cream of tartar.  And they tend to be baked in an oven.  They are smaller than a loaf of bread, though of course bread can be divided into small chunks for speed of cooking (bread rolls), and this can lead to smaller bread chunks being referred to as scones, like Irish soda bread.  If you cook those on a griddle, you might even end up with soda farls (from the old word for a quarter, like farthing).

There’s another sort of scone which you can cook on a griddle.  That’s a drop scone (always pronounced ‘dropskon’ with the emphasis on the first syllable).  These are made from a sort of batter (hence ‘drop’), rather than a drier mixture (like Welsh cakes, say, probably very similar to the ‘raisin cakes’ that David has distributed in 2 Samuel 6.19).   Drop scones in old recipe books are often called Scotch pancakes, but that name seems to have died out as ‘Scotch’ has been replaced by ‘Scots’.  But they are very similar to what Americans call pancakes, which has also led to confusion.  Scones strike again!   Let’s not even mention the different understandings of ‘flapjack’.

I say baking powder, you say something different

Bread and baking terms are as confusing as the names for fish, and vary considerably across even a small geographical area.  It’s always fun to find out the local word for a bread roll, but you will need to ask an older person quite often.  It’s not just shape or size, it’s often linked to a particular glaze or finish.  Baps in the Midlands are always flour-dusted and soft, cobs are golden and crusty, and so on.  Loaves can be plaits (Kent), bloomers (everywhere south), cobs, tins, or other names, but are mostly currently described by what they are made from (‘wholemeal’, ‘white’, ‘brown’, ‘rye’, ‘sourdough’ etc.)  ‘Roll’ seems to be the nearest thing to a generic term for ‘small hunk of bread’ (though it’s definitely southern rather than northern British), and I’m surprised to find that no translation offers that to Elijah.  Maybe it sounds too dainty, because you wouldn’t eat part of a roll and then lie down again. 

But how could you resist a drink of water in a cutglass goblet in the desert?
Griddles, girdles and bakestones

And you really want something more rustic and a bit less shaped, if it’s been made on a griddle or cooked on a hot stone among the ashes.  What sort of bread can you cook on a griddle?  That’s a whole other group of possibilities, from the drop scones to singing hinnies, pikelets, crumpets, oatcakes and muffins (the UK sort, not the US).  But none of those is really bread, and drop scones need an egg where the others mostly use yeast.  We want to think of something more like Indian breads, I suspect, or the Turkish bread I’ve already mentioned.  An unleavened, possibly slightly tough, sort of pizza base, cooked in a frying pan if a griddle is not to hand.  This would tear into something like ‘scraps’, but I wouldn’t ever call it a scone.

Wesh cakes
My griddle’s bigger : we can do seven Welsh cakes at once
The Heavenly Diner or Carry-out

Of course none of this matters very much.  I do love the idea of God running a staff restaurant for the angels, from which he can feed deserving (and undeserving) mortals, like Elijah repeatedly here, or like the manna in the desert.  This seems to be the general understanding in the Old Testament : ‘Mere men ate the bread of angels’ (Ps 77/78.25) ‘You gave them bread from heaven’ (Nehemiah 9.15).  Bread is vital, so if God’s people cannot make it for themselves out of what he supplies, he will actually supply the made bread himself.  Not to lack for bread is a sign of divine favour.  We tend to think of the angels as not needing bread, but that’s a modern idea.  Everyone needs bread, so there’s obviously bread in heaven for the angels, and it can be sent out in case of need.  This whole web of ideas is behind all the bread images and discussions in the New Testament, underpinning the feeding of the multitudes and of course the Last Supper and the revelation at Emmaus.

Le pain juste

I still think ‘scone’ is not a good translation, but I am feeling much friendlier towards ‘muffin’.  The classic English muffin is indeed baked on a griddle, and is a bit more bread-like, but it needs ingredients which would not have been to hand….except I suppose in heaven you would be able to find anything you needed.  It’s not right as a translation here, because it brings in all sorts of unnecessary ideas, and is an intrinsically comic word, which doesn’t help.   But Elijah would have wanted something reasonably familiar and definitely substantial, for the journey he is about to embark upon.  I think I’d go for something like ‘bannock’, which sounds rustic and wholesome but has the big advantage that most people will have some rough idea but not anything too specific.  I do think that any Bible translation would be seriously improved if a few more women were involved in the discussion.  Some of them would know how to cook.

Classic Scottish bannock


© 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.

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