History and story psalms, too long for liturgy?

A long history of and in the Psalter

The Book of Psalms includes lots of different genres : laments, victory songs, blessings, curses, celebrations, warnings, history and stories, and that list is not exhaustive. The psalms themselves can vary wildly in length, from a couple of verses up to several pages of poetry, and it’s only a nod to poetic form and their purpose of being sung or recited that keeps them within bounds.  Using them liturgically means concern about form and size as well as message.

Man playing bells
ringing out the psalms

History psalms tend to be longer than many of the others, because the whole point is to show God’s regular intervention in Israel’s past, and how it worked out. If you reduce one of the history psalms to a Responsorial, or rather take a self-contained section out of it, you can be left with a simple but out-of-context account which makes better sense if you know the story already. We get this from time to time in the extracts prescribed for Sunday psalms, but it seems to happen more often among the weekday psalms, because they are chosen from a wider selection of psalms.

Never more than five stanzas for a Sunday

This can collide with the requirements of the Responsorial Psalm as set for us to sing on Sundays, which can’t be too long. We usually have three or four stanzas, occasionally five, but never more. In the traditions of different churches (Anglican, Orthodox, Presbyterian, for example), the rules are different, and they sing their way through the complete Psalter, every psalm, with all its verses. So does the (Catholic) Divine Office, but if you are a lay Catholic who goes mainly only to Sunday Masses, you will never get to sing all the psalms, or even all the verses of the psalms that we do sing. We sing extracts, meant to be pointed and relevant responses to the First Reading. 

What are we missing?

So the context inside the psalm could be relevant, and you might not know; or two Responsorial Psalms might be parts of the same psalm in the Psalter; or something that seems slightly strange might make perfect sense.  It’s often worth checking how the verses of one particular Responsorial Psalm are sited inside the whole psalm.  This is true especially when the stanzas chosen have been taken from various parts of the whole psalm, as it can change the thrust of the psalm completely.

Mostly checking the rest of the psalm is quite comforting, especially if the psalm is mournful, because it is rare to find a psalm that is unrelievedly gloomy (the great exception being Psalm 88/89), but there are also plenty of occasions where you discover that less edifying bits of the psalm have been quietly omitted.  The whole of human life genuinely is here, in the Book of Psalms, the bad bits as well as the good.  The Church often mercifully draws a veil over what you might call the unchristian bits of the psalms (curses etc.), but it does not remove them from the Book of Psalms, which is quite right.  The psalmists were human beings just like us, and not always edifying (even this can be comforting).

History psalms
Adam and Eve with serpent
all the legs still there (for now)

One of the functions of some of the psalms is to provide a summary of salvation history.  These psalms can be long, but they must have been a good way to give children a timeline of events.  When we were small, our parents sang in the car when we were travelling, and I remember one song in particular which retold Bible stories in a jokey way.  I can remember only a few of the verses, and I imagine my parents had forgotten several more, but it’s handy as a aide-mémoire.  Adam was the first man, and he lived all alone/ Till Eve was manufactured out of Adam’s collarbone/ One day in the Garden they were feeling rather bare/ So Adam put a figleaf on and Eve let down her hair. […]

Wicked Queen Jezebel first defenestrated and then trampled, 2 Kings 9

Jehu had a chariot of 90 horse-power/ He drove it round Jerusalem at 90 miles an hour/ Suddenly on pulling up, he heard an awful squeal /And found little bits of Jezebel a-sticking to the wheel.  […] Jonah was a landlubber who thought he’d like to sail/ so he booked an ocean passage on a trans-Atlantic whale/ sitting there inside for days, he felt a bit depressed/ so he simply pressed a button and the whale did the rest.[…]  David was a general, Uriah was his sub/ David saw Uriah’s wife undressing for a tub/ David sent Uriah to a front line trench/ Uriah stopped a hand grenade and David got the wench.  Unfortunately I can’t remember any more verses, but it’s a very common metre, so other bits of doggerel fit the tune, like the four liner about David and Solomon which ends  King Solomon wrote the Proverbs and David wrote the Psalms. Useful solid information, easily digested.

Jonah looking surprisingly calm
History psalms always have a message
penitential psalm illumination
David writing the psalms after sinning

Most of the psalms are a direct address to God by the psalmist, but history psalms imply a third person as listener, either children or just ‘people’, to be informed and instructed.  In the Jewish Bible tradition, I can’t imagine that these psalms wouldn’t have been used as a teaching aid, like the rhyming lists of kings and queens which British children used to memorise.  Some of the psalms address the audience directly (Come, children, and hear me, Ps 33/34; Come and hear, all who fear God, I will tell what he did, Ps 65/66).  Ps 77/78 is overtly a teaching psalm : Give heed, my people, to my teaching; […] I will open my mouth in a parable/ and reveal hidden lessons of the past.   Each generation must pass the knowledge on to the next so that they will obey God and never fall back into unfaithfulness (vv5ff). 

Stories and histories

Some psalms recount a potted version of national history, some are just stories, with a bigger moral and a smaller historical base, as in Psalm 106/107, where there are four stories, each with the same pattern. 

Seascape at night, storm
Mariners in peril

Each shows people in distress, and then God rescues them. First we have starving wanderers in the desert, then wretched prisoners, then some who ‘were sick on account of their sins’, and the last, slightly extended group is mariners in a storm at sea, where the psalmist goes into more detail (drawn from personal experience, maybe).  Each section ends with a similar stanza of praise, with the words tweaked to make them more pointed in each case, but you can imagine the audience joining in.  Other story psalms include Ps 17/18 (the rescue of a just man), and Ps 79/80 (the story of a vine and what happened to it). Ps 113/114 is an in-between case: it looks like history, but it’s only one episode; it starts to tell a story and then it gets sidetracked by the idols, but something strange has happened to the text here, and I don’t think we have it in the state in which the author wrote it.

Longer historical psalms

The main longer historical psalms are Ps 67/68, Ps 77/78, Ps 104/105,  and Ps 105/106, but there are also shorter ones (e.g. Ps 98/99), where only a short part of salvation history is covered.  In Ps 134/135 and Ps 135/136, the references are brief and partly because of the magic of names (as any child who has ever chanted Og, the king of Bashan could tell you, and I wrote about this to discuss Melchisedek).  There is a similar name list of enemies at Ps 82/83, indeed, two of them : one of current enemies, and one, more reassuring, or the enemies that God has already dealt with.  There is a geographical list in Psalm 86/87, and another in Ps 107/108.  People need to know their own history, and they need to know their own relevant local geography.  Then the names act almost as shorthand to evoke a common understanding.  Every nation does this.  Roncevalles; Waterloo; Culloden; Gettysburg.  Massah; Meribah; Mount Sion.

The story of Joseph, told twice
no need to be jealous, with these gorgeous garments

When one of the history psalms is used as a Responsorial, it can be done very simply by extracting a self-contained section, with no editing.  Friday of the second week of Lent uses a small piece (vv. 16-21) of Psalm 104/105 to offer a neat precis of the story of Joseph after a longer but less complete narrative in the first reading, which fills in all the beginning of the story but stops at the point where Joseph is carried off to Egypt as a slave.  The Psalm finishes the story.  In three short stanzas, we discover that things get even worse for Joseph, but then the king releases and honours him.  It would be difficult to give this information any more quickly and efficiently.  There is not a single adjective; the narration is almost bald, almost like something from Mr Gradgrind, nothing but facts, not lyrical poetry by any calculation.  The same thing happens on the Thursday of the fourth week of Lent, where the first reading tells the story of Moses begging God to be merciful after the Israelites in the desert have made themselves a golden calf to worship.  This is Psalm 105/106, and again what we have is three tight little stanzas lifted straight out(vv. 19-23), which tell the story with great economy.

history of Joseph
Joseph again, but more modern

This means you need a simple tune.  It’s similar to the section of Psalm 49/50, where God recites all his possessions, which always makes me think of The farmer’s in his den,  a children’s song.   God just keeps on listing all his possessions to show that he doesn’t need lip-service from anyone.  When I first set it, I gave it a sort of folk song or nursery rhyme feel, because it seemed appropriate, but the same psalm has come up two or three times recently, and the mood is darkening, as we move away from ‘I own all the beasts of the forests,[…]all the birds in the sky’ towards ‘you who sit and malign your brother’, moving from externals to internals.  I may have to write a new tune.  I’d already done one less jaunty, when the Response changed to a more dignified ‘Offer to God a sacrifice of praise’, but I may need to go darker.

How to set (and sing) the history Responsorials

With the two history psalms I’m looking at, I need the tune to be simple but workmanlike.  They are not lyrical psalms, just plain chunks of information, where the facts of the story are what matter, not the mood.  I’m not trying to emphasize any aspect, just to encourage people to join in and think about the story as it is told.  There isn’t time to dwell on Joseph’s experience, becaue the story moves on too quickly.  The only thing to do is to keep it neat and simple, let the words be clear, and set the mood in the Response so that the congregation can pray with it as the answer to the stanzas.  After all, the music needs to follow the style of the words; and if this particular psalmist, in a poetic tradition of development and parallelism, has chosen to give a terse account, I don’t want to embroider it just for the sake of it.

A way to bring people together

I started by saying there are all sorts of psalms, very consciously composed to use their form to enhance the words : lyrical laments, stirring war songs, jubilant repetitious victory songs and others.  But the history psalms are different.  They are accounts of the salient points of Israel’s history, the bits that need to be passed on to the next generation and the next.  They repeat the same events, over and over again, because these are the building blocks of Israel’s identity.  Like my jokey Bible song, these are the stories that every Jewish child (and now any other religion of the Book) needs to have absorbed, to know who they are, to know their own context.  They also give a rock solid base for trusting in the Lord to protect and save us, as he has always done…..and here are the examples.

Law in 2 scrolls
a beloved narrative

©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.

Spring saints and their psalms : David, Patrick and Joseph

Springing into action

Everything seems to burst into activity in the spring, from beetles to bushes. Everything and everybody is busy. Church-music writers are no exception. There’s all the Lent music to sort out, all the Easter music to spruce up (and there’s so much of it, and people get through it all in one night! It’s just like when you spend ages cooking and the family wolfs it in ten minutes); – and then there are the special feasts for spring saints which need music as well.

wild flowers by path to Saint Non's spring
Spring flowers on the path that leads to St Non’s spring (St David’s mother)

St David, first saint of spring

So March is a busy month anyway, and it starts with a bang with St David having his feast day on March 1st. The old weather proverb says of March, ‘In like a lamb, out like a lion’, or the other way around, depending on whether it starts with gales or with gentle breezes. It’s hard to say whether Saint David is more of a lion than a lamb, as we know not much about him.   And he is from a long time ago, the sixth century, which means we have very little solid information, except that we know he was an archbishop and Welsh.   He was living in turbulent times (true of all three of these saints), and he was a man of authority, so he must have needed lion qualities as well as the lamb-like ones which his preserved words suggest.  We have his last words, from an eleventh-century account, which means they are respectable, if not guaranteed, and they are worth noting : “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”  He sounds like a good man, humble and cheerful (and he includes women in his audience, which is very good to hear, and not to be taken for granted).

Welsh cakes : the link in the text even has a recipe!  Brilliant food for travellers

There are surprisingly few pious legends attached to Dewi Sant (hooray, not being part of the Counter-Reformation or female a great help here), and he is the patron saint of Wales, so he can represent all the good things about that country, personifying Welshness for many of us.  You can wear daffodils or leeks on St David’s day : one lifts the heart, the other makes wonderful soup for the still chilly weather.  You can bake welsh cakes to mark the day.   If you get the chance to visit St Davids in Pembrokeshire you will find the smallest cathedral in Britain, in a most beautiful setting, nestled in a little dell.

Psalm for St David (1)

tree like Saint David
See where your Celtic roots can lead you

What psalm does the Church offer us to celebrate Saint David?  It’s Psalm 1, which introduces the whole Psalter, describing the contrast between the good man and the wicked (with a certain amount of glee, it has to be admitted).  The good man is like a tree planted by flowing waters.  This feels entirely appropriate for the Welsh patron saint, with Wales being honeycombed by beautiful brown flowing waters (one of the things which fascinated Gerard Manley Hopkins about the countryside near St Beuno’s, which is further north but still Wales).  The setting I’ve done for this psalm for England and Wales has a little quotation from The Ash Grove in it, because it’s a beloved Welsh folksong.  I haven’t specifically set St David’s psalm for the other Lectionaries (because he’s a national saint only for Wales and England technically) but it’s the same psalm as for Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, so in fact everybody has it if they need it.

St Patrick was actually British

Saint Patrick is the next national patron saint to come by in March, on March 17th, and this year he gets bumped by the Second Sunday of Lent.  I don’t imagine that will stop anyone celebrating Saint Patrick’s feastday, however, but the specific Mass will be held on another day!  Saint Patrick is even further back in time than St David, in the fifth century, and there is an enormous amount of information available about him,  some of it popular rather than necessarily reliable.  The basic facts appear to be that he was British, captured as a boy and enslaved in Ireland among the pagans but God looked after him.  Some years later he escaped and studied to become a priest, eventually discerning a vocation to return to Ireland as a missionary, and spent the rest of his life there, founding and building churches (and performing miracles, like ridding Ireland of snakes).  No flowers for Patrick (or vegetables), but there’s always the shamrock.

the trouble just one snake can cause

Psalm for St Patrick (116/117)

What psalm is assigned to him?  It’s psalm 116/117, a really short psalm, with the emphasis on St Patrick as a missionary :’Go out to all the world and tell the good news’.  Two things make this especially appropriate.  One is that the Irish diaspora has done precisely that;  and the other is that because of the Irish diaspora, lots of countries celebrate this feast day, and it’s in both the UK and the OZ Lectionaries.  The same psalm is used for Ninth and Twentyfirst Sundays in Ordinary Time Year C, so everyone else also has it available.   It’s so short (two two-line verses) that I’ve simply set it as a rollicking rise and fall, and you don’t even need a compact version as it takes up so little space.  And it’s snake-free.

St Joseph, who always comes third

Saint Joseph has more than one feast day, but his two main ones are March 19th (the Church’s celebration of his feast) and May 1st (feast of Joseph the Worker).  He is the patron saint of all sorts of places and people, including Canada, and everybody has him in their Missal, as his feast is classed as a Solemnity and everyone celebrates it.  He is a fascinating and surprisingly elusive figure, figuring in only two of the Gospels and not in any of St Paul’s epistles.  When God needs to tell him something, he sends him an angel in a dream, to warn, to advise or to reassure, and Joseph always acts with great promptitude and efficiency, leaving for Egypt immediately in the middle of the night, for example.  The focus is never on him, but despite his permanent third position, by date of feast and in the popular imagination (‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’, which you only ever hear said in one very particular rhythm and cadence),  he’s a very important saint.

Saint Joseph with Mary and Jesus
Mary knitting, Saint Joseph talking to the baby

He is portrayed as an old(er) man, but this seems to have arisen mainly out of the Church’s hang-ups over sex, and there’s no textual justification for it at all.  It’s always fun to check what he’s doing in any portrayal of the Holy Family.  Sometimes he’s asleep (worn out because he’s so old), sometimes he’s just standing guard (leaning on a staff, because he’s so old).  I like the pictures where he’s looking after the baby because Mary’s asleep, and there are a couple of wonderful illustrations of the journey into Egypt where he’s carrying the sleeping baby  and leading the donkey, while Mary grabs a quiet fifteen minutes with a book.

Saint Joseph at work at home
everybody usefully occupied

March 19th has been his feast day since the tenth century, but it’s not a very good date really as it often falls in Lent, which casts a damper on the day and means you can’t have any alleluias. I’ve set his Acclamations for US and CAN with the new top-and-tails that sound more celebratory.  Like St David, he has a flower, the lily for purity, sometimes sprouting from the staff he needs to hold him up (because he’s so old).

Psalm for St Joseph (88/89)

The psalm, like the readings, emphasizes Joseph’s descent from David and Abraham, which technically isn’t relevant as ancestors of Jesus.  It is a celebration of God’s love and the promises of the covenant.  This psalm does come up on other Sundays, but there always with a Response along the lines of ‘Forever I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord’.   However, for St Joseph, we have ‘His line shall continue forever’.  I feel that this is either emphasizing something we should be skating over,  or concentrating on celebrating David rather than Joseph.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Time for a cuddle

I like the slightly grumpy Joseph who appears in some of the older poems and carols, notably the Cherry Tree Carol, where when Mary asks for some cherries as they travel through an orchard and Joseph (who is too bent to reach, because he is so old)  snaps that whoever gave Mary the baby can get her the cherries.  A miracle occurs, and there are various different versions (it’s possibly a composite of three old ballads) but Mary gets the cherries, the unborn baby makes a prediction about his birthday, and Joseph apologises.

Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree

It often seems to be possible to make a case for a different (possibly more appropriate) psalm on particular feast days.   Saint George’s feast day (in April) doesn’t use any of the psalms that dragons feature in, which is a shame;  we don’t sing the Magnificat at the Annunciation, though surely it would be apposite, and we don’t have one of the (few) sea-going psalms for Sea Sunday, which I regret every year.  Joseph’s psalm is a good one, but I think I would have given him one of the more ‘craftsman’ psalms, like Ps 89/90, with its double iteration of ‘Give success to the work of our hands’, or possibly better 133/134,  which starts ‘O come, bless the Lord,/all you who serve the Lord, /who stand in the house of the Lord’  and goes on ‘Lift up your hands to the holy place/ and bless the Lord through the night’, because it always makes me think of Joseph, standing so patiently watching and protecting in all those Nativity scenes, but awake and alert to do whatever God asked him in the night.

Three great saints; three cheerful psalms.  They come up on our journey through Lent like primroses in our path, encouraging us and lightening the heart.  They aren’t always Lent saints, because of dates shifting around; but they surely are saints for spring.

flowers on a piece of medieval embroidery
blossoms and leaves sprouting even outside the box

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.