Does size matter? The shortest psalm (116/117)

Size isn’t everything

The psalm coming up on Sunday is the shortest psalm in the Psalter (116/117). It has only two verses, and for once I don’t need to distinguish between stanzas and verses, because each verse makes a stanza. Even with an intercalated Response, this is a very short psalm. Does that matter?

Some small things are larger than they look

Of course it doesn’t, because this is a tiny psalm with a mighty subject.  It’s probably a good thing that it isn’t the first psalm in the book, because we might just skip over it without realising its significance, but by the time we are one hundred psalms or so into the Psalter, we can pick up references and reverberations and value this psalm for all it means rather than just noticing how short it is.

Expressing distilled praise

The main meaning of ‘the Book of Psalms’ is ‘the book of praises’, and this psalm is a distilled version of so many others (the very next psalm is a great litany of praise in 29 verses).  Its size does present a challenge when you’re setting it to music, though, and it’s worth considering exactly how to deliver it.

Saint Joseph holding baby
Good things can come in very small packages
No repetition, no deviation

The shortness of the words would not have presented a problem in previous years.  Anyone who has ever been to an opera knows how the music is allowed to express feeling and significance with the words being repeated to fit.  There is a marked difference between spoken dialogue with music (recitative) and making a song (aria) to enhance the meaning of a brief statement or even question.  Many church composers have written whole arias around a single word (e.g. Alleluia : Bach, Handel, Mozart, Kodaly among others) or a single verse out of a psalm (Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina….everybody, really), but nowadays we aren’t allowed to repeat anything at all, unless it’s traditional (the three-fold Kyrie) or invented as part of the new Canon (‘this pure victim, this stainless victim’ etc).  Musically you have to set the words as given.  So what do you do with a very short psalm?

Ensuring engagement

The Responsorial Psalm is situated between the two readings before the Gospel.  People are sitting down, after the first part of the Mass, and they are listening.  In some churches, they listen even to the psalm, sung by a choir; in others, they sing just the Response, and listen to the stanzas in between. (In some churches, they just speak the Response, but I think this is a shame, and it’s not what I’m talking about here).  After the Psalm, they listen again to the second Reading before standing up for the Gospel, which ought to be greeted by them singing the Alleluia (though in many churches, they just speak it, which is again a shame).  All the sitting down and getting up again helps to keep people engaged, but the best engagement is joining in the singing, as I’ve explained before, because it wakes everyone up and increases their oxygen levels..

The risk with a choir (only) singing a short little psalm is that the congregation barely notices it.  I’ve mentioned before the problem posed by  a very short response, you might call it the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ problem.  So long as the congregation is singing even a short response, though, you have a good chance to engage their attention.  I do find that it is worth taking an extra beat or two before you actually start (as you look up at the beginning and make sure everyone is watching),  just to make sure that everyone is already paying attention, as there is not enough time for them to catch up later, and we don’t like leaving anyone behind.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together
Varying numbers of verses and stanzas

So a short psalm needs to have just as much presence as a longer one.  We can have up to five stanzas in a Responsorial Psalm for Sunday Mass, but most are three or four.  The stanzas often vary in length considerably, even within the same psalm (causing the composer much muttering and trying out different ways of inserting extra bits of tune), but given that the psalms are translated (and sometimes twice-) poetry, it’s amazing how well the text for most of them has come out (and thank God for the brilliant people who have worked on the Grail psalms).

Adam names the beasts
Relative sizes can be very deceptive
Multum in parvo : small but mighty

As always, you have to focus on the meaning of the words.  Psalm 116/117 could hardly have a bigger subject.  O praise the Lord, all you nations,/acclaim him, all you peoples!  is the first stanza, just two lines, but crucially addressed to everybody, not just the Chosen People.  Judaism was a ‘closed’ religion, open only to the people who qualified, which is why there are so many rules in the OT about ancestors and circumcision, and you can see Paul and Peter struggling in Acts with the dawning realisation that God actually wants everybody.  But here in this tiny psalm, we have a clarion call aimed at the whole world.

The second verse explains why : Strong is his love for us; /he is faithful for ever.  The size of what we are talking about has not reduced in the slightest.  It’s just adding more dimensions.  It’s almost as though the first stanzas is about breadth (the whole world),  the next line states the central point (God’s love for us) and the last line brings in the time dimension and extends it to infinity (for ever).  People have written whole symphonies on smaller topics.  My job is just to try and help the congregation express some of this praise.

There isn’t room for much development, so the tune (everyone except the US setting) basically just surges up and comes back down again.  I think of it as waves on the sea, but big waves crashing with enthusiasm and sparkle (moving ‘like kings into court’, as the wonderful book by Margaret Mahy,  The Man whose Mother was a pirate,  puts it).  The US setting was a bit more wordy, so you have trumpets instead.

Holy trumpets can even defy gravity

Sing this psalm with a swagger, and take it at a good speed.  This is pure praise, pure celebration; there isn’t room for subtlety.  It’s not about the minutiae of the psalmist’s life, or his problems, or his situation; it’s just about God the Almighty, and celebrating him.  Instead of the earlier yells for help, this is just a shout of praise.  Enjoy it.