Bookends : the first and the last psalms

The shape of the Book of Psalms

The Psalter or Book of Psalms in its present form has been around for a long time. We don’t know who wrote it, or when. We know it is the work of several hands, across many years, even many centuries. We know that it has been carefully and lovingly put together, as the original hymnbook for a faith older than our own.  We can draw all sorts of conclusions about why the contents of this hymnbook have been arranged in the way they have;  we can make our own, different, arrangement, according to our own need or desire.  Conclusions which we draw from the shape and ordering of the Psalter are based simply on the form in which we have it;  those who wrote the psalms were not the people who organised the collection or its ordering.

David singing
he might be thinking about the order

Bookend psalms

Having said that, though, it is fascinating to try to take an overview of the Book of Psalms, more than enough work for a lifetime. I have recently been thinking just about the bookends of the Psalter, because Psalm 1 has come up several times lately as a weekday psalm, and now so has Psalm 150.
Psalm 1 is reasonably familiar, because, among other things, it’s the psalm prescribed for St David’s Day. It is also the psalm for the Sixth Ordinary Sunday in Year C.  Psalm 150 in contrast was a new one for me to set (it is prescribed for the Wednesday of Week 33 of Year II, so November 18th this year).

Hymn books and extra pages

There are different ways to appreciate the arrangement of the bulk of the psalms: many authorities divide them up into five groups, but classifications can differ.  There is even dispute about how many psalms there are.  A few extra psalms were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls; there are other psalm-like poems in various parts of the Old Testament; many Christians would include the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis as part of the same grouping, and even within the canonical Book of the Psalms there are repeats (Pss 14 and 53, as well as partial repeats elsewhere).  But this is what happens with hymn books and music folders.  I like to pick up old hymn books when I see them in charity shops, and they nearly always have extra pages stuffed between the cover and the book, or between the pages.  Some careful church musicians even attach extra pages or different versions of the same hymn;  sometimes things are written out by hand.  There are little notes to mark favourites, performance notes for dividing up the verses between men and women, or Dec and Can.  I like the fact that you can almost see this same behaviour going on in the choir loft since King David and even earlier.

adding your own favourites
The first and the last

But I think it is fair to look at Pss 1 and 150 and draw some conclusions, because the Book of Psalms in its current form has been the bedrock of church music and poetry for so long, and it was clearly deliberately done, and it has been accepted as valid by so many.

page of psalm in multiple languages
lovely multilingual Psalter
Psalm 1

The psalms in question are particularly attractive as bookend psalms because they contrast so neatly.  Psalm 1 is the introduction to the Psalms as a whole.  It starts positively, with a portrayal of the happy (or blessed) person (‘man’ everywhere I looked, except for the New Jerusalem, which offers ‘one’). S/he is happy or blessed because of conscious virtue and finding delight in the law of the Lord.  So we instantly have the relationship with (a slightly impersonal and distant) God and his teachings as the basis for human happiness.  There is a beautiful extended comparison to a mature tree, and then the second half of the psalm is a description of ‘the wicked’, to point the contrast.  They are like ‘winnowed chaff’, another nature simile, but probably not as instantly recognisable as the tree.  Winnowed chaff is the fluffy detritus left after the grain has been taken from the stalks it grows on; it’s good for nothing and disperses in the wind (or you can sweep it up and burn it, but you’d need a mask to keep it out of your lungs unless you did it outside, where the wind is your ally).  The last lines reiterate the contrast : the Lord guards the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to doom. 

Different possible Responses

An ominous ending, which we sadly lose the force of when we sing it as a Responsorial Psalm, because the Response tends to be upbeat.  Usually it’s some variant on the first line (Happy/Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord), but it’s been coming up recently as a weekday psalm with some unfortunate variations on the Response, including Those who are victorious I will feed from the tree of life  and the egregious Behave like God as his very dear children, which I ranted about before.  But they do all tend towards the positive, because you’re asking the congregation to sing it several times, and it’s the thought they will be left with at the end.  So, though it’s tempting, when I set it, I didn’t really feel that I could imbue the word ‘doom’ with too much grue.

Psalm 1 : me and God’s word

This first psalm, then,  is about an individual, and his relationship not so much with God as with God’s rules for a holy, healthy and happy life.  It’s short enough for us to sing the whole thing (occasionally one or two lines are trimmed, but as it stands it’s three stanzas of six lines each).  It’s black and white, and robust in its language, but doesn’t need to be played down, because the psalmist has nothing to do with desiring the fate of the wicked, he’s just describing natural consequences. The music for this one is simple and like a folk song, because I wrote it for St David’s Day, with even a quotation from The Ash Grove to emphasize its Welsh roots, with St David being the patron saint of Wales.

Psalm 150 : isn’t God amazing ?!

Psalm 150 is even shorter, again three stanzas, but this time only four lines each, with an Alleluia at the beginning and end.  But the atmosphere of this psalm is totally different.  It’s joyous, chaotic, it tumbles over itself, and it’s all about praising God.  The Law is not mentioned, the psalmist is not mentioned.  It’s all a command to praise God.  Ten of the twelve lines start with the word ‘Praise’ in the imperative.  God is not asked to come down or intervene in any way.  He is ‘in his holy place’, ‘in his mighty heavens’, and we are not praising him for rescuing us, as so often in the Psalms, we are praising him because of what he does (‘his powerful deeds’) and what he is (‘his surpassing greatness’).   But there is nothing impersonal or dry about this God.  The call to praise is coming from someone personally convinced of the wonder and glory of God, so convinced that he is calling on others to come and join in.

God creating heaven and earth
What god is great as our God?
The power of music to praise God

Then the psalmist lists all the instruments used in the Temple and piles them up.  One commentator says that the different instruments symbolise those who use them, the trumpet (or horn) for the High Priest, the lute and harp for the Levites (but I would say, the musicians), the timbrel and dance traditionally for the women, the strings and pipes for the men, and it’s unclear who is playing the two different sets of cymbals, but maybe one group could be foreigners or visitors.  The psalm ends with an invitation to ‘everything that lives and that breathes’ to join in.

Musicians and tumbler
Church musicians encouraging everyone to join in

It’s really exciting and fun, and I was surprised to find that I hadn’t set it before, which means that it’s not prescribed for any Sunday or major feast in the three year Lectionary. I can only guess that this is because of its position in the Book of Psalms, and the way it feels like a culmination of the whole sequence in a triumphant final shout of praise.  We sing Ps 147 repeatedly, but the last three psalms only rarely.  They are all litanies of praise, with Ps 150 the most exuberant, hence its position.

Setting the last of the psalms
Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms

How do you set words like these? Ideally you have the instruments to play each their own part, but of course most of us don’t, so all I can do is attempt to suggest them (if, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have a little drum or cymbal, I’ve left rests where you can add them to the mix).  The tune needs to be simple rather than sophisticated, using the repetition that is so strong a feature of the words, and above all easy to pick up and join in confidently.  The cantor has to deal with a dancing rhythm, but the Response is straightforward and strong.  It’s also the first line of the Sanctus, so it’s familiar, and maybe it will help people get over trying to pause after the third ‘Holy’, even though the comma is no longer there (this can’t be only my parish, surely?).   We have lost the Alleluia at the beginning and the end, but as the First Reading reminds us, this Response is what the angels sing in God’s presence, so we can put our hearts into it and ‘swell the mighty flood’, as the old hymn says.  When we sing the psalms, we are not just singing with all the angels, either; we are singing with all the millions of people through history who have appreciated the wonderful resource that is the Book of Psalms.  It is a great privilege to be able to sing these words and put them to music for others to do so.  What a wonderful throng to have around you.

Church choir
everybody wideawake and joining in the singing

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 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.

A bad Response can happen to a good psalm

New Responses for old psalms

I’m currently setting the daily psalms (Australian Lectionary) for a friend in Adelaide. Some of them are already available on the website, either because they are for special feasts so they exist already, or because they are identical to Sunday psalms for other dates. But there are quite a few which I have to write from scratch, and even more where I have to alter the arrangement of stanzas. Very commonly I need to write a new Response for an already familiar psalm, and this can in fact be quite challenging.

Woman explaining to man
me struggling to write a new Response in time for Volmar to post it on line
To change or not to change

If I like the previous version of the psalm, and especially if the stanzas haven’t changed, I have to think of a tune which will fit the words of the new Response but sound and feel as though it was written at the same time as the tune for the stanzas.  Sometimes the mismatch is too great, and I have to start all over again.  One of the favourite ways to change a Sunday psalm to a weekday one is to put the stanza breaks in different places, and this can skew the tune totally.  Then my effort is to forget what I wrote before and write a new tune which pauses in the right places.

Small changes can be very tricky
variations differing only in minor features

It’s difficult sometimes to imagine what is going on in the heads of the men who appoint the different versions of the psalms to be used day by day.  I’m not always convinced that the changes are intentional; sometimes they read like a memory which no one has checked.  This happens quite a lot with the Gospel Acclamations or Alleluia verses, where slightly different versions mean that you can end up with several possibilities and it’s hard to keep track (I talked about this a propos of Lent Gospel Acclamations and their sneaky ways).

Psalm Responses not made of psalm

Psalm Responses are often tricky.  They can be too short, too long, plucked from a totally different bit of the Bible, almost unsingable (I grit my teeth for that ‘almost’), and it’s hard to justify this when the Psalms were so clearly written to be sung by people who knew what they were doing, and have indeed been loved and sung by generation after generation, as it says in Ps 144/145.  Taking pieces out of Paul’s epistles to be a psalm response happens occasionally and it always presents problems, because Paul’s words are part of a prose text which was not intended to be sung when it was written (obviously I’m not discussing the parts where he quotes an early Christian hymn or poem); but even more cogently, it was translated as a piece of prose which was not meant to be sung.  It’s not rhythmical; it’s not patterned; it has no balance;  it’s not even particularly well-put, some of the time, as Paul grapples with the problem of formalising this new doctrine and theology for a wide range of audiences: faithful Jews (Hebrews); pagans (Romans); cultured Greeks (Corinthians) and so on. 

A case in point : Psalm 1

But if a Response is set to be sung, I try and write a tune for it exactly as it occurs in the Lectionary.  That’s what I do.  I don’t usually even moan about it, much.  Currently, though, I am sorting out the psalms for the last week of October (30th Week, Yr II), and I have found possibly the worst psalm response ever.  I thought at first it was a misprint of some kind, as it didn’t seem to make sense.  Here it is :

Behave like God as his very dear children.

It’s for Psalm 1, which is the psalm for St David’s Day , and also occurs on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary time, Year C.  It’s a good short psalm, an excellent one to open the collection for any Temple musician, and we  simply sing the whole text straight through without any alteration as our Responsorial Psalm (and without leaving anything out), which is quite rare.  There are three  6-line stanzas, the first about the just man and what he does, the second an extended metaphor about him being like a tree by the river, and the third about the wicked man in contrast, and how he is heading to perdition.  Usually the Response is some variant on ‘Happy the man who trusts in the Lord’, adjusted occasionally to make it less exclusive.

Willows on the riverbank
a just man happy in his proper place
Where is the Response from?

This new peculiar Response is a reworking of Ephesians 5.1, so it’s not even the exact text, which might excuse it.  This version of the words, as often for the OZ and CAN Lectionaries, is from the text of the US psalm as set for the day, word for word, but I looked up the original Ephesians 5 in the US Lectionary, and it does at least make more sense : Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  Still not easily singable, but at least it is easier to grasp on reading.  I was so baffled by the actual Response that I thought it must be wrong, but it isn’t; and then I thought it was just me being dense, so I ran it past whichever of my children was around when I had it to hand.  To a man or woman, they looked at it, took the copy from me, read it again, and then said ‘What?’

No time to waste
12 armed woman
maybe semaphore would help…..

When you’re giving out a Response to be sung as part of the liturgy, you have only a little time.  You need people to grasp the words quickly, because they also need to grasp the tune, and unless you are very lucky, you won’t get any rehearsal time.  With this Response, I think you would have to tell them the words first, and then sing it to them.  It slows things down, but that is better than having the whole congregation (except those with a written text) look at you totally blankly and then not manage to join in.  They need to know that they have it correctly.  (Those with a written text are probably already looking at you blankly.)

A different version (not much better)

I looked up the UK and Eire Lectionary, for purposes of comparison.  The Response there is : Try to imitate God, as children of his that he loves.  This is still clunky, but at least it makes sense.  The exact text is identical to the US version, ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children’ (RSV).  The new Jerusalem Bible translation has  ‘As God’s dear children, take him as your pattern’ , which I rather like, but you’d have to turn it round to make it work as a Psalm Response (Take God as your pattern, as his dear children).  Even though ‘as’ appears twice, that is still easier to understand than the ‘like[…]as’ in the Psalm Response I am struggling with.

Practical considerations

Still, ours not to reason why, so how do I set it?  This psalm has a folk-song tune (it even quotes The Ash Grove) because I wrote it originally for St David, and the stanzas are identical, so I decided to stick with it.  I couldn’t make the words run too quickly, because they are so unclear, but I didn’t want to slow the verses down too much; it needs to keep on walking, like most folksong tunes.  And it needed to stay simple, partly to make it easy to pick up on first hearing.  The original verse tune has some runs in it, for the water imagery, and I wanted to link to that as well.  In the end it came out as six bars.  Ideally a Response fits into four, but it always depends on the rhythm of the words, and this set of words is ungainly, so I couldn’t disguise that totally.

God’s very dear child being looked after
Time for reflection

I tried shifting the rhythm of the words around, to see if that would make the sentence easier to grasp, but it didn’t help.   In the end, I just kept it simple, but I did put a little pause at the end of it so that everyone has a moment to think before embarking on the next verse.  The Response and the stanzas are addressed to two different groups, which I think is part of the problem, so a pause to redirect your gaze is actually helpful.  The verses are good, with some word-painting and a nice contrast between the good man whose ways will all prosper (and the tune goes up), and the evil man, who is heading straight for doom (and the tune goes down).  Simple, but (I hope) effective.  I hope the straightforward nature of the tune will give the congregation time to understand what the Response means, because there’s nothing wrong with the concept, just the expression.

Woman with sword
me going into battle on behalf of my congregation
Psalms are for singing

The whole point of the psalms is to sing them.  The Psalter is the original and best hymn book.  Even though many of us are not allowed to sing in our churches at the moment, at least we can sing in our hearts.  Familiarity is actually an asset for congregational singing; there is no need to keep altering the shape of any given psalm.  Imagine if each Christmas we rewrote the words of carols so that the verses came out differently.  You want people to focus on the sense, not the way it is being conveyed.  It would be good if those who appoint the texts for singing – Responses, Acclamations, set dialogues – could at least consider how easily they trip off the tongue.  David and the other psalmists gave us one of the Church’s most precious resources.  In our own day we need to stay faithful to the essence of their gift.  That means keeping the Response singable.

let’s all keep singing

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 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.