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.

What makes a good psalm Response?

All shapes and sizes

We’ve just had a couple of brief psalm Responses, ‘Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will’ and ‘Teach me your ways, O Lord’, and there’s a longer one coming up for Sunday: ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts’, or for the Canadians; ‘O that today you would listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not harden your hearts!’ Even so tiny a sample shows how much the Response set for the congregation on a Sunday can vary.

A quick study

Sometimes it’s difficult to get the congregation just to remember the Response for the duration of the psalm. Length is a significant factor.  Rhythm is very helpful, but not always on offer, especially if the Response has been imported from some different bit of the Bible (eg a bit out of one of St Paul’s Epistles as the Response to a psalm).   A tune really helps, especially if it has a certain predictability, but it’s difficult to be predictable without being boring.  This is a tune that the congregation hears once and then has to repeat three or four times, while the cantor sings something different, sometimes to the same words. It almost sounds like another fiendish parlour game from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. 

Learning the Response

In some parishes, everyone has a printed copy of the words of the psalm; in many they don’t.

Potsherd with mass text
This is the earliest known Mass sheet fragment : on a piece of pot

Some people won’t pick up a sheet at the back of the church on principle; not everyone can read quickly.  If you’ve ever tried to sing along in a language (or alphabet) not your own, you will be aware of how hard it can be to keep up with the unfamiliar.  The congregation has to pick up the words as well as the tune.  Our current congregation, like many others, includes many people for whom English is not their first language, so I speak the words first, and then sing them.  With a very long Response, you already see the congregation begin to flounder at this point, but keep trying, and be very clear.  Some churches allow you to run through the Response before Mass, and this can help, but it disturbs those who are trying to pray before Mass starts, and it doesn’t help the many who arrive more or less at the same time as Father processes in.

Alternative Responses

Unfortunately, even if you don’t like the psalm Response, you can’t change it, as it is set in the Lectionary.  Occasionally you are offered a choice between two Responses (All Saints has some of these, so has the Christmas Vigil), and often you can substitute ‘Alleluia’ for the words of the Response.  Since the Alleluia is going to be sung later, the one word response seems to me a bit of a cop-out, unless you are omitting the Alleluia proper.  And it’s not always the most appropriate response either, especially if (part of) the psalm is gloomy.  I don’t set Alleluia on its own as a psalm response, as I think the longer ones work better.

Singers with long score
…but maybe not too long

Getting a good Response

A good psalm Response is not too short or too long.  A single sentence works best.  The very short ones tend to be a bit blink and you miss it, and you aren’t allowed to repeat them to improve the length,  but have to use the words as given.  Getting them across to a congregation in a bigger church can be quite challenging, and short can be as difficult as long.  Don’t rush; be measured and clear.  ‘Arrow’ prayers work better for individuals than in congregations, because there is no time to catch up if you miss the beginning ; this applies to short psalm responses too.  Litanies work for bigger groups because they have a predictable rhythm and a repeated response.  Ditto the Rosary.

Mixed medieval choir, with musicians outside the frame
Mixed group singing with musicians providing the frame

But the Response is different every week, one of the trickiest things for the congregation to handle.  No wonder many people don’t even try to join in.  Try and make it easy for them;  I try to make the music immediately attractive and straightforward, one note per syllable (mostly), a clear rhythm and line, something to latch on to, (nearly always) ending on the tonic (unless I’m after a different effect), and (even more nearly always, but there are exceptions) lifting off from exactly the same point of introduction.

Stress levels

The first thing you have to do with any given Response is work out where the natural stresses are if you are saying it as a spoken text, because this will help your congregation to grasp the Response as a whole.  It sounds obvious, but it can be tricky.  Some words act as stumbling blocks from the start (‘ordinances’ is my favourite example, ‘favourably’ is coming up shortly for the Canadians).

Many Responses start with an unstressed syllable (‘The’ or ‘O’, for example, usually followed by ‘Lord’), which means that you can’t start on the first beat of the bar.  But if you don’t start on the first beat of the bar, then each verse has to be framed to lead into the Response smoothly, while allowing for the fact that the congregation may not have the words or is just hoping that it will all be over soon.

The last syllable of the Response is also very important.  In English, it’s often a short, stressed word (‘joy’, Ps 125/126; ‘want’ Ps 22/23), which is very helpful.  Sometimes it’s an unstressed syllable at the end of a long word like salvation, forever or deliverance, which is usually straightforward; but a single short unstressed word can get lost if you aren’t careful (you can’t give it a bar to itself or it receives too much stress).  ‘The Angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him’ (Ps 33/34): you need the stress on ‘fear‘, but you can’t put too much stress on ‘him’.

The importance of small differences

The smallest of changes to the text can have a significant effect on the rhythm.  The psalm coming up for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, has different Responses according to different Lectionaries. ‘I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (US and OZ, but their verse words are different).  ‘You are my refuge, O Lord; you fill me with the joy of salvation’ (UK).  ‘You are my refuge, Lord; with deliverance you surround me’ (CAN).  Simply adding or subtracting an ‘O’ changes the rhythm of the first half to a surprising extent, and although these are all clearly translations of the same thing, I can’t use the same tune for all of them.

This is why many people are keen to intone or use a sort of chant-lite, but unless it is really well done, it won’t help the congregation much, as people usually find rhythm and melody more effective in making the words stick in the mind.  Chant takes a lot of practice and works best in (surprise surprise) a group which does not change, and sings together often (e.g. a monastery). A congregation is a much more varied group, and all of them need to be able to take part.

Medieval school choir with cantor and teacher
Cantor and supporting choir?

I get nervous as soon as I see a psalm setting with no time signature.  It’s difficult to sing without applying one unconsciously, and not everyone will agree. A time signature means there is a supporting structure, like a trellis in a garden, or the rules of form for a sonnet.

Start from the Response…

Sung mnemonics work really well only if the tune fits the spoken rhythm and precisely isn’t too interchangeable (that’s why it’s difficult to learn your times tables to a tune, as too many of the number words have the same number of syllables : twice two could be anything under ten except seven, according to the rhythm).  So once you have a spoken rhythm, you make up a tune that follows it, and you always start with the Response because that stays the same, at least for this Mass.  The verse words are going to be irregular, so I will need to adapt the tune to them (and sometimes it works better than others), but that affects only the cantor, so long as I make sure that the lead-in to the Response is unaffected.

….whatever it is

Many psalms turn up on a different Sunday with a completely different Response.  Sometimes you can just write a new tune for that Response, but sometimes the rhythm of the Response is so definitely either a 3/4 or a 4/4 that you may have to go back to the beginning and start again, as you can’t have a 3/4 Response with a 4/4 psalm, or vice versa. ‘Lord, you are good and forgiving’ is a 3/4 Response; ‘Lord, let us see your kindness…’ is a 4/4.

Occasionally a psalm comes with a repeated Response actually in the text (Pss. 45/46; 66/67; 79/80 for example), but that’s not to say that it will be the Response appointed to be sung.  Ps 79/80 turns up three times in the Lectionary, and on one occasion (27 OTA) it is given a Response out of Isaiah 5.  That’s all right, as Isaiah is a beautiful and poetic book with a strong sense of rhythm.

I have far more trouble with the responses gleaned from St Paul’s letters.  He may be a towering genius but he didn’t have the benefit of being translated by Joseph Gelineau and the Grail.  I suspect it’s not just the translation, though;  I’m not sure St Paul had a good sense of rhythm or whether he actually could sing, because when he does quote a song or poem, it stands out so very clearly from his own prose, which could be seen as heading towards a slightly bureaucratic style (I am trying to be diplomatic here).  It’s not fair to blame or reproach him for this; the Epistles weren’t meant to be sung, but read, read out and passed around.  It’s the choice of extracts as lines of singing that I find occasionally difficult to handle.

Choir singing from one book
Long Responses can be hard to remember without checking the score

The point of the Response

In the end, what matters is that people pick up the Response and sing it back to you.  Joining in is the most important thing.  The music should make it easier, not harder.  You can feel the energy with a succesful Response, and you can see the congregation begin to feel stronger and more involved as they join in.  This is why we sing in church: if you sing, you commit.  You need to use your voice, your breath, your diaphragm; you can’t help but get involved.  Setting music to the words is meant to make people want to join in, and make it easier to do so.  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise you’ (Ps 66/67 ).   The italics are mine, but follow the natural stress; and this is why I write tunes for the Response.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. 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.