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.

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.