I’ve been incubating a project. It isn’t done yet — won’t be for a while — but I think it’s time to start writing about it.
I have developed something of an interest in the psalms. Partly to encourage their use in (Christian) liturgy, and partly to indulge in my passion for learning more about them, I want to run a series of workshops. The idea would be to look at the psalms in what we understand of their original context, and then go on a sort of meandering path through liturgical history, examining how they would have been sung, chanted or said in various situations, and why. I’d like to draw on what we do know about the Hebrew chanting/singing of psalms in Temple times… and of course Gregorian chant will feature, and Anglican chant, as well as the West Gallery metrical psalmody which I have grown to love so much through my singing and playing in the London Gallery Quire. Gelineau’s translations of the psalms into French will feature, and the Grail responsorial versions and their offspring. I’d also like to look at other English vernacular psalmody in Christian worship in the 20th and 21st centuries, with a view to finding, disseminating, developing or creating resources for using the psalms in worship in situations where existing musical traditions are inappropriate or inaccessible.
Ideally I’d like each of the workshops to include some listening, some teaching, and some audience participation. With Gregorian chant, for example, I could sing some chants, or have another performer or even a choir sing them. Then I would talk about the history of Gregorian chant, the issues around singing in Latin as opposed to Hebrew, the use of the psalms in monastic worship, and the problems inherent for us when we try to use Gregorian tunes meant for Latin to sing in English with its very different word stress and vowels. I could highlight resources for further study and discuss in which situations Gregorian chant — in Hebrew or in English — may enhance worship, and in which it might be inappropriate. And then we could try some ourselves, myself and everyone there who is interested in trying… I could do a five-minute crash-course in chant notation for anyone who wants to have a go at reading it, but would provide modern notation as well for those that want it. We’d start with something we heard earlier so it wouldn’t be completely unfamiliar, and take things gently, seeing how far we get, just to get an idea of what it feels like. I’ll have to adapt this part of the workshop quite heavily to the capabilities of those attending, but I think that my topic is narrow enough that most people who are interested will have enough interest in music and singing to be able to cope with simpler chants in unison.
Obviously, I cannot hope to present a complete treatment of the topic of musical aspects of psalmody in the four to six workshops which would make this a manageable project, and there are considerable barriers to accurate performance of the earliest sung and chanted psalmody and copyright issues with the most recent publications of music for psalms. However, even with light academic content, I want to be able to answer people’s questions or refer them to appropriate resources for learning more. This means I have spent the last several weeks reading quite a lot, and e-mailing various people about the project and getting, in return, varying degrees of delightful encouragement and support, and an even longer reading list! I’m now at the point where I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by the number of books still on the “to read” list, and I need to start getting some rough outlines written down so that I can read more purposefully and begin to think seriously about selection of the music.
I’ll try to blog about some other things, too, once in a while, so it isn’t just all psalmody, all the time.