Lent approaches fast and, at St Andrew’s at least, this will be a time of penitence, prayer, purple vestments and psalmody.
The latter is my concern. During Advent we tried adapting the Common Worship psalter to a simple plainchant melody from Palmer’s “Manual of Plainsong”. It worked well for the choir, who could rehearse, but the congregation struggled to join in. Even when using the same plainsong melody for the whole season, fitting unfamiliar lines of varying length to the same tune was either too difficult or too unclear.
I feel strongly about congregational participation in church music in general, and psalms in particular. While there is an argument for reverent, contemplative musical worship where a choir sings the psalms on behalf of the rest of the congregation who participate silently, I think that kind of vicarious liturgy is more suited to Choral Evensong. The psalms are a dialogue, a means by which human feelings can be honestly explored and offered to God, and I feel there is something to be gained from very direct participation in sung psalmody.
So this Lent I’m trying another approach: responsorial psalms. The term “responsorial” is a bit of a mis-nomer, I feel, but refers to psalmody in which the main body of the psalm is sung or said by cantor, choir or reader, with a refrain repeated by all present.
A lot of the chanted responsorial psalmody available today is in a particular style of simplified, interpreted Gregorian chant. Murray’s settings of the Grail psalter are by far the best known of this type of recitative chant; and for the Grail translation I understand they work very well. Copyright issues abound, however, and I can’t quite be having with a paperwork fight. New Psalms for Common Worship, compiled by Colin Mawby, also uses this style of responsorial psalmody — and also has copyright issues, as the publisher, Kevin Mayhew, do not take part in the Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative, so I cannot photocopy the chants for the choir to learn or the response for the congregation to read. In addition, the text of the Common Worship psalter, like the beloved Coverdale psalms used in the Book of Common Prayer, was not really designed to make chanting easier, and hard-to-sing accents on the last syllable of the line are common. That might eventually be okay if we had sung or chanted psalmody every weekday or even once a week on Sundays but as things stand, it only has a place during the penitential seasons, unless I get particularly insistent. This is unfamiliar stuff to the majority of the congregation and so it needs to be very easy to pick up. Besides that, I don’t want to limit myself to just one translation or one musical style. There is a rich heritage of English psalmody upon which to draw, and I don’t mean just Anglican Chant, lovely though it can be.
I’m taking a slightly different approach. Several months ago, I attended a RSCM-led psalmody workshop in Salisbury where the director suggested combining Anglican Chant with the refrains of the responsorial psalmody. Writing a refrain certainly isn’t beyond my abilities and having the congregation sing the same refrain, after hearing the choir sing it once, makes it more likely that they’ll be able to join in.
If we can do this with Anglican Chant, why not do it with other styles of psalmody?
For Ash Wednesday, Dr Francis Roads (who also conducts the London Gallery Quire) kindly furnished me with copy in Sibelius of a metrical setting of the first half of Psalm 51. The music is by Playford, set for SAB, and the text is from Sternhold and Hopkins; you can download the manuscript from the International Music Score Library Project. But while the metrical text and regular tune make this easier to learn than chanted psalmody, it’s still a bit much to ask of a congregation with no warning and no rehearsal — or so they would have me believe every time I introduce a hymn someone hasn’t heard for a while! Since I already had a shiny Sibelius file I transposed the entire lot down a tone, and modified the alto part to be less awkward. I also made this response:
to be sung in unison. That line of music, plus all the words, with the refrain in bold type, will be printed in the pew slips for the congregation to follow. As the notes are the same as the last line of the verses, I’m hoping it will be reasonably easy to follow, and that Playford is not turning in his grave.
Of course, the trouble now is that the vicar would quite like the words to all the rest of the psalms for Lent as soon as possible, so I need to find suitable settings and write responses for all of them in a bit of a hurry! I’d like to include a mix of plainchant and metrical psalmody, sticking for the most part to better-known tunes for the latter, but I might go for a chanting tune or two.
So of course this afternoon I’ve been blogging about it, instead of getting on with the actual setting. Next up is Psalm 32.