FROM THE BOOK OF PSALMS TO THE RESPONSORIAL PSALM (13) – Some musical possibilities for the Responsorial Psalm

– Aurelio Porfiri

We have spoken a lot about what surrounds the Psalms and then we started to focus on a particular use of the Psalm during the Mass, what we call Responsorial Psalm. I assume that by now the importance of the use of the Psalms in Catholic worship is very clear and how the Psalms are a sort of trait d’union that keeps everything together. We now need to consider what are the musical possibilities for the Responsorial Psalm and I will make some comments on them, the good and the bad.

a) Reading the Psalm. I will first begin with a non-musical possibility, that is unfortunately nowadays very frequent, the one of reading the Psalm without music. I would say that it is the worst kind of usage at this liturgical moment. We observed that this has to be a lyrical meditation on the first reading and depriving the Psalm of music is against the character of the Psalms themselves, because we have already seen before that they were supposed to be sung even in Jewish worship, they were born as a sung prayer, not recited. Just reading the Responsorial Psalm is a sign of the deep crisis that Catholic liturgy is in, and the same can be said of its music, because as we have already said many times, liturgy and music go together, if one flourishes we suppose the other flourishes, if one is in crisis the other too is in crisis. As the ancient sages have said, simul stabunt, simul cadent, they stand together or they fall together.

b) Singing the refrain. In many parishes the refrain is sung and the verses of the Psalm are read. I think this is a compromise that may work, but it is still a compromise, not the solution. It is also not always easy to go from reading to singing, so even if this seems easier to accomplish in our liturgies, because it only implies teaching a short musical phrase, it does not serve the purpose of the Responsorial Psalm, it is a compromise that makes our music sort of half-hearted. In certain churches a soft musical background is used while reading the verses, I also did this in the past on certain occasions. Let us be honest, it is not easy to do this properly and it can be counterproductive. You need the organist to be very good to be able to improvise a coherent and short musical phrase to fill the few seconds that the reading of a verse of the Psalm can last, and then be ready for the reprise of the refrain. Furthermore, let us admit honestly if the organist is really that good, the risk is that the good musical improvisation underneath may not help the people to listen more carefully to the words of the Psalms, but to be distracted from it.

c) Pure cantillation. We have already spoken about cantillation, the technique that is used between singing and speaking, reciting a text on a melodic tone. We have to be thankful especially to the work of the French priest Joseph Gelineau (1920-2008). The British liturgical musician Paul Inwood, in the website liturgicalleaders.blogspot.com, has to say this, among other things, about the French priest: “1953 saw the publication of his 24 Psalms and a Canticle in French, rapidly made available in English. This was quickly followed by two other collections of psalms and canticles. The English versions include some of Gelineau’s own antiphons together with others, notably by Dom Gregory Murray OSB, Clifford Howell SJ, Fr Wilfrid Trotman, and Guy Weitz, following the French pattern where a number of prominent liturgical composers had been involved by Gelineau in providing settings of the antiphons. The author first encountered these psalms in 1958, by which time they had already spread throughout the British Isles and to the USA and beyond, though they could still not be used during Mass. As well as Psalm 22(23), Catholics across the world are very familiar with Psalm 41(42) “My soul is thirsting for the Lord” (Like the deer that yearns), Psalm 99(100) “Arise, come to your God” (Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth), Psalm 135(136) “Great is his love, love without end” (O give thanks to the Lord for he is good), ferial and festal settings of the Magnificat, and many others, which formed a corpus of psalmody ready for use in parishes when the first vernacular lectionaries started to appear in the USA in the mid-1960s. The original edition of the hymn book Praise the Lord (ed. Trotman, pub. Geoffrey Chapman, 1966) incorporated a supplement of Gelineau psalms at the back of the book, and in the USA Worship (pub. GIA) included a much larger selection. (In fact the Americans have consistently used Gelineau psalmody more extensively than the English and continue to do so.)”. So we have a reciting tone and the text, following the accent, is adapted to the cantillation patterns. This can be good in a way but risks to be quite boring if used in an exclusive way. I compose tons of Psalms using pure cantillation, they can be nice but I think the use of this technique should not be exclusive. Moreover, to make it more interesting, the skilled composer can vary the harmony and use more modern solutions, a more advanced harmony, as we find in the experience of the Canadian composer Michel Guimont.

d) Cantillation with a melodic cadenza. This is a variation of the previous form, where we still have the cantillation, but mixed with a final melodic cadenza, so it is mixing cantillation and short melodic inserts. Some composers also used to mix melodic inserts with cantillation even in extensive parts of the Psalm text, for example they use a short melodic phrase as intonation, then they use the reciting tone that ends with a cadenza, that is exactly the way that Gregorian chant psalmody is used. But other ways of doing this are possible, and certainly, this has more musical potential than the previous possibility. We need to mention here that composers should be very proficient to be able to use this technique in the right way. This way of composing the Psalm is, in a certain way, close to the Gregorian chant Gradual, not in its complexity, but in the sense that there is a sort of “elaborated formulas,” that make the Psalm more challenging for the performers but also, certainly, more rewarding.

e) Melodic setting.  Before my experience in Macau from 2008 to 2015, I was the Director of Music of the American Catholic church in Rome for 10 years. There I experienced many things, including their way of singing the Responsorial Psalm. Of course they recite the Psalms using the previous techniques, but in the church where I was working they particularly like Responsorial Psalms where the verses are sung on a full-blown melody, not just cantillation. I have to say that some of the settings I was exposed to were really beautiful and made the Psalm itself quite memorable. We need to be careful of a few things: we need to respect the liturgical character of these texts, they should not become songs in the way of “commercial music.” Still the melody should maintain a reverent character and not be sentimentalist. Furthermore, sometimes the texts are slightly changed to make the melody fit into the verses. Now, I am not scandalized by this in principle, because we know well that in the recitation of Gregorian chants the anonymous composers sometimes slightly modified texts, adding words or editing phrases, to fit in certain liturgical exigencies or a musical one. But we need to remember that the people doing that were usually very knowledgeable about liturgy, Sacred Scripture and music, so their work was certainly well crafted. Not all the composers doing this nowadays possess the same knowledge and also there is the concrete risk that some changes of words, that for them is more suitable to “modern people,” may cause the Psalms to sound “mundane” and to deprive them of their sacred character, that has never to be forgotten.

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