Monday, January 08, 2007

The Psalm Problem, and one solution

For years our schola, like most all Catholic choirs in the country, has suffered under a vague sense that something is just not right with the Psalm we sing between the first and second readings.

The Psalms printed in today's missalettes just don't do it. They are not all bad, but often these are absurdly metrical and trite. We are asked to teach them to the congregation on the spot, and people are expected to sing them as a refrain for three or four times and before the tiny tune is tossed into the junk pile of used ditties that litter up the liturgy. The congregation feels manipulated, the choir feels silly, and the whole thing is just painful.

Then there is the puzzle about the difference between the "Responsorial Psalm" in the lectionary and missallete, and the actual Psalm as printed in the Graduale. How are they related? Why are they so different? What's the story here? Does anyone know what is going on?

The long and short of it is that the actual sung text is supposed to be from the Graduale, but what is here is too technically difficult to be sung by the people. It is for the schola, and the culture of today's parishes resists such a solution. In any case, we don't have the rehearsal time to work up yet another proper chant in addition to the Introit, Communio, and polyphony.

What's more, it turns out that the "Responsorial Psalm" is an innovation designed for a particular purpose. According to Paul VI Apostolic Constitution as published in the front of the 1970 Missal, the Responsorial Psalm is to be used "in Masses that are not sung." (The details of this interesting turn are covered in the Winter 2006 issue of Sacred Music.)

In other words—and we are still trying to process this revelation—the so-called Responsorial Psalm isn't designed to be sung at all, which is one reason it never really seems to work in a way that adds to the liturgy.

But then there is reality to deal with. It is going to be sung because that is the practice in the typical American parish. The proper Psalm from the Gradual is not a current option. I love the English Gradual but it doesn't set the Lectionary text. It sets the Gradual text. What to do?

Within the last month, the solution emerged, and it is as simple as it is brilliant (and, I'm sure, thought of many times in the past but such a solution evaded us). The Church provides eight psalm tones that correspond to the eight modes. Our chant director, Arlene Oost-Zinner, has been setting the text of the Responsorial Psalm to one of the tones each week, using basic chant fonts. The result is beautiful and intuitive.

We've been printing them in the program each week. And in contrast to the past, people really sing these from the very first note, and with great confidence. No more "teaching" people a new silly song each week. The Psalms are now adding to the overall liturgical structure.

Here, for example, is the responsorial Psalm for Epiphany.

The verses are then sung according to the same Psalm tone. Perhaps there is a book already in print in which the lectionary Psalm texts are already set but I'm not aware of it. Our current plan is to set these for the year and then put up a publication online for others to use.

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