Singing the Lord's Song during Lent
It is Lent: a perfect time for self-reflection and to remind ourselves why we do what we do routinely, or ritually. Vicar Andrew’s Adult Forum Lenten series on worship and liturgy will do just this, and I encourage everyone to come. This week, I’d like to take some time to think about the Psalms and their place in worship as we prepare to try some new things.
Have you ever noticed that in worship we always hear a portion of the book of Psalms (even though the other readings come from a much larger selection of books from the Bible)? Also known as the Psalter, the book of Psalms is a collection of liturgical poetry and has been sung by Jewish people throughout their long history. These texts were written with music in mind and were meant to be sung, so it’s probably better to think of the Psalter as a hymnal rather than a book of the Bible. The Psalms have been in continual use from their inception until today, so when we sing the Psalms we are joining our assembly with the praises of God’s people from ancient Israel, with Jesus himself and his disciples, and all Christians throughout the past two millennia.
Throughout the ages, there have developed many different methods for singing or chanting the Psalms. What we are accustomed to at St. Paul is a simplified version of the plainsong technique, which has been in use since Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. This is the technique that medieval monks would have known as they made their rounds chanting the entire Psalter in the course of a single week at their eight daily worship services. It is a bit more complicated that what we are familiar with, though I do hope to introduce it in the future. The choir is looking forward to singing a plainsong psalm at the Maundy Thursday liturgy.
The rise of the congregational hymn after the Reformation in the 16th-century led naturally to metrical psalms, which are usually rhyming hymns that are based on a psalm text. A perfect example is “All People That on Earth do Dwell”, a versification of Psalm 100 (#883 in our hymnal) for the 1561 publication of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter. In England, the plainsong technique became harmonized for singing by a four-part choir and became Anglican chant, a technique that is still widely used today in many Christian denominations.
Starting on Sunday, we’ll be using a simplified form of Anglican chant to sing the Psalms, but because these techniques all grew out of plainsong, it will seem very familiar. There is only one change to be aware of: in the Psalms that we’re used to, we see a line of text broken up with a short vertical line (or “pointing mark”):
I was glad when they | said to me,
“Let us go to the house | of the Lord.”
This tells us to sing everything before the line on the first note, and then one syllable per note after the line. Starting Sunday, a [bracket] will tell us to move to the second note, and every syllable in the bracket will be sung on that note, and then one note per syllable after. It sounds complicated, but I’m sure we’ll all catch on very quickly. For example, when you see this,
I was glad when the [said] to me,
“Let us go to the [house of] the Lord.”
you’ll know to sing this:
The book of Psalms is a particularly rich collection of a variety of expressions: from thankfulness and praise to sorrow and despair. It always contains some fresh new way of looking at the world for me each time I encounter one of its many texts, and it is my hope that in thinking about them and singing them with a new song (see Psalms 96, 98, and 149) they will do the same for you. Many blessings as you begin your Lenten journey.
Director of Music