Guest post by Kelly Dobbs-Mickus
The new volume of Responsorial Psalms for the 3-year Lectionary by Luke Mayernik is receiving rave reviews from customers as an excellent resource for psalmody. This second post continues to explore the practice of responsorial psalm singing in the context of Roman Catholic liturgy using The Five Graces Psalter for reference. We hope that these reflections will be helpful to cantors and accompanists, no matter where they are on their liturgical music journeys.
The first part of this post considered the liturgical role of the cantor as psalmist and then moved to the art of singing and accompanying psalm refrains. This second part will focus on the verses and psalm tones. Our context is a “regular” parish setting, but we acknowledge that all worship situations are not identical.
As we discussed in part one, the psalmist’s role for the refrain is primarily about communicating the words and modeling how the assembly will sing the response. The verses are a much more complicated topic, and this post can really only scratch the surface. Because of that, we will concentrate on the most important points for psalmists and sprinkle in some information for accompanists along the way.
The psalmist sets the emotional tone of the psalm, and should possess an understanding of this particular part of the story of salvation and how it relates to the other Scripture readings. An excellent resource for psalm spirituality is Sr. Kathleen Harmon’s book Becoming the Psalms: A Spirituality of Singing and Praying the Psalms. Preparation of the psalm must not be solely an exterior one; it is the psalmist’s privilege and responsibility to pray the psalms.
Because psalm tones are unmetered, they allow for much freedom of expression. The psalm tones in The Five Graces Psalter are particularly expressive—they are melodic and harmonically fresh. (Listen to some samples here.) The downside of unmetered music is that it can be more difficult to interpret, due in part to how it looks on the page. How do we get past the notation to create musical prayer?
The best place to start is with the words of the psalm verses. Read them aloud and study them apart from the music. Memorize them if you can. Here is part of the psalm for Immaculate Conception, Psalm 98:1–3ab:
O sing a new song to the LORD,
for he has worked wonders.
His right hand and his holy arm
have brought salvation.
The LORD has made known his salvation,
has shown his deliverance to the nations.
He has remembered his merciful love
and his truth for the house of Israel.
Notice the natural stresses of the words, the punctuation, and the sequence of ideas. Make note of the emotional tone and strive to reflect it in your singing. Internalizing the psalm in this way is crucial for being able to proclaim it, and the bonus is that it will make the work of interpreting the psalm in song easier.
The next step is to put the words together with the music. First, let’s define two helpful terms:
- Reciting notes are notes that have multiple syllables under them. It is important to sing the words/syllables under reciting notes with their proper stresses, and not plow through them in a robotic or quick fashion simply because the pitch doesn’t change.
- Cadential notes lead into the cadence of each phrase. It is important to observe proper stresses for these notes as well, keeping in mind that, although the note is changing, the syllable may be an unstressed one. (The two sets of brackets under the second cadential note indicate that psalmists and accompanists skip those notes/chords.)
Here is the first line of Verse 1, notated first showing a poor interpretation, and second showing a good interpretation.
These two brief examples lend insight into the many variables that exist when interpreting each phrase of a psalm, and how much preparation on the part of the psalmist is needed to communicate the psalm well to the assembly. Go back to the first example and try singing Verses 2 and 3, making sure not to emphasize unaccented syllables, speed through syllables under reciting notes, or unduly lengthen cadential notes.
There are different types of tones within Mayenik’s Five Graces Psalter. Each phrase of the tone just discussed has a reciting tone and then a cadence with multiple chords. In that kind of tone, it is easy to mis-accent the cadential notes because, after singing several syllables on one pitch, it is natural to emphasize the changing pitch.
Here is an example of a different kind of tone, from the First Sunday of Advent C.
This tone is less complicated, because each phrase has a second reciting note rather than multiple cadential notes. This means fewer opportunities for mis-accenting syllables. However, it is still important to find the word accents within the reciting notes, and the fact that there are two reciting notes means that there are fewer syllables under each, which has its own issues. For example, how do you treat a single syllable under a reciting tone, such as “Teach” in the second phrase of Verse 1? My vote would be to lengthen that note a bit, but you and your accompanist might agree on a different approach.
Two other features of this tone are 1) a repeated phrase at the end of the first verse, indicated by brackets, and 2) an optional cue note on the penultimate chord of each verse. (Cue notes are also included in the first example.) Cues indicate optional notes that a cantor or choir might use for variation on one or more verses. The introduction to the psalter has more information on cue notes, especially for use with choirs.
There is a third kind of tone that is a combination of the two already discussed. Look at the third and fourth phrases of Psalm 51 for Ash Wednesday and you will find both a second reciting tone and cadential notes. Try singing through those phrases for an idea of the interpretation issues involved.
Now that we have talked about reciting and cadential notes and natural word accents, let’s move to breathing. There is no single correct method for when to breathe. The easiest way to talk about breathing is to link it to punctuation. There is little argument for breathing at periods, colons, or semi-colons. Keep in mind that taking a breath usually implies a lengthening of the syllable that precedes the breath.
It is often appropriate to breathe at a comma, but not always. I recently heard this good tip: When there are two commas close to each other, breathe/break at one, not both. In the first phrase of Verse 1 above, breathing both before and after “O God” feels choppy. However, there is also a way to use a break in the sound, not an actual breath, for a smaller separation. Another option is to lengthen the syllable that precedes the comma, even if you don’t breathe or break at the comma.
The Ash Wednesday example has unusually long phrases in the first two lines which require attention. Breathing after “God” in the first line and after “compassion” in the second line will be a necessity for many psalmists. But even if a singer didn’t need to breathe there, doing so will improve the assembly’s understanding of the text. To underscore the breaths, the accompanist might repeat the chord, or perhaps tie the melody note and repeat the other notes.
A less obvious practice in singing psalm verses concerns connecting phrases by avoiding breaths between them. It can be appropriate to do this when the two phrases of text have no separating punctuation or when a connection of the meaning is otherwise implied. In the Psalm 51 example, look at phrases 3 and 4 of Verse 4. The psalmist could breathe after “Lord,” and then connect “lips” with “and,” and the accompanist could underscore this by connecting the chords.
It should be obvious that if the accompanist and psalmist do not rehearse and agree on the details of breathing, the interpretation will suffer. When these points regarding breathing are understood by the accompanist, s/he will be free to underscore the interpretation in other ways: the volume/voicing of the accompaniment, the registration/octave of the accompaniment, articulation, alternate harmonizations, etc. In addition to those factors, the accompanist and psalmist should decide how to begin the phrases of each verse—there is some freedom here. For example, the accompanist could play the first chord of each verse before the psalmist enters, but could begin the following phrases with the psalmist. The accompanist’s role during the verses is to creatively support the psalmist without calling attention to the accompaniment. When the refrain comes around, the accompanist becomes the leader again.
These are but a few of the many nuances involved in singing psalm tones. The previous emphasis placed on internalizing the text cannot be overstated; without this personal connection to the psalm itself, the details that should enable its prayerful expression will instead get in the way. Even experienced psalmists should continually ask themselves how well they are interpreting, communicating, and praying the psalm—how well they are fulfilling their ministry.