Starts with P and that rhymes with T

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.
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Transcendence

I’ve just been to Greenbelt, a Christian arts festival held at Cheltenham Race Course. There is music, but I didn’t get to much of that, tending instead to be drawn to talks, workshops and worship.

The days are already merging into a sort of blur, but some things stand out.
One of the most memorable and perhaps transcendent experiences for me was an Orthodox Vespers on Sunday night. The room was a small space near the top of the grandstand, and crowded. The east-facing windows looked out over the hills, glowing gently in the sunset. Two icons served as a visual focus for prayers.
There was a short introduction before the start of the service. We were invited to stand, as the Orthodox do, to join them in their prayers, and gently reminded to think of the choir as praying, rather than performing.
The entire service was chanted or sung, in English — nothing was spoken. We weren’t given any service sheets, which left my hands relaxed and my eyes free to look at the icons or out at the beautiful horizon. The portions sung by the choir were beautifully simple and reverent, and repetitive enough that the rest of us could quite easily join in with “Lord, have mercy.”
So we did, again and again.
It was very moving, and 45 minutes flew by. I can’t speak for others but I was caught up, absorbed, really not thinking of the technical details of the music or liturgy at all after a while. Afterward, I thanked a choir member, and she said it was wonderful that we sang, too, and that her daughter had said it was something special, that there were “so many prayers”.
I sat for a while, pondering, with the sound of the repeated song ringing in my ears.
Then I went to an entirely different service. This one, called “Transendence — an Ancient Future Mass“, was using the Common Worship liturgy — with a bit of a twist. Like the Orthodox Vespers, large parts of the service were sung, and there was near-constant music. Like the Orthodox Vespers, there was a strong visual component. Like the Orthodox Vespers, there were no paper service sheets.
But my impression was not one of reverence and awe but of busy-ness. I found the electronic music more disruptive than meditative, with some disjunct transitions between sections. I found it hard to sing along when the clergy and choir had microphones (with significant amplification) and I did not. I found the visual displays were also distracting, constantly moving, and as all the words for the service were projected onto screens (and it was too dark for me to have been able to read a service sheet even if I had one) I didn’t have the option of looking away. The very best parts of that service, for me, were when the background music dropped away and the choir sang a capella polyphony… but that wasn’t something that I was able to participate in. Overall, my experience wasn’t one of transcendence at all, but of being overly aware of a liturgy which could have been much simpler.
The thing that troubles me about this is that I can see how it could have worked. I think that the electronic music would have been alright had it been selected in such a way that it didn’t jar with the other music; I think that the images on the screens would have been much more effective if they hadn’t moved as often or as fast. I understand the need to use microphones with so much going on, but much simpler music at a lower volume would have meant that the human voices could have been amplified much less (though in that particular space, full of carpet and not acoustically kind, some amplification would probably still have been necessary).
I mustn’t judge too harshly, as I did arrive late. There were elements of the service that worked. There were physical intercession stations of a sort; I didn’t visit all three, but some people did. The darkness of the space gave people freedom to sit or kneel, stand or even prostrate themselves, and being able to do that without worrying about what everyone else is up to is a strength. Maybe the whole thing works better in York Minster.
The Common Worship liturgy is far more familiar to me than the Orthodox Vespers liturgy. I’d never been to the latter at all and I attend the former most Sundays. But the intimacy and simplicity of the Vespers service made me feel very much at home, so that phrases I’d never heard were somehow familiar enough to become prayers.
I’m not going to run off and join the Orthodox church, but I do want to think about how to develop that sort of beautiful reverence and simplicity in music at St Andrew’s.