Thursday, January 27, 2011

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit; the Kingdom of Heaven is Theirs



Setting the Psalm antiphons to something dignified and singable for the congregation is one of my ongoing projects, as many of you know. I'm doing them in real time, and Jeffrey Ostrowski is kind enough to post them over at Chabanel. I've gotten almost all the way through the three-year cycle. Even so, I will be going back and revisiting those I did almost three years ago. My process has evolved quite a bit, and is still settling in.


Sometimes the antiphons are so short, it doesn't seem that anything recognizable, much less memorable, can be made of them. This week we have the opposite problem: Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs. It's long. Yet it is going to have to be something something that the congregation will be able to repeat back after one hearing only. Here is what I've come up with this week.

I guess there are lots of approaches. What seems to work best to me is to look at the rhythm of the words. What will make most language sense to the English speaker? Where are the word accents? What does the sentence sound or feel like? Where are the vowels? Which are the consonants that stand out, and where is there beauty?

My next step is to take this string of words, which I've presumably analyzed for accent, clarity and beauty, and find a simple melody that arises from it. The melody should seem to flow from the words, be pleasing to the mouth, mind, and ear, and according to my self-imposed rule, should fit into a modal structure.

Even if I find something that meets my criteria I stop right there: what if I am going to run into trouble with the Psalm verses? What if the words accents at the ends of phrases don't lend themselves to the particular office tone (because those are the ones I use) endings that are available to me based on the mode I've selected for the antiphon?

So I scroll forward and look through the verses. Mode II almost always works, or I can make it work. Mode V usually works, or I can make it work. Mode VIII works well. Mode I is fun, and so is Mode VII. Mode VI is pesky. But which one works best? Sometimes I decide to go back and rethink the antiphon and mode, and start all over again. There must be an easier way, right?

Everyone acknowledges the problems with making English conform to the Gregorian tones. Bruce Ford has studied and dealt with the problem for years. And the Meinrad tones and Fr. Weber's adapted versions are more suited, by design, to the English word accents. Some prefer to use these, for example, Adam Bartlett with the Simple English Propers project. But I have chosen to stick with Gregorian tones for numerous reasons, which I won't get into right now. I'll save that for another discussion.