St. Noel Chabanel Responsorial Psalms (B)- a review

If you’re reading this post, you’re likely aware that we are in the midst of a significant renaissance of sacred and liturgical vocal composition that purposefully is crafted to adhere to a trio of criteria, “sacred, beautiful and universal,” in manners more focused than the previous trio of “artistic, liturgical and pastoral” advised in the now-abrogated advisory document, Music in Catholic Worship.
Just within the last few months, at CMAA media organs alone, we have been introduced to the much anticipated new settings of the Psalter of Responsorial Psalms composed and compiled by Arlene-Oost Zinner, Aristotle Esquerra and Jeffrey Ostrowski. I recently received my copy of the “Chabanel” settings for Lectionary Year B and would like to offer some brief reviews and reflections of select contents.
Before I begin that, I would like to set a particular perspective for the reader to keep in mind. I’d personally be extremely surprised were there an actual census taken of whose psalm settings are being used by the vast majority of parishes which would NOT verify that OCP’s English “Respond and Acclaim” (Owen Alstott). So, as I auditioned Jeff O’s settings, I purposefully kept in mind how his treatments of certain psalm settings that are likely branded into the minds of musicians and congregants from decades of its use would compare. contrast and otherwise beckon those constituents towards Chabanel, and thus away from the convenient default of R&A.
First things first: as in all things Chabanel, Ostrowski’s whole compositional lexicon stands in contrast to R&A- modality versus tonality, metered melodies that almost eschew the use of a metronome marking versus “strict” pulsation of the time signatures and which in many cases beg to be chanted, more complex and alternative accompaniments versus a “comfortable” diatonic emphasis, and of course melodies that are at once accessible, even without a visual example at hand, but yet not prone to becoming cliches for their ease of use. Mention of these differences (are mine) and do not reflect any disrespect whatsoever for the great contribution that Owen Alstott and R&A has made.

In reviewing each of the responsorials, which will receive most of the review’s atttention, I noticed that JMO (Jeffrey Mark Ostrowski) trusts cantors/choirs/congregations to be able to negotiate certain aspects such as entrance pitches, unexpected or unique intervallic movement that might seem counter intuitive at first blush, but after closer examination elicit an “Oh yes, I get it!” sort of satisfaction. And he does this while AND because he often provides multiple accompaniments that make those distinctions clear. We have options on the page (as opposed to innovating them on the spot at the console keyboard!)
For example, Baptism of the Lord- “You will draw water..(pg.26)” has a major third fall and return rise at “draw WA-ter” whose ease of approach seems easier for a congregation with the B accompaniment to my ears. This may or may not be a challenge to seasoned singers, but the fact that there are often many options provided by JMO per Sunday/HDO, gives organists and  choir masters who might be inclined to provide SATB versions their own choice of preferred harmonic options. And of course, the verses are chanted, period. And for those Psalmists who are bound by meter, this will provide them (ala the SEP propers) a platform to finally “get” declamation. But I can envision (again, I think outside the box often) an informed Psalmist/Organist being able to ornament JMO’s chanted verses melismatically, ala the Gradual practice, within reason and purpose.
Another aspect of JMO’s compositional vocabulary is to “tone paint” his melodies with discretion and, more to the need, without affectation or obvious drama. Fourth Sunday of Lent, “Let my tongue be silenced…”(pg.34) , the aching lament of Israel in Babylonian captivity- JMO has the congregation terminus on a deceptive cadence that doesn’t resolve until a final ending. More to the point is the verse melody which has a sighing quality to “sat and wept” moving then downwards to “remembered Zion” with regret. Then he ascends in scale wise motion with “to that land” (hope?) which then drops in alternative thirds with “we hung up our harps.” Very moving. And that melodic formula continues to express the rest of the verses with that affect.
This sort of “tone painting” becomes even more important a factor when comparing one of JMO’s settings to an Alstott version that is somewhat anthemic and pervasive, such as his Ps. 23 or Passion Sunday’s “My God…why have you abandoned me?” With JMO’s (pg.38/39) his responsorial melody over “My God, my God…” is set with an anacrucis A (My) A-Bb (God) Bb-C (my) G (God) which is clearly plaintive with the tonal portrait of halting steps. And accompaniment settings “A” and “B” are simply exquisite, with his penchant for purposeful (in “B’s” case) bass note descending movement working sublimely. Another one on one comparison between R&A and Chabanel B occurs with Easter Day. Does anyone not immediately have that internal smirk upon hearing Owen’s “This is the day…” cleverly, if not blatantly reminding of “Lasst uns erfreuen” with its requisite “alleluias”? Again, no criticism for how that works with the folks so well, but if an antidote would provide relief from that setting becoming an ear worm, then JMO’s is what the Doctor ordered (pg.66). And interestingly enough he uses the same stair-step ascending melody device, but as exultant as the text requires. JMO also has (knowing or inadvertent) a knack for clever linkage, as the stair-step motive occurs above “Lord has,” as if in direct response to “God, my God.” And I like his use of the Aeolian mode which keeps a sort of implied tradition of “minor” modality associated with Easter, rather than the simplistic notion that every thing’s got to be major, or “happy!” He does cadence with a clean 4-3 suspension to VII, but the approach is still classic. I preferred accompaniments A, C, D. But that’s irrelevant, again we have OPTIONS!
Lest the reader think I’m a cheap date for JMO, I’ll offer up one minor example of a symptom that’s bound to be present (as it is in abundance with R&A) in any one’s compilation: the perfunctory setting. One such of these is 3rd Sunday, Easter (pg.70), “Lord, let your face shine on us.” The only illustrative quip I can repeat is like Gertrude Stein’s infamous assessment of my beloved home town, Oakland, CA.: “There’s no there, there.” Well, that’s to be expected; not every setting is “jacked out of the ballpark.” Base hits generate runs after time. So, be a manager, explore options. Maybe Aristotle can get JMO and Owen to second and third base and load the bases for Arlene’s grand slam! Who knows?
“I will praise you, Lord…” (5th, Easter, pg.74) Jeff has crafted in a humble yet handsomely wedded union of text and melody. It simply bel canto’s “stay Churchy, my friend.” And a reminder, again, that adhering to metered pulse is not absolutely necessary, especially with this setting. It’s overall arsis requires a sense of momentum, and doesn’t really relax until the last two measures.
Sometimes we’ve all likely encountered one of Owen’s settings that we deem just too obtuse for use. I think one of those is Ascension’s “God mounts his throne…” It’s one of the rare occasion I’ve turned to an Inwood setting or its like. Now, JMO (pg.78) offers us a nobler, simpler setting than either of those in OCP. It doesn’t have the “tone painting” aspect implicit to my ear, however in that JMO uses common time in all but one measure lends an opportunity to render this in strict meter, as if processional. And befitting the day, he gives the response SIX optional accompaniments (nothing’s too much for the King of Heaven!)
I hope I’ve tantalized the reader to invest in, at least, an audition copy of this Psalter. I’m going to leave the review with one last example that is clearly mindful of the axiomatic differences between R&A and Chabanel approaches: Pentecost. As much an ear worm as Easter’s setting, the R&A is so well-worn in its friendly ascending major scale, relieved by the great major sixth interval which then clunks out on the repeated V’s over “face of the earth.” Arggh, that’s always be a little weird- as if the world was mapped by the Flat Earth believers! So, JMO’s opening motive is an austere and welcomed relief, low tessitura, starting on essentially a G6 chord (“E” being an appogiatura-like suspension to the “D”) which then rests upon the lower fifth (D) with “-it” of “Spir-it.” And then from the tonic we’re propelled up to the plagal C on “re-NEW” descending to “earth,” but not before the surprising intevallic leap from “A” to the expected tonic, but to “ti or an F#” as if “face” is being pointed upwards. Not clever, but well-crafted. I preferred the “A” and “C” accompaniments for this one.
Well, that’s enough for me now. I hope you’re motivated to explore the rest of the year as I did. And I’ve already mentioned this collection to my pastor, who’s an staunch and knowledgeable supporter of R&A, that the occasional use of these to give a spell to the over-Alstott-ed ear at our principal choir Mass would pay dividends. Of that I have no doubt.