Psalms at Mass: Tragedy and Solution

Scholars tell us several critical points about the Psalms as they relates to Christian liturgy. The early Christians had no question about their suitability as texts for liturgy. They were the very first text used for Christian song in all lands. What later emerged as the various liturgical rites all used the Psalms and the basis of song. The Psalms were the basis of what became the Divine Office. And the earliest and most developed of all the Gregorian chants at Mass were the Psalms.

The most prominent place for the Psalm at Mass was between the readings of scripture. Their performance was a time for prayer and meditation. They were the most elaborate chants of the entire Christian songbook. This Psalm between readings was called the Graduale, as a reference to the position of where it was first sung. This tradition of elaborate chants between the readings is preserved in the liturgical books to this today, particularly the book named after the Gradual itself, the Graduale Romanum.

In short the chanted Psalm, the crown jewel of the liturgical books and the foundation of so much musical development for centuries, is the foundation of song at Mass.

Sadly, anyone reading the above today, would find this entire history completely unrecognizable based on their own experience at Mass. Even people who have been attending Mass weekly for decades would find this history to be implausible. What mostly happens between the readings at Mass sounds and feels like nothing history, contemplative, reflective, and beautiful.

The question arises: what happened to the Psalm?

Contemporary reports show that before the reform of the Mass in 1969, the Psalm was not usually sung in its original form. The true chant was mostly too difficult for most parishes. So most parishes took recourse in the Psalm-toning technique, meaning that the text was rendered in a simple formula. It was dignified by comparison to what we are likely to hear today, but not what it should be. One can understand how people could have gained the impression that it just wasn’t that important.

But in 1969, something more dramatic happened. The Psalm was rendered in the vernacular, thereby making the older form awkward for any but the most enterprising music programs. Even more substantially, its form was changed from being a solo chant to necessarily involving the people. As William Mahrt was once told in the defense of this approach, the people needed to “have something to do.”

The people-involving form chosen was based on the chanted structure for the Divine Office. There would be an antiphon. The antiphon had to be easy for the people to sing. It had to be extremely easy to sing because people had to hear it only one time and then sing it back. Then it was followed by Psalm verses. The antiphon would be repeated after each verse or at the end.

Monks knew well how to accomplish this task because it had been part of their liturgy for more than a millenium. Sadly, lay people had long ago ceased being exposed to this approach to song, and they were the ones charged with writing music for the new approach. They had no clue about how to do this, and instead took recourse to the beats and tunefulness of music in the culture at large.

In other words, there was nothing inherently wrong with the Responsorial Psalm structure. It is not as perfect as the Gradual but it was not fundamentally flawed either. One can make a case for the new approach based on some scraps from history and also from the general sense that it did take place within the “Liturgy of the Word” so a borrowing from the Divine Office is not entirely outlandish.

But composing for it would be tricky, and require a great deal of subtlety and compositional sophistication. A handful of people accomplished this in the 1970s and 1980s. Theodore Marier would be primary among them. But his book in which the Psalms were published did not reach a wide audience. What did and has reached a wide audience were the Responsorial Psalm based on popular music. Forty years went by. Readers who have experienced these can provide their own assessments of their musical merit.

In any case, let us moved forward in time to the way in which this problem came to be addressed in a competent way. Five years ago, Jeffrey Ostrowski opened up a new website called Chabanel Psalms that provide free Psalm settings for download. He offered them to the world. Why? He was so upset about the poor quality of the standard Responsorial Psalm that he just had to fix it. This was his fix.

The website was a smash hit. Finally, after decades of waiting for something, people could freely download a dignified and fitting setting of the Psalm to sing between readings. It was marvelous. And it was just the beginning. Immediately others began to come forward. It turns out that many Church musicians had been composing their own settings for years! They began to send them into Jeffrey and Jeffrey very graciously and enthusiastically began to add those to his collection that he was offering for free.

Among those who were sending in sending was the director of my own Gregorian Schola, Arlene Oost-Zinner. She was insistent on retaining the Gregorian psalm tones for the verse. Her Psalm antiphon was composed in the Gregorian style. It was simple but sophisticated, paying careful attention to the text and the flow of the words. I had noticed in my own parish (in which these were a real godsend) that people were able to sing them very quickly (and, most impressively, not feel ridiculous for having done so!).

There are three years of Psalms that had to be composed — three times the whole liturgical calendar. In other words, this task is not for the faint of heart. It requires being creative on schedule, and sticking with it no matter how you feel that week. And you must do this for three full years, without seeing a dime in revenue for your work. After all, these were being given away and there was no revenue stream to compensate anyone at all.

This whole project is culminating in a number of new resources. The Vatican II hymnal is one example. My personal favorite is of course the ones I have known in my own parish and are loved by the parishioners in my parish. These the ones that have been among the most downloaded, the ones by my own schola director.

I’m pleased to say that these have all been typeset in a single book and made available as the Parish Books of Psalms, as published by the Church Music Association of America. This book allows anyone to have one resource that captures a good part of that original sensibility of the Psalm while retaining the Responsorial structure.

The antiphons are simple but dignified, and the verses are entirely written out for the singer, using traditional Gregorian Psalm tones. You only need to open and sing. It can be done by a single cantor or a full group, but I’ve never seen a case when the people do not sing along while maintaining an atmosphere of contemplation.

A point I find rather interesting about this music publishing business: once these resources come to be, people tend to take them for granted, as if they had always been here. But think about it: the problem of the Psalm dates back decades in the midst of a time when such resources were nowhere to be found! Generations have suffered and this suffering can now end.

It was this way with the Simple English Propers. No one seems to even remember what life was like without them. It will be the same with the Parish Book of Psalms. The remedy arrives and all is forgotten and forgiven. So let me just say this from the heart: it was a gigantic struggle to get to the place. Thanks be to God, the future will be better than the past.

This book will become available within two weeks.