Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Psalm 121: Anglican Chant with a congregational response

Continuing with the inclusion of psalms to our liturgy during Lent, on 20th March at St Andrew's we sang Psalm 121. This is a favourite of mine and of many others, and I wanted to use Anglican Chant this time. There are various chants that can be used; the one by H. Walford Davies, with solos in the first and third quarters, is certainly well-known. But it wasn't really appropriate for our very small choir, which doesn't have enough voices to cover four parts. Instead I used a chant by Phocion Henley, who I know better as the composer of many West Gallery tunes.

We still needed a congregational response. I made this one by using the last half of the chant, keeping the rhythm simple:

It worked a treat.

This past Sunday we had a said psalm, which I must say I didn't find nearly as rewarding. Next week is Mothering Sunday and we are having an All Age Chaos Service. Happily the psalm appointed for that day is Psalm 34, which has actually made it into our hymnal thinly disguised as a hymn: "Through all the changing scenes of life" is from Tate and Brady's "New Version" of the psalms, published in 1696. We will sing it to the Common Meter tune "Wiltshire", attributed to George Smart (1776-1867) and originally set to Psalm 48. This is relatively familiar to the congregation and choir alike so everyone will sing, rather than my fussing about with responses.

That leaves me with Psalm 130 (Passion Sunday), Psalm 31 vv 9-16 (Palm Sunday), and Psalm 22 (Maundy Thursday, during the stripping of the altar) to sort out; we won't have sung psalmody on Good Friday or during our Easter Vigil. I'm planning on metrical psalms with congregational responses for the first two, but that won't work for Maundy Thursday; for that, I think it will be a unison chanted psalm with alternate lines by a soloist and the rest of the choir.

I've enjoyed working with the psalms so far and trying different ways of fitting in the congregational responses, and I will miss them.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

With cheerfulness rejoice

Psalm 51 on Wednesday night went well, I thought: the congregation sang their response and the choir led well. There were even some positive comments after the service!

For this morning's service I wanted to keep things simple -- fitting in the extra music for Ash Wednesday had already squished our rehearsal time a bit. So I decided we'd do the same thing, using a metrical version of Psalm 32 and an appropriate congregational response.

I had originally thought to go with the Isaac Watts paraphrase of the psalm but in the end settled on Sternhold and Hopkins; I don't entirely remember why. That runs to eleven stanzas in Common Metre (CM) and a response after every verse would have added 50% to the length, so I looked at the version in the Common Worship: Daily Prayer Psalter to see when to add the responses. I settled on Caithness as a tune because I know the choir know reasonably well, but not so well that singing different words than they're used to will be disconcerting.

Here's the response we used:

As with Psalm 51 on Wednesday, the notes in the response are the same as the last line that the choir sings, which makes it easier for the congregation to pick things up. Again, I thought it went well. It's very hard to hear from the organ but I'm told the congregation did sing the response. I was glad to have chosen something simple, as in the end the usual weeknight rehearsal was cancelled due to illness and we only had the pre-service rehearsal this morning to work on this psalm. It was certainly very different from the setting of Psalm 32 that London Gallery Quire sang this evening at Manor Road United Reformed Church, but still appropriately cheerful, I think. More on the Manor Road service in another post!

Next week is Psalm 121, one of my favourites. The plan is to use the non-metrical Common Worship text this time, set to a lovely little chant by Phocion Henley, with, (guess what?) a congregational response based on the last line. We started learning it this morning, and the tune seems fairly solid but fitting the words to it will be more difficult. I'll be sure to update with further details!

Monday, 7 March 2011

FairTrade Fortnight and Metrical Psalmody in Stoke Newington

It's FairTrade Fortnight, which means lots of tasty, guilt-free chocolate floating around, among other things. Others have laid out, far better than I can, the reasons for buying FairTrade when possible, so I won't add much to that except to say that I don't buy tea, coffee or chocolate at all if they aren't FairTrade and I try to avoid non-FT sugar, cotton and bananas.

On Sunday, 13th March the London Gallery Quire will be leading music in a service at Manor Road United Reformed Church, 102 Manor Road, N16 5NU (map). The music is that which would have been sung, played, and heard in nonconformist chapels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it's well worth coming along to hear. I'll be playing the serpent and even singing a bit. There'll be a retiring collection in aid of the FairTrade Foundation and the Quire, and the service will be followed by a tasty "Fairtrade Supper". Visions of chocolate-dipped bananas are floating in my head, but I bet they can come up with some pretty good main courses too.

I still haven't constructed my new, improved serpent case so I think I might be stuck with buses, trains and the like for this one, rather than the snake on a bike method of instrument transport, but I'll see how I'm feeling on the day.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

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.