Multiplicity of Forms and Styles

This volume also arises out of the conviction that the richness of the psalms and different ways they function commend the use of a wide variety of musical, textual, and artistic forms for rendering them. Each approach has unique strengths. The reading or chanting of a psalm is ideal for engaging with the text in an unobtrusive way, free from the constraints of any single interpretative move. Metrical psalms, with regular meter and often rhyme set to familiar hymn tunes, are ideal for encouraging congregational singing. Their regularity improves their accessibility and facilitates their memorization. Responsorial psalms, with a repeated refrain sung by the congregation, are ideal for directing the congregation to a central thrust of the psalm. They allow for both congregational participation and the unique contribution that a soloist, cantor, or choir can offer in exploring a given text. Improvisational prayers based on psalms are especially ideal for contextually applying the psalms to present circumstances (see 126C). A dramatic reading of the psalm may be ideal for highlighting the implicit script in a psalm, a literary feature that is obscured in other forms. Drawing upon sources from a different cultural, historical, or ethnic context invites us to pray the text in solidarity with others.

As you encounter examples throughout this book, pause to consider the unique strengths, and corresponding weaknesses, of each type of setting. Note also that this volume includes some examples that push beyond standard approaches. Psalms with dramatic turns pose particular challenges. While most approaches to psalmody are good at establishing a mood, rhythm, and ethos, they are not necessarily well suited to conveying the abrupt changes or pivot points that are found in several psalms. This volume presents several examples (e.g., Pss. 22 and 73) which feature musical ‘gearshifts’ that correspond with the form of the psalm.

Several examples in this Psalter were crafted out of concern both to faithfully reflect the themes of a psalm and to connect the psalm with a particular occasion. For example, the text of 132B was created for a tune with powerful Christmas associations. In this case and many others, the tune and its associations becomes an interpretative resource, helping worshipers enter into the meaning of the psalm more fully. At other times, well known hymns or spirituals are placed in juxtaposition to the psalm (e.g., 74A). These songs become musical dialogue partners for the psalm text. The familiar song allows for greater accessibility to the less familiar psalm.