Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the Lord…Give thanks unto the Lord, and call upon his Name, make known his deeds among the people. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, tell ye of all his wondrous works. [I Chr. 16:7-9]
Since the boy David first plucked the harp and composed a song to Yahweh, these poetic verses have provided a constant means of communication with God. These words of praise, exaltation, hope, lament, sorrow, repentance and joy have been sung by people in all tongues, in every age, and in many musical ways. The Psalms are perhaps the most unifying of all religious literature. We Christians have inherited from – and still share – these songs with the Hebrew people, and all Christians – East and West, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant – offer these songs in worship.
At St. Gregory’s, we follow the Western Rite practice of singing Psalms at Matins and Vespers (and Compline), and Psalm verses are included in the minor propers (Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion chants) at Mass each Sunday. At these services, we employ the eight Psalm tones – melodic formulas characterized by an incipit or intonation (the several beginning notes sung only by a cantor), a reciting note on which most of the words are “recited”, and a several note ending, different for each half of the verse (mediation and termination). It has been traditional to pause between the two halves of a psalm verse (the length of the pause determined as much by whether there is reverberation in the room as by anything). If a simpler method of singing the Psalms is desired, a two-note formula for each half verse, rising at the end of the first half and falling at the end of the second is commendable.
At St. Gregory’s, we use the responsorial method of singing psalms, alternating verses between the cantor and the congregation, but there are other ways, such as antiphonally – two groups alternating verses – a method introduced in the West by St. Ambrose of Milan.
Whatever the tune or the method of alternating, Psalm-singing should be an exercise in cooperation. The community of singers should sing as one person. All thoughts of individuality or leadership (except on the part of a cantor) should be set aside. No one should sing louder than the others; no one should go faster (or slower) than the others. The pace should be one of comfortable declamation – neither hurried nor sluggish. When the Psalm tones are used and there is no harmony, all should strive to blend their voices with each other, forming a perfect unison melody. As with all godly endeavors, it is essential to listen to each other in order to create this “symphony, where there resounds in the church a united concord of differing ages and abilities…” described by St. Ambrose.
When we next sing a Psalm, let us have in mind King David, singing before the Ark of the Covenant. Let us think of St. Anthony, singing psalms in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. Let us remember that these sacred songs have been lifted up daily to God by soldiers in the trenches, by Calvinist reformers, by English choirboys, as well as by monks on Mt. Athos and by small mission parishes in America. Remembering all this, let us raise our hearts and our voices and “sing unto the Lord and praise his Name; be telling of his salvation from day to day.” [Ps. 96:2]