uncommon psalms

Let’s put it this way. One of my hobbies is knitting. If I knitted something new every week to match my Sunday outfit, would I have time to focus on blogging or talking to my plants? Furthermore, with all other responsibilities on my plate, would I have adequate time to produce anything of quality? If I attempted this feat, I’d probably have some funny looking knitted hats, but more importantly, my plants would be lonely.

What if I told you that you didn’t have to learn music for a nearly brand-new responsorial psalm every week? What if I told you it’s a pretty solid pastoral choice? The adaptation of seasonal psalm allows adequate time for the music minister to prepare something of quality. They can devote attention to other areas of life, while confidently nourishing the assembly with the word, well proclaimed.

While the proper psalm of the day is surely an encouraged practice, there are some other alternatives, including one very practical option- the common or seasonal responsorial psalm. It’s purpose and indication for usage is outlined in at least two modern

liturigical documents. Paragraph 61 of the General Instruction states:

In the dioceses of the United States of America, the following may also be sung in place of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary for Mass: either the proper or seasonal antiphon and Psalm from the Lectionary, as found either in the Roman Gradual, Simple Gradual; or in another musical setting; or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of the psalms and antiphons, including psalms arranged in metrical form, providing that they have been approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the diocesan Bishop. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm.

In the United States, there are several psalms that are designated for general use during particular liturgical seasons. Here is the list, taken from the Lectionary:

Psalm 25
Psalm 85

Psalm 98

Psalm 51
Psalm 91
Psalm 130

Psalm 66
Psalm 118

Ordinary Time
Psalm 19
Psalm 27
Psalm 34
Psalm 63
Psalm 95
Psalm 100
Psalm 103
Psalm 122
Psalm 145

In our parish, we pick one setting of one seasonal psalm for each season, except Ordinary Time. During Ordinary Time, we divide the year into 4 or 6 week intervals, and for the duration of each interval, we sing the same arrangement of the same seaonal psalm.

Now, why would anyone want to do that? And doesn’t it get boring after a while?
The General Introduction to the Lectionary States:

89. Among the chants between the readings, the psalm which follows the first reading is of great importance. As a rule the psalm to be used is the one assigned to the reading…

…But to make it easier for the people to join in the response to the psalm, the Order of Readings lists certain other texts of psalms and responses that have been chosen according to the various seasons or classes of Saints. Whenever the psalm is sung, these texts may replace the text corresponding to the reading.

I can see why a trained music minister might tire of the same responsorial psalm after several weeks if we’re going with material from Respond and Acclaim, but there are so many other beautiful psalm settings in print. Often these arrangements get overlooked because their mastery requires a bit more time than the handiwork of good old Owen Alstott.

A seasonal response is an opportunity to spend more time in other areas such as phrasing or diction. From the perspective of cantor, once I know a setting of a common psalm for each season, there is never a need to stress about learning a new and complicated psalm setting every week. As an accompanist, I can have way more fun with improvisation at the piano and at the organ, I’m not restricted to soloing out the response with a reed, particularly as the assembly begins to sing with more certainty.

A repetitive response builds confidence among the assembly. Conscientious musicians practice music many times before it is introduced it the assembly, but for many voices in the pews, they might not feel certain of the melody, even by the final refrain of their first encounter with new a song. By the fourth week, the musician might be tired of the psalm, but most singing assemblies are not. Furthermore, a truly pastoral musician is ever mindful that ministry is more than a matter of personal interest.

I have a few recommended common psalms and settings that I would encourage you to explore. I like many of these because they are quite versatile, and they lend themselves to a variety of instrumentation. Some of them have so many verses. In cases where there are more than three verses, usually ask cantors to learn all of them, and then we pick 3 different ones each week. This way, there is still a little textual variety for the overachieving cantor. Note that I didn’t list a setting for every seasonal psalm, so if you don’t see your favorite, feel free to leave a comment!

Ps. 25: To You, Oh Lord I Lift My Soul (Curtis Stephan, OCP)

Ps. 85: Muestranos Señor/Show us Lord (Jaime Cortez, OCP)

Ps 98: All the Ends of the Earth (Haas/Haugen, GIA)
Psalm 98: All the Ends of the Earth (Robert Kreutz, OCP)

[I’m not certain if Kreutz’s psalm collection is still in print. Although best known for Gift of Finest Wheat, he’s kind of the Steely Dan of 1970’s church music—well written stuff with good counterpoint and chords that warrant polarized sunglasses. I kick myself daily for losing my two-volume set of Kreutz psalms, as they were so cool, I needed mittens to play them. ]

Psalm 91: On Eagle’s Wings (J. Michael Joncas/GIA)
Psalm 130: With the Lord There is Mercy (Curtis Stephan/OCP)

Psalm 118: This is the Day (Scott Soper/OCP)
Psalm 118: This is the Day (J. Michael Joncas/GIA)

Ordinary Time
Psalm 19: Your Words are Spirit and Life (Bernadette Farrell/OCP)
Psalm 27: The Lord is My Light (Randall DeBruyn/OCP)
Psalm 34: O Taste and See (Marty Haugen/GIA)
Psalm 34: Taste and See(Stephen Dean,OCP)
Psalm 63: My Soul is Thirsting (Steve Angrisano, OCP)

Ps. 95: If Today (Bellamy/Hurd, OCP)
Psalm 103: El Señor es Compasivo/The Lord is Rich in Kindness (Peter Kolar, WLP)
Ps. 122: Let Us Go Rejoicing (Curtis Stephan, OCP)
Psalm 145: The Hand of God (David Haas, GIA)

Note that both settings of Psalm 34 are my favorite, go-to psalms. They are also good communion processionals, because they have lots of verses and short, catchy refrains. Do your pastoral self a favor and make these pieces your new psalmodic best friends.

Good Collections
Psalms for the Church Year, Volume I (Haas/Haugen, GIA)
This is your basic late 1990’s style compilation of psalmody which requires a minor amount of effort to master. There is a setting of every seasonal psalm, and this style works reasonably well for most instrumentation.

Aclamen, Tierra Entera (Various, WLP)
I love this collection because it contains work by some of my favorite composers, including Peter Kolar (an unsung hero of intercultural liturgical music,) Eleazar Cortez, and Damaris Thillet. All settings are bilingual (English/Spanish) and they are written in keys that are 100% guitar friendly.

Lectionary Psalms (Michel Guimont/GIA)
The Guimont psalms are actually a compilation of proper psalms for the entire Sunday lectionary cycle, and for solemnities and feasts. Among them, you will find a setting of each seasonal psalm. If you’re still not sold on the adaptation I’ve discussed in the context of the article, and want to continue singing a different psalm every week, I would still encourage you to consider this resource. The psalms are chanted in a similar style to Respond & Acclaim, but with a bit more harmonic pizzazz. Not quite as tricky as Gelineau might be for some, these psalms are also set to ordered psalm tones (i.e. Guimont Tone #6, or #12, etc.,) so after a few months of using this book, a sense of familiarity develops. The settings are beautiful, interesting, and not as complicated as they sound. If Respond & Acclaim is the milk-chocolate Hershey bar of psalmody, and Gelineau is the Vosges chocolate covered bacon bar, than the Guimont collection is psea psalt and caramel. It’s definitely worth a taste.

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