Sunday, 17 August 2008

Musical appropriation of the Psalms (and why I dig Gregorian chant)

In response to a post on an Australian psalmic-pop group, Esteban and Richard have called my attention to two other styles of appropriating the Psalms: Reformed Presbyterian Psalm singing

and Anglican plain song:

(Richard has also posted audio clips of Psalms 8, 90 and 100 [their source is here]).

I've been looking for ways to appropriate the Psalms in my own devotional life. They are practically non-existent, as far as the Free Churches that I know go. The one I'm at now is an exception, in that we read a Psalm about once a month.

Luckily, a Gregorian chant fanatic at the Protestant faculty here in Bonn has led a course on the subject over the past two semesters. I only had time to visit 3/4 of the first and the singing of the Divine Office to round of the second and I've since become a major fan. I'm not sure what it is, but that monotone somehow helps carry me through the endless text. I feel like I'm floating, observing the content of the Psalm from above. It's as if the "music" creates a space in which I can be alone with the Psalm. This was brought home to me as we chanted a particularly bloodthirsty psalm. On the one hand, the aesthetic of the chapel with the mellow candels, chilled atmosphere and gentle chant didn't gel well with a text about destroying our enemies and grinding their bones into dust. On the other hand, from that "chanting state," I was able to look down from above,as it were, and oberserve what was going on in a different dimension of realty.

I now do it everyday on my own and have managed to stick to it far more consistently than other projects I've tried ... so far. I find that it provides an especially healthy corrective to my otherwise intellectualized engagement with the text, which tends to rush over stuff that one normally thinks "one already understands." It also holds me back from my usual rush to extend my knowledge by reading more and more rather than reading deeper and deeper, which requires far more patience and a special disposition. Oh, and the last benefit of Gregorian chanting, it simply helps me remember the text better. I need less and less read the text and recite everything by heart, which also has the advantage that I can do it wherever I want.


Sister Macrina, Citercian nun and authoress of the blog A Vow of Conversation, has linked to her Abbey in Holland, where you can listen to the sisters chanting the divine office in Gregorian chant, a large percentage of which is psamoldy. You can even watch them on video.


Bob MacDonald said...

Now you're into my tradition. The Walford-Davies chant is a variation on 'Anglican Chant' (not plainsong - which is very similar to Gregorian and which we use extensively also). Many times as tenor have I sung that chant over the past 49 years since my voice broke.

Anglican Chant was made famous by the Highway Code - sung by a bunch of singers from King's College I think - in the '60s. My daughter is very involved in this tradition at Selwyn College Cambridge where she is Director of Music in Chapel. Psalms have been a regular and consistent daily practice in Anglicanism from the beginning. That any tradition would use them only once a month is astonishing to me.

Anonymous said...


I quite like this.

A number of Anglicans have been dismissive of metrical psalms in ages past owing to the changed text. I certainly prefer plainsong for one of the reasons you mentioned, it helps me remember the text better.

You may also be interested in this.

Anonymous said...

I realise that the chance of most people understanding Dutch is not that great, but our Office can be followed online life seven times a day.

Sorry, I keep meaning to learn how to link properly. And I loved (and seriously identified with) that Calvin cartoon!

Phil Sumpter said...


there are probably a number of reasons why the free churches I have visited don't read Psalms:

- the idea of doing anything ritulaistic creates the fear that we are being inauthentic and thus not worshipping God properly. Reading a Psalm through as a congregation would create that feeling (some of the churches don't do the Lord's prayer, either).

- There is an intellectulism which says that if you can't understand it then don't use it. Because the Psalms are often difficult to understand, or because it's difficult to draw doctrine from them, they are simply ignored.

- Similar to the first point, a lot of evangelical music wants to be contemporary and relevant, meaningful to your average person off the street. There psalms are anything but that, so at best the easy bits are extracted from context, refitted into a worship song with an accessible melody and padded out with a more recognisable theology.

Having said that, there have been calls from the altar in my church here in Bonn for a more thorough use of the Psalms. The problem is that the call is made, in a kind of side statement, and nothing is done to help people actually use the Psalms. I think the major barrier is the belief that one must understand what one reads rather than going for deep immersion and through repeatedly "dealing" with the Psalms learn to see them from the inside.


thanks again for the links. I actually own a CD very similar to that. I never knew that Anglicanism has its own brand of plainchant. I'll have to look into it more. Wikipedia has an entry on it, I have seen ...

Sister Macrina,

thanks for the link. I think those who can speak German shouldn't have too much trouble getting the gist of what is going on. I couldn't find the audio links but I had a look at the videos. My wife is off for a school trip for a week this September so I'm thinking of taking the opportunity to experience more of this kind of stuff (my wife can't stand it!). Around the corner is Maria Laach, though the liturgy is in Latin. I've also been told of a certain "Gnadental," but I don't know if they do plainsong ...

Being a member of a free evangelical church and being interested in this kind of thing feels like indulging in a secret sin ... I'm always nervous about telling people in case they think I'm being too catholic.

Though to be fair, they are a very open bunch.

Anonymous said...

Phil, thanks for the link. I should perhaps have said that our Office isn't really Gregorian chant (which apparently doesn't fit well with modern languages like Dutch and English) but is based on it. Being musically illiterate I couldn't tell you how close a link it is.

I don't think that there is an audio link except when the Office is happening, i.e. you can't download it. But I haven't often listened as I'm usually in church when it happens!

Enjoy Maria Laach!

liturgy said...

Do you want to encourage praying the Divine Office?
I’ve just created a badge for blogs and websites.
Please have a look here:
Let me know if there are any issues with this – size, etc.

Phil Sumpter said...

Liturgy, your website is a brilliant resource. I've added it to my favourites and have added your blog to my Google reader.

As for the badge, I haven't been doing to the daily office long enough for me to be able to say that I really "pray it." I may well not be able to keep it up ... perhaps this time next year I'll be able to post the badge.

liturgy said...

Your site also is a treasure Phil,
as to praying the Liturgy of the Hours - one of the great things is that it is being prayed everywhere all the time - and by Christ.
So when we pray it - we're just joining in with everyone else - and Christ. And those times (which might be often) when we don't pray it - we know it continues on - we're conscious of that...

I see you've got the blog part of my site on your reader on this site. Thanks. I wonder if you'd also put the static link "Liturgy" on your blogroll to the front page

I'll get a link back to your blog from my site in the next day or so.



Phil Sumpter said...


in what way does Christ pray the liturgy? That's a new idea to me (except that I heard an Orthodox say something similar).

I've added your website to the useful links bar.

liturgy said...

Greetings Phil

I've got the link back to your site up now also.

Firstly I'm conscious that all prayer is a listening to and praying with the Christ who unceasingly prays within us.

That is very explicit in the liturgy where we pray "through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit..."

The great liturgical prayers are addressed through Christ in the power of the Spirit...

In the Eucharist, the jewel in the liturgical crown, we are clearly immersed into that divine prayer life of Christ (Eucharist being the repeatable part of the sacrament of initiation into Christ). That jewel is set in the crown of the Liturgy of the Hours - those psalms that Christ prays continually in his body the Church.

Christ as one was a primary insight from St Paul's conversion. And we his body are Christ praying.

I could continue - but I hope that's a start to your reflection.



Phil Sumpter said...

It's certainly food for thought. Thanks for the impulse:)