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Alena Mathis 2017

Psalm Chanting

Music notes, Image courtesy of Graphics Mouse at FreeDigitalPhotos.netPsalms. Their origins date back thousands of years in the history of the Jewish, Egyptian, Christian communities. Liturgically, however, the old songs have not lost their power over all this time – we too, dear congregation, have paid homage to this tradition in the worship services of the past four months and have brought psalmodies into our church.

In Europe, psalm chanting in unison has had continuity for over two thousand years. This usually involves a model of eight or nine psalm tones. In the fifteenth century, on the basis of the traditional psalm tones, compositions for several voices develop for the recitation of the psalms, often alternated by two choruses (Faburden, Fauxbourdon, Falsibordoni style).

Around 1500, the genre of the so called Psalm motet, a form of the artistic polyphonic scoring of psalm texts, emerges, thought to be the great master Josquin Desprez (c. 1440-1521) and Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594). In the course of the Reformation, particular emphasis is placed on the participation of the entire congregation in psalm chanting – Luther composes a series of psalms (e.g., “From deep distress I cry to you”, Psalm 130); Calvin introduces the unison or four-voice homophonic singing of all 150 psalms in song form (Geneva Psalter). As the first Anglican Archbishop, Cranmer advocates in his liturgy the singing of the Psalms in unison by the congregation or, in the simple style of the so-called anglican chant, of a choir.

Starting in Italy and in the emerging concert music, obligatory instruments such as a basso continuo have been included in the music of the Psalms since the end of the 16th century (e.g., Monteverdi, Schütz). A new stage of the psalm scoring was reached in the next decades with the so-called grand motet for grand and petit choeur and orchestra at the court of the sun king in France (e.g., Lully, Charpentier). In this form, Psalms take over the concert hall! This is similar to the Italian-born form of the psalm-cantata, in which verses are distributed on aria, choral, and ensemble parts (e.g., Handel, Mozart).

The composer of great works both for the concert hall (e.g. “The Five Psalms for Soli, Choir and Orchestra”), and for a capella choirs and simple four-voice movements for the congregation, is Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) who was thereby part of the liturgical and church music reform under the Prussian King Frederick William IV.

In the second half of the 19th century, the difference between liturgical and concerto music becomes ever greater – the motetes of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), meanwhile, would break the scope of the worship service. After a progression towards instrumental works on psalms (e.g. Reubke, Schönberg), Arvo Pärt (* 1935) set Psalms 42 and 43 to music shortly before the turn of the millennium, and 160 years after F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy: “Como cierva sedienta” – “Cries for fresh water “.

The singing of the psalms follows the basis of various melodic models (psalm tones). Its origin is the so-called psalmody in ancient Jewish music; later the Gregorian chorale developed.
A special focus of the psalmody is on the recitation of the verses as well as the speech melody; psalmodies are usually syllabic. The recitative tone is called tenor, the change of the tone (often marked by / over the note) is called flexa, diffraction; before the turning point (marked by *) the verse ends mostly on a so-called mediatio, a middle cadence, also called pausa. The recitation concludes with the terminatio, the ending, a new tone change.

For the psalm chanting in choirs, a special, changing form developed as of the 8th century, in which an antiphon is sung together at the beginning and at the end of the psalm, but the verses are alternately recited by the singers leading and those praying.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank you very much that you so openly experienced the singing of the psalms in the Sunday worship services of the last months!

Your Alena Mathis