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Talk: Praying the Psalms - Katherine Dienes-Williams

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Katherine Dienes-Williams
Thursday 25th February 2016
Lent Series 2016
Download Recording (MP3, 25.3M) Download


[Please note that the audio track ends early to allow music to be played through the Cathedral's sound system.]

‘For ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes’ – these were the words which came to my lips and which I uttered aloud at the moment that my father’s soul left his earthly body in Warwick Hospital in 2006. At that deeply personal and painful yet joyful moment, I encountered and prayed the words of the psalmist. These words from verse 7 of Psalm 82 were completely out of textual context but, coupled with my uttering the Nunc Dimittis from Luke’s Gospel, they made perfect sense to me at that moment in time. My translation at that moment was entirely personal - tyrant rulers oppressing the weak and the poor, who would die alongside those whom they themselves considered weak and poor – all equal in death. My father, my prince, humble and loving man, certainly not tyrant, was passing from life to death – dying as man, as prince, equal amongst all.

What does it mean to sing the great poetry of the psalter? We can perhaps look to Athanasius to find the answer, as he called the psalms an ‘Anatomy of all parts of the soul’. St. Basil, in letter 207, wrote: “Why give such preference to the Psalms? Because hymns are human compositions, but the Psalms are the Songs of the Spirit.”

What is it that choristers and lay clerks and Sub Organists and Organists alike love about the psalmody – the daily bread of Choral Evensong, let alone Choral Mattins, and the lectionary psalms set for a Sunday? Here I feel I must already let you into a few trade secrets. There may be raised eyebrows aplenty from the back rows of the choirmen at some of the more eloquent poetic descriptions, the perceived double meanings of a text, the poetry coupled with a particularly satisfying musical chant, the use of the conductor’s right hand alone to conduct the text ‘thy right hand is full of righteousness’ – Psalm 48, verse 9 – the surreptitious glance at one’s feet whilst singing Psalm 49 verse 5 – “when the wickedness of my heels compasseth me round about?” The choirmen of Norwich Cathedral had, during my time as Assistant Organist there, a tradition of shaking the choir stalls at the singing of the word ‘shake’ in any given psalm. All perhaps unseemly and trite behaviour whilst undertaking the daily singing of these great sacred texts, but indicative, certainly, of the great affection and reverence, yes, holy reverence of these poems of human experience, endeavour and emotion. Each month Anglican Cathedral choirs adhering to the allocated evening psalms of the Book of Common Prayer anticipate the coming round of the fifteenth evening, when Psalm 78, the longest psalm appointed to be sung in an office of prayer, makes its monthly appearance with its ‘frogs’ and ‘lice’, its smiting of cattle with thunderbolts - hot thunderbolts, not just any old thunderbolts, its ‘smiting in the hinder parts’ – once amusingly sung for the first time by the Guildford choristers as the ‘hind – er’ parts. Here are endless opportunities for the organist to describe the poetry whilst playing the chant on the organ, beyond the mere chordal harmonies – using registrations to depict sheep, goats, rain, sea and so on. In an Anglican Cathedral, one might also hear the beauty and simplicity of the plainsong tones of psalmody sung unaccompanied, or even with simple accompaniment, as they are in monastic foundations throughout the Christian world. Or one might experience the engagement of the congregation in a responsorial psalm where a responsive refrain based on text found within the psalm itself is utilised in between verses, or encounter a metrical version of Psalm 23 as the hymn tune known to us as ‘Crimond’.

And yet, for all probationer choristers and apprentice organists, it is the psalms which are the most difficult to sing and to accompany, respectively. The idea that, as a singer, a text is now grouped and held together by bar lines, colons, syllables and dots is like deciphering a form of code. There is, of course, much code to be found in the psalms themselves – for example, Psalm 119, the longest psalm, with each of its twenty two sets of eight verse sections beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, thus forming an acrostic, or Psalm 46, where it is possible that the 46th word from the start of the psalm, and the 46th word from the end of the psalm indicate a code name for someone who may have been working with Miles Coverdale on his translation of the psalms in 1539 – it is asserted that this is how he left his signature – the 46th word from the start is ‘shake’ and the 46th word from the end is ‘spear’. Coupled with language used in our familiar Coverdale translation, in which some words, people and places themselves need explanation to the modern reader (for example, choristers are endlessly fascinated by Og, the King of Bashan) , the psalms are where each of my chorister rehearsals begin – such is the importance that I place on their positioning within any service. Cathedral choirs are known for their ability (or otherwise) to sing the psalms well, with sensitivity to the poetic language, clear diction, shaping and interest – people buy and listen to recordings of the psalter. These words are the beating heart of the prayer that is the daily Office. To learn to sing or play Anglican chant well, it is first necessary to memorise the chant appointed to that text. Each establishment has its own psalter with different types of pointing (that is to say, the division of words and syllables in the text based on their rhythmic stresses of speech). Some establishments have their own particular style of chanting the psalms, which has grown as a sung tradition – listen to recordings from New College, Oxford, for example. Other methods of chanting generally use the stress of the spoken word to give rhythmic impetus to the text. By way of example, what you see as a bar-line in between words indicates a change of notes, with a dot also indicating the same. Sometimes this can be in the middle of a syllable. Likewise, at a colon (at the end of a line of text), the note changes. Sounds and looks complicated? It is! But it’s quite quick to learn and understand once you get the pattern of it. Playing the organ to accompany Anglican psalm chants is, however, a different story. When I first arrived at Winchester Cathedral, I would practise the psalms for up to four hours every day. First, there is the memorising of the chant. Then the colours, or the registrations that you must choose to use. Then there is the actual rehearsal – breathing, moving and balancing with the choir. Jumping from stop to stop, from manual to manual, re-harmonising, solo-ing out a melody and so on. Finally, the performance. All such practice was, in my career, made worthwhile when the late Dr. George Guest, who attended an Evensong at Winchester Cathedral at which I was accompanying the psalms, met me for the first time afterwards and announced: ‘Katherine, you play the psalms like an angel!’ – this before our discussions moved on to the merits of the Welsh rugby team and the All Blacks…

John Eaton asserts that the unique contribution of the Book of Psalms is that here we find ‘words addressed to God’ – ‘words from worship, and mostly words of worship’ and that they are ‘a natural outpouring of the heart and soul – in need, in gratitude, in sorrow and in joy’. He writes that the psalms have pride of place “in revealing the most significant moments of Hebrew religion” and that they offer “perspectives on creation, the animal world, the nations, the holy centre of Zion, the king’s vocation, the kingdom of God itself….” The Hebrew Book of Psalms is entitled mylht which means ‘praises’. The Greek title is yalmoi or ‘hymns’, a title which over a third of the psalms bears individually.

Sometimes called the psalms of David, the question of his authorship of all the psalms is debated by scholars.  His musical abilities are described variously in the Book of Samuel (the sweetest singer of Israel – 2 Sam 23.1f.), his playing was said to heal Saul’s spirit (1 Sam. 16.14f) and he made instruments of music (2 Chron. 7.6) The scholar John Eaton writes that ‘around New Testament times the idea that David was the main author of the psalms was taken for granted. A Dead Sea scroll (11QPsa) from the first century CE includes a note detailing the numbers of his compositions made ‘through prophecy given him from before the Most High’. Eaton writes that “David was still seen as the one who had established the duties of the guilds of singers in Jerusalem’s worship. With cymbals, harps and lyres (all instruments mentioned in psalm verses, most notably, perhaps, those many instruments of Psalm 150 – trumpets, lutes, harps, cymbals, strings and pipes) they played according to the cheironomer’s gestures – hand signals inherited from the guild fathers, but ultimately from David (1 Chronicles 25.6f).

Eaton draws our attention to the sage Jesus Ben Sira, in about 190 BC, pointing to this passage from Ecclus. 47. 8-10, in which David is pictured not only appointing music for daily worship in sacred courts but also singing praise to God in response to his own life experiences:

"In all that he did he gave thanks.
Giving glory to the Holy One, the Most High.
With all his heart he sang praise,
Expressing his love for his maker.
He appointed singers to stand before the altar
And sing sweet music to the lyre.
He gave beauty to the festivals,
And set their times through all the year,
When they should praise the name of the Lord,
The sanctuary resounding from break of day.'

Throughout psalmody, we see the inheritance of a connection to a royal figure – possibly the king at prayer, or a royal line. We see worship in the sanctuary (Psalm 73, verse 16 – Until I went into the sanctuary – then understood I the end of these men; Psalm 96, verse 6 – Glory and worship are before him: power and honour are in his sanctuary), and we see the psalmists’ prophesies – Psalm 16 is viewed as one such messianic prophesy, referred to by Paul in Acts 13 verses 34-37 – ‘…thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer they Holy One to see corruption.’ Paul says in the synagogue at Antioch – “For David, after he had served the counsel of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and saw corruption; but he whom God raised up saw no corruption" (Acts 13: 34-37).”

John Eaton also reminds us that there may well have been female authors of the psalms, as we can see pictorial records of Egyptian and Assyrian female instrumentalists, dancers and singers. Females are ‘skilled mourners of the dead’ (2 Chronicles 35.25) and in the book of Samuel, ‘performers in the palace’ (2 Sam. 19.35). In Exodus we read of the women who danced and played hand drums (Exodus 15.20-21). Then there is the powerful psalm ascribed to Hannah, anticipating the reign of a King (1 Samuel verse 2), the ‘Song of Hannah’.

Unfortunately, we know very little of how psalms may have been performed musically once written, as when temple worship ceased at the time of the Romans, around 70 CE, much knowledge was lost. We can, however, derive clues from what we know of worship at the time. The Hebrew hymn, for example, consisted of a call to praise, intertwined with reasons for praise – so, for example Psalm 148 – verses 1-5 “O Praise the Lord of heaven: praise him in the height…Let them Praise the Name of the Lord, for he spake the word and they were made: he commanded and they were created.” It seems that in many of the psalms a solo singer may have interacted with a group, as a leader – this was a significant part of worship at the time. The scholar John Eaton writes “The singing itself was the heart of the music, while the instruments (appropriately known as ‘instruments of song’ keley shir, Amos 6.5; 1 Chronicles 15.16) had deep significance as joined with the voices in a common endeavour… addition to refrains and responses from the professional choir there were the acclamations and affirmations voiced by the great assembly of pilgrims.” Such responsive psalmody can be seen in Psalm 136, where every verse concludes with the text ‘for his mercy endureth for ever’. Eaton suggests that the style of singing was “probably as emotional and passionate as that still to be heard in the liturgies and love songs of the Mediterranean region”. Eaton writes that the Sumerians allotted psalms of praise and psalms of lament to different orders of holy singers (gala priests for lament and nar priests for praise) – with occasions for praise incorporating the use of trumpets and cymbals – as suggested in Psalm 150.

He has researched both pictorial and textual evidence pertaining to the use of instruments in Israelite psalmody – amongst them are the lyre or kinnor, the harps or nebel (these were portable instruments) Psalm 33 verse 2 – ‘Praise the Lord with harp’, the pipes (woodwind instruments using reeds), horns, trumpets (Psalm 98 verse 7) and percussion instruments, such as the Babylonians’ sacred drum and the drum or ‘timbrel’ like a modern day tambourine – for example, Psalm 68 verse 25: “The singers go before, the minstrels follow after: in the midst are the damsels playing with timbrels”.

The French musicologist Suzanne Haïk Vantoura (1912 - 2000) suggested that signs and accents found written in Masoretic manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible indicate how the text was to be sung, indicating hand signals relating to pitch of notes. These manuscripts were widely used as the basis of translations of the Old Testament, collected by a group of Jews known as Masoretic between 7 and 10 CE and the earliest known version is the Aleppo Codex of the tenth century.

Listen to this hypothetical reconstruction. (PSALM 23 – link to follow).

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Some scholars have discounted her work, whilst others note that her interpretation of the Masoretic cantillation symbols set out for Psalm 114 bear a very close resemblance in performance to the Tonus peregrinus of church and synagogue. From the time of 70 CE music was offered and given to the Lord, and the repetition of his name throughout psalmody was part of divine experience, with lamenting psalms asking God’s pity and praising psalms of music and dance and instruments bringing worshippers into fellowship one with another.

So what of the musical development of psalmody thereafter? Early Christian faith was founded on a belief that Christ’s life and death as had been foretold was now revealed in the New Testament – and as John Eaton writes, over 90 passages of psalmody are quoted in the New Testament – it is the most commonly cited Old Testament book. Psalms were sung in the first decades of the church. The apostles were told to ‘speak to one another in psalms, hymns and songs; sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5 verse 19). Eaton draws our attention to Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who is said to have instigated a tradition of singing psalms antiphonally around 100 CE – that is to say, passing the singing from one group to another, following a vision of singing angels (Socrates, Church History, vi.8)

As psalms continued to be used in worship, written commentaries emerged from about 3 AD. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) wrote an Exposition on the Psalms and wrote in his Confessions (60.4) (addressing God) ‘How my love for you was kindled by them!’ From the mid-6th century, Cassiodorus, a former high Roman administrator and founder of a double monastery, wrote in his ‘Explanation of the Psalms’ that they ‘make vigils pleasant in the silence of the night’ and as we will hear later at Compline to be sung by the gentlemen of the Cathedral Choir, they ‘bring the last hours of the day to a close, taking darkness away from the mind’.

Thus a tradition of the psalms having prominence at worship continued to the Middle Ages, and in many cases the entire Psalter was recited during the course of a week, with fixed psalms used in a Gregorian scheme at the offices of the hours other than Mattins and Vespers, at which the remainder of the Psalter was covered on a weekly basis. This tradition continued in the Roman Catholic Church until the Breviary of 1974, at which point the psalms were set to a four weekly cycle, however some monasteries continue with a once weekly cycle or other cycle of their own devising to the present day. As the early monasteries began to abound and flourish in Western Europe, illuminated manuscripts were produced and within the monasteries the sung form known to us as ‘Gregorian chant’ began to flourish from about the 8th to the 15th centuries. Following the earliest tradition of a solo singer, it is likely that much of the singing was done by a single singer or Cantor, just as can be heard at, for example, men’s voices’ Evensongs here at Guildford Cathedral on Monday nights at 5.30 p.m. John Eaton advises that ‘at a more skilled level the group (of singers) might undertake the second part of each verse, responding to the soloist’s first half. A well-trained choir, as in monasteries, would divide into two groups and sing the two parts of the verses antiphonally.’ A ‘Glory be’ was added to psalms as a final affirmation of their Christian meaning. Sometimes, antiphons would be used, by way of suggesting a theme for that psalm – often from that psalm text itself. Sometimes the antiphons altered according to the season of the Church’s year – so if the same psalm were to be sung at Christmastide as said in Lent, it began and ended with a different antiphon to set the mood of the season accordingly.

At the time of the Reformation in England, Archbishop Matthew Parker (Archbishop during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) spent many years working on a translation of the Bible into English, which was published at his own expense in 1572. In the year 1560, he compiled a set of metrical psalms. In the preface to his publication, he included a series of excerpts of the writings of the Fathers of the church, including (from ‘Confessions’) Augustine’s acknowledgement of the ‘temptation of the ears’ which he regarded as the most troubling of all his senses. The temptation arose, he wrote, whenever he listened to the singing of the psalms – he viewed this as having ‘some secret familiarity with the several affections of our spirit’. His intellectual understanding fluctuated:  “I erre out of too precise a severity: yea very fierce am I sometimes in the desire of having all pleasant Musicke (to which David’s psalter is so often sung) banished both from mine own eares and out of the whole church too….Notwithstanding so often as I call to mind the teares I shed at the hearing of the Church-songs, in the beginning of my recovered faith….I then acknowledge the great good use of this institution. Thus floate I between peril of pleasure and an approved profitable custome…..See now in what a perplexity I am!”

Meanwhile, across the Channel, scholar Annabel Paterson draws attention to Calvin’s 1536 ‘Institutes of the Christian religion’ commentary on theological prayer in the Reformed Church. In it, Calvin sympathises with Augustine’s vacillations, writing of church music “…..surely if the singing be tempered to that gravity which is fitting in the sight of God and the angels, it both lends dignity and grace to sacred actions and has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and eagerness to pray. Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words.” Yet Calvin, having set out these aesthetics of devotion for Protestants, refers in his commentary to the psalms dated 1564, more to Athanasius’ view of the psalms as an ‘Anatomy of all parts of the soul’.

At the Reformation in England, a musical approach to psalmody changed and altered alongside this, with the growth of so-called Anglican chant developing from the plainsong tradition of recitation. This tradition, as we still know it today in our Cathedrals and some parish church choral traditions, gives melody to the words of the prosaic Miles Coverdale translation of the Psalms, in turn published within Coverdale’s Bible of 1535 and his later Psalter found within the Book of Common Prayer. Such chant was and is based on the natural rhythms of speech. The tradition of Anglican chant was well established by the eighteenth century, with countless composers having composed chants – indeed our very own congregation member, Peter Kirk, collects chants and heads up the Anglican chant appreciation society – and is custodian to some 17,400 chants at the present time!

A further musical development can be seen in the early 17th century, when the King James Bible was introduced, as metrical arrangements by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins became popular – these arrangements were set to given melodies. In the late seventeenth century Tate and Brady produced another metrical psalter, and this became the way congregations sang psalms in the Church of England until well into the nineteenth century. Again, this was mirrored in the Calvinist tradition where psalms were sung as hymns or metrically to settings by, for example, Louis Bourgeois. In eighteenth century England, Christian ‘hymns’ grew in popularity, with writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley having prominence, thus psalm singing weakened. However, the Oxford movement of the nineteenth century, seeking to revive the mysticism and beauty of liturgy, saw a renewal of commentaries drawn from ancient preachers, such as the ‘Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers’ of John Mason Neale (1818-1866) which was in turn completed after his death by his friend Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890). Likewise, the commentary of Alexander Francis Kirkpatrick (1849-1940) entitled ‘The Book of Psalms with introduction and notes’, published in 1901.

One of the most important centres of chant in the world is the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes, France, where Gregorian chant (a topic on which one could write another entire lecture if not several) flourished again at the end of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to Dom Prosper Guéranger who revived the monastic tradition. Having re-established the Divine Office, he found that no proper chant books existed, so many monks were sent out to libraries throughout Europe to find relevant manuscripts. In 1889, after decades of research, and in spite of the Vatican’s publication, on the orders of Pope Pius IX, of an older edition of Gregorian chant in 1871, the monks of Solesmes released the first book in a planned series, the Paléographie Musicale, and began work on practical reconstructions of the chant which were adopted by Pope Pius X in 1903 as the definitive, authoritative version.

The singing of psalms today takes many and various forms, from the Anglican chant of Choral Mattins and Evensong to the responsorial psalmody of many composers, to psalms sung as hymns and psalms sung as Christian choruses. Eaton makes his personal feelings clear in his writing – ‘the hymns take up but a small part of their words and often debase it with the slickness or artificiality of their metre and rhyme.’ He continues: ‘The hymns we write ourselves are pleasant and easy to the feelings. Much in the Psalms may be difficult for the modern imagination, seeming primitive or harsh. But if the challenge of using them is met, they will be found to have a power and a fullness that modern compositions can hardly attain. The challenge involves suitable translation, styles of singing and reciting, and the imagination to relate the ancient ideas to the Christian realities.’

It would be possible to give yet a further lecture on varieties of different pieces of music which have drawn psalm texts as both their inspiration and their libretto both within and without the Church. Earlier, you heard the musicologist Suzanne Haïk Vantoura’s interpretation of the cantillations found in the early Masorete texts. Here then, is a very fast, very personal listening tour through some examples of psalmody from Gregorian chant to more recent compositions.

Gregorian chant – as previously described

Metrical psalter (Tallis)

Monteverdi Vespers – an example of the use of psalmody in the office of Vespers

Brahms Requiem Psalm 126 – an example of a romantic composer incorporating a psalm text within his larger work – Ein Deutsches Requiem, Opus 45, using texts he derived himself from the Lutheran Bible, as opposed to the Roman Catholic rite. So in movement one we find verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 126 – “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy”.

Anthems derived from hymn – I have picked one example alone, which can hardly be representative of the many thousands I could have chosen – this from Herbert Howells – ‘Like as the hart desireth the water brooks’ – Psalm 42. Written around the time of World War II, during which the Howells family was bombed out of its London home, the sense of yearning and lament is all too apparent.

Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms – commissioned by Serge Kussevitsky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930. In 1926, Stravinsky became a regular communicant of the Orthodox Church and as such this work may be seen as a projection of his own faith. He chose three psalms and gave the dedication "Cette Symphonie composée à la gloire de Dieu...". It’s a highly dramatic work, and one of which Stravinsky wrote “…it is not a symphony on which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of he Psalms that I am symphonizing."

Leonard Bernstein ‘Chichester psalms’ – commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester, for the 1965 Chichester Festival. Written using Hebrew texts, the movements range in tonal variety and colour, some with dance rhythms characteristic of the composer of West Side Story.

Anglican chant – Psalm 110 to a chant by Thomas Attwood (1765-1838)

Steve Reich ‘Tehillim’ – the Hebrew word for psalms - in the 1970's Reich studied the music of Jewish cantillation (chants sung by cantors during services). His 1988 composition Different Trains used recordings of an American railroad worker, holocaust survivors, and his former nanny to contrast the trains he rode as a child across the USA whilst journeying between his divorced parents living in New York and California and the trains fellow Jews would have ridden in Europe at the same time during World War II, shuttled to concentration camps. Tehillim sets verses from psalms 19, 34, 18, and 150 for three sopranos and an alto with, originally, a chamber group and percussion. Reich based the rhythmic meter of the piece on spoken Hebrew text rhythm, so the work is extremely complex. Reich himself said that as the western synagogue tradition of psalm singing had been lost he felt able to compose as freely as he wanted.

The music of the psalms speaks to us all, and continues to excite me to this day in whatever form it appears of the many examples we have just heard. It connects us, unlike any other way, to the earliest members of the Church, and links us inextricably through the ages with an unbroken line of prayerful lament, praise and hope. It is entirely remarkable how, over the course of my professional career in church music, the words of the psalter are those which have resonated the most with events that may have happened during the course of a day – events sometimes of great sadness, but likewise events of great joy, hope and encouragement. Music heightens the emotions, as Augustine rightly pointed out, but it also elevates our prayers and often, when the music of Anglican chant is coupled with the whole human experience described in these 150 poetic masterpieces we know and reiterate every month of the year, we are transcended. Therefore it is the singing of psalmody which continues to be one of my great musical loves, well deserving of the utmost care and attention.


Eaton, John The Psalms Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005

Mitchell, D.C. The Songs of Ascents: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem's temples (Campbell: Newton Mearns 2015); 'Resinging the Temple Psalmody', JSOT 36 (2012) 355–78; 'How Can We Sing the Lord's Song?' in Gillingham, S. (ed.), Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2013) 119–133.

Wansbrough, Henry The Prayers of the Psalter

Patterson, Annabel Bermudas and the Coronet: Marvell's Protestant Poetics ELH 44 (3). Johns Hopkins University Press: 478–99. doi:10.2307/2872569, 1977