GILH 103: “Poems of Praise”

As we approach the psalms, we should keep in mind that we are dealing with poetry, not theological prose, or even storytelling.

103. The psalms are not readings or prose prayers, but poems of praise. They can on occasion be recited as readings, but from their literary genre they are properly called Tehillim (“songs of praise”) in Hebrew and psalmoi (“songs to be sung to the lyre”) in Greek. In fact, all the psalms have a musical quality that determines their correct style of delivery. Thus even when a psalm is recited and not sung or is said silently in private, its musical character should govern its use. A psalm does present a text to the minds of the people, but its aim is to move the heart of those singing it or listening to it and also of those accompanying it “on the lyre and harp.”

Does this musical quality extend to the instruments used to accompany it? Are plucked strings ideal above pipes, being the original intended accompaniment?

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Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to GILH 103: “Poems of Praise”

  1. Liam says:

    Well, pipes are the closest instrument to voices if they have air flowing through them (as opposed to being merely decorative covering for a synthesizer…). That’s why the Church declared the organ to be the premier liturgical instrument – this aside in the text you cite does zilch to second-guess that, of course.

    Mind you, I love the harp in church. I’ve not heard lyres in church. Guitars played in the manner of the harp would seem to outrank pianos in the context of the text you cite, right?

  2. Todd says:

    GILH hasn’t been getting many hits or much discussion; I have to jump-start it somehow, right?

    Musicians are also aware of contrast as well as blending of like-sounding instruments. Otherwise, why would brass and woodwinds be invited to join strings to form an orchestra? Or vice versa? Violinists might tell us that they also approximate the singing of a human voice by the vibration of their strings–organs do not have corollaries to vocal cords.

    I think a higher value for the organ is that a single player can cover the needed range to support and surround congregational singing.

    And as for the harp, music thanatologist Therese Schroeder-Sheker declares it the best instrument to accompany the end of life journey. I suspect there is some innate quality of the harp, dulcimer, lute, guitar, and related instruments that add their own distinctive value to the spiritual life, even as expressed in liturgy. The organ is not better or best, just important.

    Naturally, the most important factor is the player. A poor musician on a “premier” instrument will always come up short compared to a skilled player on a non-premier instrument.

  3. Liam says:


    You can’t seem to let go of your organ demons, can you? (That’s not an appealing way to jump start GILH….) Any more than others can’t let go of their guitar demons? Except you have the added burden of the church laying the thumb on the scale in favor of the organ.

    While guitar is a plucked instrument along with harp, their timbres are as different as a flute is from a tuba, though the latter two are both wind instruments. Harp’s da bomb. Guitar seems best for chapel-sized spaces. And I would prefer a guitar in a chapel size space to a huge organ with an organist incapable of sizing down the size of it for that space. Unfortunately, my years of encouraging guitars to work in a large church space was closure to a failure (I would simply say it was a mistake), even with the assistance of experts.

  4. Liam says:

    closer, not closure….

  5. Darwin says:

    If we’re going to advocate plucked strings: how about a harpsicord?

    (Actually, I don’t think I can think of many worse ideas than a harpsicord accompanied psalm.)

  6. Darwin says:

    Actually in regards to music: the translation in the standard Christian Prayer books is so un-musical I’m not sure one could pull off anything other than a rather basic psalm tone, and even that seems tricky.

    Does anyone actually sing the LotH according to our standard US translation? I know there are some versions intended for singing that use the Grail translation.

  7. Todd says:

    Organ demons? I took organ lessons years ago. I love playing and listening to a real pipe organ. More likely, I’m just taking a poke at people who swallow ecclesiastical statements made independently of the musical reality, heavy thumb or not.

    I’m not denying the reality of the thumb, only any sense of spiritual superiority based on consonance. I’m more than pleased to accept any number of instruments in the firmament of what is deemed spiritually fruitful.

    And yes, you’re right that the architectural setting for an instrument is also an important factor. I’d put it just behind the skill of the musician.

  8. Liam says:

    Fortunately or unfortunately, the ecclesiastical statements are at least as much a part of reality as the musical reality. Regardless of whether one swallows. Dems da breaks.

  9. talmida says:

    Darwin makes a good point about the 1963 Grail translation of the psalms in the standard Christian Prayer that the Catholic Book Publishing Co. of New York puts out. Reading them privately, it is often hard to hear the musicality. And the NAB translation of the canticles? Pah!

    I’ve just ordered the Benedictine Daily Prayer breviary compiled & edited by Maxwell E Johnson and the monks of St. John’s Abbey. It uses the 1983 inclusive language Grail translation of the Psalms, with which I am not familiar, and the NRSV for Scripture. Compare the NAB and the NRSV Morning and Evening Canticles – the NRSV keeps the best of the RSV poetry, in my opinion, and sings beautifully in my mind.

    I have no idea how the inclusive language Psalms will sound. I’m clinging to the hope that they can’t be worse than what I have now.

  10. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    May I make a delayed contribution to this thread. Since I live out here in the Far East my own experience with singing/chanting the office in English goes back more years than I dare to mention, or to experience when home on holiday.
    Now over thirty years ago I spent sometime on retreat at a Trappist Abbey, chanting of the office was accompanied by a guitar player. In the austere context of the abbey church, the simple melody provided just the right level of support for the strong masculine voices of the monks. At 4:30 in the morning, any more music would have seemed intrusive. The Office of Readings, chanted before dawn, became my favourite office, and I ended up staying a fortnight rather than just a week as originally planned. Perfect preparation before Priestly Ordination.
    I was also able on various occasions, during homeleave or temporary reassignment, to join in the Liturgy of the Hours at a Benedictine Abbey and a Carmelite Monastery, and I once visit an Anglican community of Benedictine Nuns. On all occasions the accompaniement was an organ or similar instrument, but played in a very restrained manner when accompanying the psalms. The English Benedictine have been blessed with some fine musicians, includng one, now deceased, who was brought up as an Anglican, and was an organist in at least one Anglican Cathedral before his conversion. His influence, which spread throughout both Catholic and Anglican, Benedictine and Trappist communities, saw wide use of psalm tones drawn from the Anglican musical tradition. He was also senior editor of a “monastic hymnal”, that is quite widely used through out the UK and Ireland.
    Here in Japan our edition of the Liturgy of the Hours was prepared with the understanding that it would be sung/chanted. The editorial team included musicians, and the melodies used were ‘tested’ in a various communities befoe they found their present form. While the melodies, and there are a basic set of just over half a dozen, while arranged for units of three or for lines of a psalms, are easily adaptable for longer verses. They are written with the organ in mind, but can be sang virtually a cappella, once the opening tone is set, be it by instruments as diverse as an organ, a guitar, or even a flute. Here at the seminary, with a shifting student population, and one drawn from across Asia and beyond, our seminarian pick up the melodies very quickly, and often, for those coming from overseas, are able to join in the Liturgy of the Hours before they finish language studies.
    One lesson I have learnt however from living in a cross-cultural and/or multi-cultural setting, is that languages and cultures give birth to their own rhythmns and melodies. Languages, and the songs sang in those languages, give birth to their own musical traditions. Indian liturgical music, in whichever language of that sub-continent it is sung, is best accompanied by Indian musical intruments, similarly for other Asian countries, and of course for Africa and Latin America. As a young colleague, who was on homeleave from Kenya, remarked recently, if you want to sing in Swahili then you have to have drums. And no Kenyan will stand still during the Eucharist once the music starts.
    My own standard would be a melody that can be sung from memory once learnt, and one that leads to prayerful, meditative reflection on the words sung. The psalms, as the Word of God, work best when they find a home, find an echo in the hearts of those who pray them. Anything that takes away or fails to serve this object should be avoided.

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