Post-Conciliar Psalmody, Part 1

See the source imageYesterday’s discussion on Psalm 34, and taking care to watch the verses assigned for the Sunday Liturgy of the Word, got me thinking. How did Catholic church musicians start programming the psalms and how did we get to where we are now?

A few principles for starters … There is not some evil cabal at work seducing lay people away from the Real Presence or the authentic Word of God in the original Latin. Mostly, you have an ongoing implementation of Vatican II, and a prioritization in the minds of bishops, leaders in music and liturgy, and the slow spreading influence of composers and liturgical centers. The Church in North America is still all over the map in terms of how it has implemented singing Psalms (very close to universal, at least at some parish Masses) but the quality ranges from poor compositions poorly done to the best thing you’ll hear at Mass.

My first exposure to the sung Psalm after the first reading was in my home parish as a boy. Our pastor was a known lover of music. The “musical” seminarian was usually assigned to us in his diaconate year. He would emerge from the sacristy and sing the missalette psalm. Maybe not the best liturgically, but I liked the music.

When I was active at the Newman Community at my university, the pastor wanted to implement a sung psalm at every Sunday Mass. Through my student years there, it had been intermittently done. The first suggestion was to have two settings to alternate, depending on the readings being “happy” or “sad.” My suggestion was to invite the new music person in the diocesan liturgy office to do a workshop for musicians and the liturgy committee. He suggested the seasonal psalms as a start and build from there.

One of our members knew Ken Meltz, who contributed unpublished Christmas and Lent psalms. One of my early efforts was used for Advent. One of our singers composed a very nice setting of Psalm 27 which was used for stretches of Ordinary Time.

I suspect these implementations were fairly typical of the liturgy-aware parishes of the 70s. Missalettes and hymnals were providing some music too, and I suspect organists were moving ahead without “musical seminarians” appearing from the sacristy. Liam would tell us of Ted Marier’s pioneering work, and certainly the old catalogues of GIA contain a number of psalm settings and collections from the very early post-Vatican II years. How much were these used in the 70s? Probably as often as a parish hired a degreed musician who also had an awareness of liturgy.

Next up: contemporary composers step up.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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