Post-Conciliar Psalmody, Part 2


How did singer-songwriters compose songs in the 1970s? Noodle a bit on the guitar or piano, then add the words in later. It was kind of an impressionistic thing with that method: see what mood hits and try to fit the words.

The Dameans - Remember Your Love - Vinyl Record - 7350One problem for liturgy is that the texts of the Psalms for Mass don’t easily fit into metered music. If a musician wanted to make life a bit easier for the singer, stanza two would have to be retrofitted to align mostly with stanza one. And so on. And since the Missal permitted this, most composers took the option.

Contemporary musicians had been writing psalm settings–often paraphrases–since the early post-conciliar days. But I’m not aware of any collection mostly dedicated to Psalms until the Dameans’ 1978 collection.

Their approach aligned with something even more basic than common responsorial psalms–the common refrains listed in the Lectionary (#173) This table is from Felix Just’s website:

The Dameans hit most of these. Some of their songs utilize texts outside of the Psalter (likely the “songs” portion). Even those with the given refrain. The composers weren’t always faithful to the wording of those refrains either–which is something of a mystery to me as there’s no real reason not to compose to suit these texts.

Still, for parishes not singing the psalm this might have been a good step forward. Would a collection with word-for-word texts been helpful at this time? Doubtful. Many psalms, if not most of them, only get one turn every three years. A prolific composer like Alex Peloquin or Ted Marier can produce a body of work to stretch for a three-year Lectionary cycle. How long did they take to assemble a final collection? Year, I would surmise.

Maybe a consortium of composers could have tackled such a project, but the liturgical music groups of the late 70s and early 80s were not generally working units. Publishers likely didn’t see the need to push something like this, either. Bishops certainly not–there was more noise among leading church musicians of the 70s to produce a national hymnal. Even GIA with its organ/choir heavy tradition was emphasizing “hymns of the day” more than psalms. For Worship II and the People’s Mass Book, psalms looked like an afterthought. Sure, they were provided. Really creative musicians could do something with Joseph Gelineau’s and other settings to give them more life. But my psalm experiences at “organ Masses” were not edifying. At least at a monastery, there was the unison chanting of the Office Psalms.

Next up: Owen Alstott’s napkin.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Post-Conciliar Psalmody, Part 2

  1. Liam says:

    Marier’s first edition was published in 1975; the second in 1983. (This was not only the Psalter but the Ordo for sung Masses almost soup-to-nuts and hymnody.) I have choral/organ editions for both. (And a team has been working on updated versions of that Psalter with The Abbey Psalter texts since they were finally published, and they’re being road-tested in a good place….)

    • Liam says:

      Also, because the basic conception for verses was to use the plainchant tones of the Roman Rite (found, for example, in the Liber Usualis and, eventually, additional ones in the Graduale Simplex that was published after the Council), supplemented with certain polyphonic choral versifications based on works from the Prima Pratica era as well as through-composed works by Marier, the vision came first from the vocal line rather than vocal scaffolding from instrumental accompaniment. Starting with voice first yields materially different results. Someone spending years immersed in the practice of the plainchant tones would normally develop an improvisational ease that would help inspire appropriate melodies for antiphons, et cet.

      Boston by the time this work was being done not a rich archdiocese by comparison to its peers (it had land, but hardly as much coin, as it were; even its cathedral was next to a housing project in a relatively poor neighborhood that the former Yankee city fathers erected elevated rapid transit tracks that made quite a racket during Masses). It was not in a position to promote this local work far and wide, though the quality of the work was such that it gained admirers far and wide.

      • Liam says:

        PPS: a great virtue of sourcing being dominated by the plainchant tones is that familiarity develops quickly over time. A schola or cantor builds the repertoire in vocal bones, as it were, and the congregation becomes dialogically conversant. Once in repertoire, singers newly come to this style can be easily supported by veterans and quickly become one with the ensemble. (My experience is that, with immersion, singing largely off book – with occasional glances at the “notes” – becomes more natural; this enhances the development of ensemble singing.) The tones themselves are, of course, in public domain, part of the birthright heritage of Catholics and something that perhaps will inspire a new generation of like-minded liturgical composers setting the texts of The Abbey Psalter.

      • I remember the Abbey Psalter well from my visits to the Trappist monastery outside Geneseo NY.

      • Liam says:

        I should correct my reference: The Abbey Psalms and Canticles – the recently published official psalter translation.

  2. Liam says:

    PS: for readers unfamiliar with what I am describing, a typical example of this style of vernacular psalmody, go to the 19:10 mark on this link (understand that the schola has been operating with social distancing limitations on capacity, as well as masking), Psalm 33 for Trinity Sunday in Year B, set in Tone 7a:

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