Non Solum: Psalms Sung to Hymn Tunes

A reader recently wrote to me about the practice of setting psalms to common hymn tunes. Many of us have become accustom to hearing the psalms sung to the Gelineau tones, Conception Abbey tones, or other tones. There is also the practice of through-composed verses of the psalms. But the permission allowing for the setting of psalms to hymn tunes appears to be ambiguous. This was even brought up by Pray Tell in mid-2011.

The question hinges on the interpretation of GIRM, par. 61:

In the dioceses of the United States of America, the following may also be sung in place of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary for Mass: either the proper or seasonal antiphon and Psalm from the Lectionary, as found either in the Roman Gradual or Simple Gradual or in another musical setting; or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of the psalms and antiphons, including psalms arranged in metrical form, providing that they have been approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the diocesan Bishop. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm.

The difficulty lies in the interpretation of “psalms arranged in metrical form” and their need to be “approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the diocesan Bishop.”

I am curious to hear how our readers, especially the wonderful musicians among us, interpret this passage and whether the USCCB has issued any guidance on this matter. The USCCB has historically been generous in its permission for non-official psalm texts to be set to music and sung during the liturgy. But does the same generosity extend to metrical arrangements of psalm texts?

I was first introduced to the practice of setting psalms to a common hymn tune in graduate school. This became a good practice for singing psalms at our prayer services when a cantor was not available. The book that we relied on to set our psalms to hymn tunes was A New Metrical Psalter by Christopher L. Webber. This resource provided the psalms texts that could then be matched up with Short Meter, Common Meter, and Long Meter tunes.

I must admit that I am a bit unsure of the practice. It always seemed to transfer the psalm text out of the realm of a reading and into the realm of hymnody. I am curious to here the opinion of those who have more experience in this area.

But this also brings me to some general questions about the way in which your community handles the proclamation of the responsorial psalm.

What resources do you turn to for the responsorial psalm? How does your community sing the responsorial psalms? What creative practices has your community developed?

Please comment below.

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33 comments

  1. My usual principle in addressing matters of the responsorial psalm is to ask if the proposed treatment is something we could/would (should?) possibly do to the three other scriptural lections. Would we do a metrical version of Romans 8? Of the miraculous catch of fish in John 21? Why or why not? Why do we not sing hymns based on these texts in place of their proclamation? I say all this even though (or because) I know we don’t have PRECISELY the psalmists’ (or other scriptural authors) EXACT words since we use a translation that has been adapted for a Lectionary.
    Yes, I know the psalter texts originated as sung texts. But the musical accommodations often necessitate the interpolation of things that just aren’t in the psalm (the most notable being Baker’s addition of the cross to “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”). Even as laudable an effort as Webber’s (or the many fine psalm hymns the CRC has used in its hymnals) will often “corrupt” the psalm text. As someone who has attempted to do paraphrases of psalms and canticles, I know how the extra beats with no text or the extra text with no notes lead you to interpolate.
    I’m all for using hymn texts that are based upon, or elucidate, scriptural passages. But for the responsorial psalm of the liturgy of the word: if your assembly can sing a hymn, they can learn to sing a response, or even to chant a whole psalm text to a tone.

  2. Nathan, one place to start the discussion would be by reading an article at Corpus Christi Watershed:

    https://www.ccwatershed.org/blog/2015/mar/10/six-things-to-know-about-usccb-hymn-approval/

    What with some relatively well-known metrical psalm text adaptations by Dr. Tietze and Ms. Pluth among others, it seems to me that in certain locales, the horse has left the barn a long time ago on this issue. Because of the differences in interpretation of the processional propers from either the Missal or the Graduale, one might have to just fall back and rationalize that any and all settings of those are, in point of fact, Option Fours grandfathered in as Option Ones. In any case, this is nothing new, as my friend Todd often points out, as Deiss was doing this in the 60/70’s. I see much merit (Todd doesn’t) in these translations and settings that seem more coherent and complimentary to the proper lessons. I don’t see much value in deconstructing their value or licit-status. That would just create more noise among the few that care, one way or the other. And I wouldn’t hold one’s breath hoping that the USCCB/BCL is going to actively engage this issue. They’ve consistently dodged it, conference after conference. Ask Abp. Vigneron.

  3. The spirit of the law seems to be that if you change the text, except for merely adding repetition, you need permission.

    I can’t think of a situation where a meterical responsorial psalm would be preferrable.

  4. John Mann : I can’t think of a situation where a meterical responsorial psalm would be preferrable.

    Mr. Mann, I think there was some confusion. Neither Mr.Chase nor myself were speaking to using a metrical/strophic hymn setting for the responsorial. I believe we were discussing the processionals.
    Nathan’s comment:

    Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm.

    Mine:

    Because of the differences in interpretation of the processional propers from either the Missal or the Graduale, …

    1. We’re talking about the responsorial psalm. GIRM 61 concerns the RP.
      Nathan: “But this also brings me to some general questions about the way in which your community handles the proclamation of the responsorial psalm.
      What resources do you turn to for the responsorial psalm? How does your community sing the responsorial psalms?”

      I did miss that last sentence of GIRM 61 though. So the RP may be metrical but not a song or hymn. In my judgment, “songs or hymns” is just really bad shorthand for music not based on the text.

  5. I don’t mean to great deviate from the subject, but this is a bit related: do any Catholic Churches congregationally chant the psalm sort of in the style of a simplified Anglican Chant? (Lutherans do this as well). Is doing this and not a responsorial psalm allowed?

  6. Sorry, John, I missed that portion.
    I am unaware of any directors in CMAA who’ve ever opted for a strophic hymn (The King of Love, my shepherd is), or a paraphrased psalm (eg. “Shepherd me, O God) as a licit responsorial.
    Many even eschew the settings commonly found in the Big 3 hymnals’ PSALTER section.
    Some defend OCP Respond and Acclaim (but not Responde y Aclama) as utilitarian, and easily ornamented. Some say it’s “lipstick on a pig,” but I’m not in agreement with that. It appears that many have taken up the Lumen Christi Missal, The Parish Book of Psalms, Psallite, By Flowing Waters, etc.
    Many cantor/psalmists aren’t aware that it is just as licit to introduce the response, have it repeated and then have the soloist chant ALL the verses rather than stanza versicles.
    There is a substantial lobby for doing the gradual instead, led by Wm. Mahrt of CMAA, for reasons somewhat at odds with the conventional understanding of FCAP, the gradual verses with long melismas being conducive to reflection upon the first lesson, etc.
    OTOH, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are substantial parishes that simply insert any sacred song regardless of any/no relation to the RP of the day.

  7. This is an interesting discussion as to whether it would ever make sense to use a metrical psalm as the Responsorial Psalm of the Mass. The GIRM in the US allows for that, as I understand it.

    How about this situation? Tiny, tiny parish where this is absolutely no cantor to sing verses. And organist or piano player or guitarist can play things they already know but can’t really learn a new refrain each week for singing with verses recited by lector. But a metrical psalm to a well-known tune could be done by said organist/pianist/guitarist, everyone singing everything. Is this manner of singing preferable to reciting the entire psalm with lector leading? I tend to think it would be.

    awr

  8. In the example given by Fr. Ruff, the best solution might be the congregation learning one of the Meinrad tones and chanting both the antiphon and verses together to it. I’ve seen small congregations sing the LOH together from the Mundelein Psalter once they familiarized themselves with the tones. That particular congregation could stick to just one tone until they “got it down” – and then add another when ready.

    The problem with that community using metric hymn type Psalms is that it would require a near full-time commitment for a DM to sift through a dozen sources to find each Psalm, figure out the right tune for each season, etc. And somehow I don’t think this approach will become so popular that OCP would start publishing R&A Hymn Tune Edition.

    1. Matthew Meloche,
      I agree that organization of it presents practical problems, especially if the music person in a tiny parish has to become a scholar of metrical psalmody aware of all the resources. For this to work, the publisher (or bishops’ conference) would approve and put in one section of the hymnal the 15 or 25 metrical psalms, all to well-known or easily-learned tunes, and everything would be set.
      I would love it if small parishes could chant the psalm to a psalm tone. But this too would require lots of organization from some music director who probably does not exist in such a parish – who will pick the psalm tone, point it, lay it out and print it out??
      Also, as much as I like chanting to a psalm tone, in my experience tiny parishes struggle more with text-based recitation and do better on things with a regular meter and down-beat. The Snow Lord’s Prayer is a counter-example, but that’s the same text every time. Putting a new text to a psalm tone is tricky for congregations with very limited resources. And for the psalm tone to work you’d probably need a song leader or a few strong voices, and that may well not be available. But with one organist or pianist who can play a tune with accurate rhythm, the whole parish can join in and carry it.
      The venerable hymnal Hymns, Songs, and Spiritual Canticles of Theodore Marier (Boston Archdiocesan Choir School) provides the common responsorial psalms in meter precisely for the purpose I’m outlining.
      awr

  9. As I recall, when I lived in Belgium about a decade ago the University Parish that we usually attended only ever had two readings (OT & Gospel) and we sang a song between them that might or might not be a psalm paraphrase.

  10. I must admit that I am a bit unsure of the practice. It always seemed to transfer the psalm text out of the realm of a reading and into the realm of hymnody. I am curious to here the opinion of those who have more experience in this area.

    By definition and history, the psalms *are* songs/hymns. The scriptures do not include melodies, arrangements, and accompaniments, but they remain the musical prayer book of the Hebrew people, accepted as such by the Christian church as well. If there is a transfer here, it is the transfer of the musical psalm into the realm of a text that is read that is more problematic — at least for me.

    I share the thinking of John Mann @6 in his interpretation of GIRM 61. I read it to say “you can’t simply trade a musical piece that is unrelated to the psalm for the appointed psalm.” Having said that, however, this only sharpens the question at hand. It raises the issue of where one draws the line between (1) using a particular biblical translation of a specific psalm and setting it to music [e.g., a NJB translation set to music without alteration of the text], (2) a personal translation set to music, (3) a psalm paraphrase set to music, and (4) a personal text inspired by a given psalm set to music. The earlier options on the list impose the textual rhythms and language on the music, while the latter options allow more flexibility to blend the two or to let the music take precedence in shaping the presentation of the psalm.

    Within the more liturgically conservative branches of the reformation churches, the place of music was viewed with a certain amount of suspicion, and in some circles, the only proper singing was to sing the psalms. The Christian Reformed Church is one denomination that held this quite strictly until relatively recently, and their “Psalter Hymnal” provides many examples of psalm translations set to strophic hymn tunes.

    In hymnals that present hymn tune names, if you run across a tune name like “Old Hundreth,” it has its roots in hymnals like…

  11. As a general matter, no. That is, no to using metrical paraphrases of the responsorial psalm/canticle in that location of the liturgy. The practice has the effect of diminishing the Scriptural sign the RP offers – moreover, that the entire congregation participates in its proclamation.

    1. Karl Liam, can you say more? I’m not following what you wrote. A metrical psalm is from Scriptural and is a “Scriptural sign,” and the entire congregation does participate in its proclamation. ??
      awr

      1. A metrical psalm is a paraphrase of Scripture. As such, it has diluted sign value, and the degree of dilution will vary. It’s not something I would encourage use of in that place of the liturgy. It’s something that I would consider more at the margin of situationally acute (rather than chronic) needs.

        Now, I would *love* for the USCCB to commission (for $$$ as work for hire, something that US copyright practice has long recognized) a euphonious *public domain* (Creative Commons) set of metrical paraphrases of the psalms and scriptural canticles. But not for use as the Responsorial Psalm so much as to build a core of Psalter-based texts that congregations can encounter and embrace over a generation – ideally paired with well-known and well-used public domain tunes that congregations can sing on their own (if need be, without instrumental support) for entrance, offertory, communion and recessional hymns. The idea – which obviously has roots in Evangelical Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist) and Anglican worship practice – has never had much traction in the heavily Irish-inflected Catholic liturgical praxis in the US, which also has not had a lot of love for actual Roman practice either. (I would like to congregations grow more familiar with praxis in both directions in that regard.)

      2. Looking at the introduction to the 1650 Scottish Psalter there is a description of the rationale behind the translation. This is stated as being true to the Hebrew original. Some of the well known ones such as Psalm 23 which can be sung to the tune Crimmond among others is well known and the language is not out of place in the 21st Century. Others like Ps 113 (the first of the Hallel) is a bit odd in places.
        I leave it to others more expert than me to comment whether these metrical Psalms are indeed close to the originals or paraphrases and whether thay can be used in the liturgy.

  12. Its even tighter in England and Wales
    “Instead of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary, there may be sung either the Responsorial Gradual from the Graduale Romanum, or the Responsorial Psalm or the Alleluia Psalm from the Graduale Simplex, as described in these books.”
    Though is provision for Common seasonal psalms.
    However, if I had a pound for every time I have played Crimond as a responsorial psalm at a requiem, I would be typing this in Provence rather than in the chilly North of England.

  13. The Episcopal Church has a resource by Carl Daw and Kevin Hackett entitled “A Hymn Tune Psalter” which sets the antiphon to fragments of well known hymn tunes (mostly). The choir sings the verses in a simplified style of Anglican chant. The small Episcopal church I work for uses this resource with good results.

  14. I don’t have the originalist hangup of some scripture scholars who search for *the* authentic text; the LXX and Vg. are also just as truly Holy Writ, even if one wishes to fault them as translations. That said, in my mind there is a difference between a translator making “changes” he feels will better convey the meaning (when a slavishly literal reading would fail) and a composer altering the text for the sake of fidelity to a tune. If I am being presented a “Psalm,” then I expect to get the divinely breathed Word, not some “we know it’s not Scripture per se, but it’s close enough and we can sing it.”

  15. I only use metrical settings on rare occasions. The two that come to mind are Psalm 34/The Cry of the Poor by John Foley and Psalm 42/As the Deer Longs set to O Waly Waly. Cry of the Poor is an antiphon/verse setting, but people know and sing the verses in the manner of a liturgical song.

    On a related note, I have sadly quit using Gelineau psalms. Rare is the cantor who can grasp the concept of sprung rhythm to chant the verses, while most just butcher them even after instruction and rehearsal. I can’t stand to see them drug through the mud, so I gave up.

  16. Didn’t the Bay Colony Puritans (and perhaps their kin in England and the Netherlands) set rhyming couplets of the psalms to meter? I believe this was done to make memorization of the psalms easier. However, these compositions also greatly distorted the psalm text well beyond any Hebrew recension as well as Greek or Latin translations, even if the semantics of the psalms were preserved. Perhaps the history of this type of hymnody should be investigated. I am quite sure someone has written a dissertation on the topic.

    I do not see why the gradual or responsorial psalm must be sung. The introit, tract/verse, communion, and postcommunion are often recited by the celebrant. It is quite odd that the gradual or psalm has been taken away from the celebrant, as the other propers remain with him. However, I will not question this decision because it is against the intended progress of the reformed liturgy as well as non-egalitarian. However, why would anyone think that singing the psalm necessarily enhances a repetitive memory of the words of the psalm? It is the reflection on the manifold aesthetic and theological meaning of the psalm, and not necessarily its mode of delivery or mimetic value, which enriches the mind and soul.

  17. “What resources do you turn to for the responsorial psalm? How does your community sing the responsorial psalms? ”

    When I first became the director of music at St. Thomas (shortly after the Jurassic age), I began work immediately on the responsorial psalm. Since our hymnals had abysmal settings and we had no missalette, I began having the assembly sing the psalm from memory. I had rehearsal each week and we learned LOTS of psalms. Because we sang from memory, I drew from many resources, but I must confess to never having done a metrical setting as the responsorial psalm
    During this process, I have used The Gelineau Psalms, Psalms For The Church Year (all volumes), The Psalter in Gather Comprehensive, Cry Out With Joy, The Lyric Psalter and The Michael Joncas Psalter. They have all served our community well.

  18. I have, as of late, become very dissatisfied with the offerings of the Responsorial Psalms from the BIG 3 publishers. My issue is almost always the text. Whenever I encounter a paraphrase, it seems to me to be watered down because the melody has become more important than staying true to the text. Because of this we have made it a priority to compose all new settings which will become our Parish Psalter. I have recently finished a setting of Psalm 47 for the Solemnity Of The Ascension. The antiphon is based on the hymn tune: TRURO. Everyone seems very happy with the finished composition. It’s a big project, but our assembly is worth the hours and hours it is taking. And… they are singing the psalms well.

  19. Linda Reid During this process, I have used The Gelineau Psalms, Psalms For The Church Year (all volumes), The Psalter in Gather Comprehensive, Cry Out With Joy, The Lyric Psalter and The Michael Joncas Psalter. They have all served our community well.

    And there was I, thinking you were a Psallite aficionado! 😉

  20. Nathan, I am getting to this conversation late but I hope I have some information to offer.

    Monsignor Frederick R. McManus was the probable origin of the original permission to sing metrical versions of the psalms. It was he who, as executive secretary of the US Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, wrote the letter to the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy which won their approval by their decree of December 17, 1968:

    As a further alternative to (1) the singing of the psalm with its response in the Lectionary, (2) the gradual in the Roman Gradual, or (3) the responsorial or alleluia psalm in the Simple Gradual, the Conference of Bishops has approved the use of other collections of psalms and antiphons in English, as supplements to the Simple Gradual, including psalms arranged in responsorial form, metrical and similar versions of psalms, provided they are used in accordance with the principles of the Simple Gradual and are selected in harmony with the liturgical season, feast or occasion (decree confirmed by the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy, December 17, 1968).

    The choice of texts that are not from the psalter (permitted at the entrance, offertory and Communion) is not extended to the chants between the readings.

  21. Msgr. McManus and I spoke monthly for the ten years before his death about these and allied matters, as he helped me get permission from the BCL to use the ICEL translation of the Graduale Simplex, then tangled up in the inclusive language debacle.

    He said that the need in the early days was to get people singing the psalms, even in metrical translations, as the beginning of a sung vernacular liturgy. He admired the reformed churches who used only their psalter hymnals at worship.

  22. Ron Jones : I have, as of late, become very dissatisfied with the offerings of the Responsorial Psalms from the BIG 3 publishers. My issue is almost always the text. Whenever I encounter a paraphrase, it seems to me to be watered down because the melody has become more important than staying true to the text. Because of this we have made it a priority to compose all new settings which will become our Parish Psalter. I have recently finished a setting of Psalm 47 for the Solemnity Of The Ascension. The antiphon is based on the hymn tune: TRURO. Everyone seems very happy with the finished composition. It’s a big project, but our assembly is worth the hours and hours it is taking. And… they are singing the psalms well.

    This is a noble undertaking and I wish you well in it.

    But there are two collections of responsorial psalms you might look at from The Liturgical Press: By Flowing Waters: Chant for the Liturgy and Psallite. The former is approved for liturgical use by the USCCB CDW and the latter by the bishop of Saint Cloud, MN (thus giving it approval for use in the US).

    Both use real translations of the psalms and canticles and other biblical texts. Psalm 47 is beautifully set in both collections.

  23. So, it seems that it would be licit to sing “Joy to the World” as the psalm at Christmas Mass during the day, since it’s a paraphrase of part of Psalm 98. But advisable?

    1. The boundaries are blurry, but we should still make the effort to distinguish reasonably between loose paraphrases and psalms in meter. I think most would put “Joy to the World” in the first category, and thus it wouldn’t be permitted.

      In my dream world, the US bishops would approve the metrical psalm texts of the seasons responsorial psalms, and these would be part of the repertorium called for by Liturgiam authenticam for each country. This would help to set some boundaries and to certify which texts are close enough to the original to merit being approved metrical psalms.

      And for those place (the vast, vast majority) singing the proper responsorial psalm every week, the metrical psalms would be eminently usable as entrance or postcommunion hymn (when the metrical psalm isn’t the psalm of the day). These would be good texts to put on the lips of our peole.

      awr

  24. While I would not use a metrical paraphrase at my parish for the Resp. Psalm, I think Fr. Ruff’s idea above (approved metrical settings of the seasonal Psalms) would be a viable alternative in places with very limited resources, as well as being useful for Entrance/Communion. These would also be rather useful in parish celebrations of the LOH, as a hymn tune is easily “broken up” for antiphonal singing.

    As for high quality, accessible, and simple (but not simplistic!) settings of the appointed Responsorial Psalms, I have found both Psallite (Lit. Press) and Michel Guimont’s “Lectionary Psalms” (GIA) to be excellent. Why many of the flagship hardcover hymnals of the “Big 3” publishers don’t include settings of all the Sunday Responsorial Psalms, when they exist in their catalogue, is beyond me. (I’m lookin’ at you, Worship IV!)

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