I was invited to submit a psalm setting for Midday Prayer which Pope Francis will pray with the Catholic bishops of the United States next Wednesday, September 23, in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, and my setting was selected for use. It is a setting in English chant for use with a St. Meinrad psalm tone, for congregation with a bit of choral elaboration. Perhaps Pray Tell readers will enjoy my reflections about how I came to write it as I did and what my goals were.
This is the first of three psalms of the office, following immediately after the hymn. I suppose you could say that the aesthetic of my piece is “reformed monastic,” reflecting my experience at St. John’s Abbey where the Office is in English and laity join in fully with the monks. I wanted something “prayerful,” to use a loaded term, in free rhythm and without any distracting grandiosity or triumphalism. The accompaniment is broadly in the spirit of the many published chant accompaniments of the last century or so, but perhaps just a bit “softer” or “sweeter,” or perhaps “American,” than many accompaniments of Latin chant. (I’m thinking here of my use of major-seventh and minor-seventh chords.)
I wrote it with just melody and descants (tenors on vs. 3, sopranos on doxology and final refrain). I wanted it to remain simple and I thought that would be “enough”. But the planners pushed me to give more to the choir, so I inserted the imitative choral elaboration after the last psalm verse and before the final antiphon. It anticipates the final antiphon in its melodic motives. The harmonies are perhaps just a bit reminiscent of Richard Proulx, but not quite as spicy as he was on his “Frenchy” days.
I don’t claim that the piece is high art or great music, but I hope it is “functional” in the best sense. I’ve had enough experience of liturgical music in practice to know the various ways things can go off the rails, so I composed so as to forestall disaster if possible. If the inserted choral bit began its imitative polyphony with the opening melodic material of the antiphon, the danger would be that the whole congregation would come in, thinking this was for everyone. So the choir beings with a motive from the middle of the refrain. Then, after that motive has worked through, the opening material comes in the bass, which I hope will remind the congregation of the beginning of the melody they are to sing. The last note of the sopranos is not just a flamboyant ending, it also is meant to give the starting pitch A to the congregation clearly for their singing of the final refrain. I hope the modest choral flamboyance of this setting soars in a way that lifts the spirits of the entire congregation without calling undue attention to the musicians (or composer!).
I’m thrilled that the abbot gave me permission to fly to DC to be present for this liturgy. (Our seminary rector and all our monk seminarians are gone all next week as they make the long trip to DC by bus to be with the pope. I have teaching duties so I’m not able to ride with the “Monks on the Bus.”) I look forward to praying with our bishops and with Pope Francis next week.
Antiphon text © 1974, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc, and psalm text © 1963, The Grail, administered by GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Psalm tone © St. Meinrad Archabbey under aCreative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Musical setting © 2015, Saint John’s Abbey. All rights reserved.