The Psalm I Wrote for the Papal Trip

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.

Download (PDF, 151KB)

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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.


  1. Wonderful news indeed, Father!


    Granted that I hardly understood much of what you’ve written about why you wrote it the way you did 🙂 I look forward to singing along to it while following the liturgy on the internet.

    PS — Does this mean you’ll now get to be one of the lucky ones who will meet and greet the Pope before or afterwards?

  2. The worship aid (p. 155) will have people chanting “teach me your statues” [sic] and “I take delight in your statues” [Michelangelo and others, please note!….]

    Anthony’s “sweeter” harmonizations with secondary 7ths, etc, fit right in with the tradition that I have used for many years, originally pioneered by Dom Laurence Bévenot. Bravo!

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      D F#m7 G6 F#m/A GM7/B D
      I- ii7- IV6 iii6 IV76 I

      “Sweeter” is a nice, nebulous attribution, Paul, though I haven’t a clue what is, in clinical terms, a “secondary 7th.”
      Yes, it is serviceable music and AWR is certainly entitled to qualify it as not high art or great music. And the following commentary, not meant to enflame AWR or the prevailing sentiment here, is that I have to call the question why “Catholic” modern composition and composers feel an obligation to couch their melodies and harmonic progressions using pentatonicism or simplistic harmonic progressions with tippy-toe compound chord coloration. Or they often default to Dorian mode chordal progressions most prominently in Em (Dorian/bVII.)
      I mean no dis, AWR, I commend your commission. But there has to be a loyal opposition to keep all of us, myself included, on our pointed toes, yes?

      1. @Charles Culbreth:
        I think Paul is using the term “secondary” like secondary dominants, and secondary 7ths do exist, at least according to some music theorists. However, I question whether it really applies in modal harmony. Also, those GM7 chords are in the original Meinrad organ harmonizations, not unique to Anthony’s work.

        I like the rich added tone chords – it’s nice. It’s true Gebrauchsmusik – really, how often would one have an accomplished SATB schola for midday prayer?

        Anthony, would you consider publishing alternate harmonizations, choral harmonies and descants for all the Meinrad tones? Then they could be applied to all sorts of situations in the Mass and offices.

      2. @Paul Inwood:
        I would probably label those GM7s IV7 rather than VII/V, because there are no diminished 7ths in this modal scale, and I generally go with the simpler label when relevant. But really, I’m not even aware if there is a standard labeling system for modal harmony. Sometimes the harmonic progressions are neo-tonal, I suppose.

      3. @Doug O’Neill:
        Yes, Doug, but in AWR’s schema there really (in the response) are no secondary dominants. Anthony has used plenty of compound sevenths, but you’ll have to school me on what and how a “secondary 7th” is and functions. Unless, we’re trifling over semantics, as a secondary dominant incorporates the diminished triad in the upper three pitches. It really doesn’t concern me, I’m truly happy for AWR. However, you reiterate my point by calling the setting “true Gebrauchsmusik,” which indeed it is. If you recall, that Hindemith-ian term was borrowed by Msgr. Mannion in his taxonomy 20 years ago, and he wasn’t very complimentary about its preceding “great music” within that hierarchy. Nor, might I add, do the conciliar documents call for “workable” as a standard. But I take your point about practical application (mid-day prayer), as I am philosophically inclined towards “best and brightest.”

      4. @Charles Culbreth:
        The term “secondary 7ths” would refer to chords built on the 7th scale degree, not compound seventh chords. A secondary 7th in tonal harmony would be a vii dim./V. I have rarely heard them called secondary 7ths, probably to avoid confusion. And in any case, that function does not seem to apply in modal harmony, only in tonal. A viidim/V in D major would have to be built on G-sharp. A chord built on G-natural is a IV chord. There are in fact no secondary 7th chords in this composition. There are, however, many IV7 chords!

        I see this piece in the same light as the historic falsobordones of psalm tones. I don’t know how one would label those – maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as they are of good quality.

      5. @Doug O’Neill:

        Disgreeing with both Doug and Charles.

        Secondary 7ths are 7th chords anwhere except on the dominant. This is standard terminology. They are minor 7ths on II, III, and VI, major 7ths on I and IV, and diminished 7ths on VII. Here is an extract from an English online harmony textbook:

        Only the Dominant 7th has the unique combination of intervals that make it ideal for suggesting/defining/confirming
        the key. But 7ths on all the remaining degrees of the scale, called secondary 7ths, are useful and interesting in their own right. Modern composers use them a great deal, as they give spice to otherwise bland progressions.

        This is as true of modern pop music as of liturgical music. Much pop music of the past 50 years is in fact modal rather than tonal, and secondary 7ths and 9ths abound.

        In “conventional” music, secondary 7ths and 9ths are very useful for disguising parallel octaves and 5ths.

  3. I feel proud and humbled at the same time being among such august company on this blog – Fr. Anthony, Paul Inwood, Fr. Michael Joncas and Tony Alonso – whose music was commissioned or chosen to be used for the Pope’s visit!! Inspirations all!!!!

  4. Fr. Ruff,
    As a member of the St Matthews Schola that has the honor of singing at the prayer service next week, I want to thank you for your composition. It is a beautiful setting and we’ve enjoyed learning it. I look forward to meeting you next week. Sincerely, Julianne Corley

  5. Doug O’Neill : @Charles Culbreth: There are in fact no secondary 7th chords in this composition. There are, however, many IV7 chords! I see this piece in the same light as the historic falsobordones of psalm tones. I don’t know how one would label those – maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as they are of good quality.

    Thanks, Doug, dat’s what I been sayin’! In my first post, perhaps I erred in wondering why we “fall-back” upon pentatonic structures and modal (Dorian) melodies which may have muddied the waters in examining AWR’s psalm, modality/tonality wasn’t part of that equation. Have a great weekend.

  6. This pleases me for a whole lot of reasons–congratulations!–not least because your name will be right there in the worship aid for all the bishops to see!

  7. Congratulations, Anthony, on your lucid composition in the first instance, and secondly, on having it selected for such an auspicious occasion! I hope Francis will find it inspirational. Bravo!

  8. The danger of discussing music theory online is that every person learned from a different textbook and teacher. Not only is nomenclature in question, but function itself!

    @Paul Inwood, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of non-dominant sevenths referred to as “secondary,” particularly because it would lump all non-V chords into one group, which textbooks in my experience would avoid. That said, the dominant having such a distinct function, I’d say that what is labeled by “secondary 7ths,” even if that name risks slippage to functional implications, is a good thing to consider as a group. I’ve always loved putting sevenths on chords, especially when it doesn’t affect the function.

    @Fr. Ruff, analyzing the piece in question, I really appreciate the avoidance of V-I, which seems to be one of the biggest no-nos in modal accompaniment (since it is such a tonal event). Schenker would have a field day with this ;), but he also dislike Palestrina for similar reasons. Good company!

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