In every issue for the past eleven years, Reformed Worship has included a set of "Songs for the Season," formerly called "Hymn of the Month." The criteria for selecting those songs include choosing something accessible to children, something old and something new, something based on a psalm, and something fitting for the particular season of the Christian year.
Of all those criteria, the song based on a psalm has had the hardest time finding its way onto the pages of Reformed Worship. A group whose tradition was once known for exclusive psalmody, churches in the Reformed tradition have work to do to catch up with many of their ecumenical brothers and sisters when it comes to singing the psalms!
So for this issue dealing with "Choosing Music for Worship," I thought of a radical idea: choosing all psalms! In doing so, we can still find songs accessible to children, with new and fresh sounds, and fitting for different parts of the liturgical calendar. We can even do more: sing settings of the psalms that have come from different parts of the world.
The three psalm settings I selected provide just a small introduction to the wealth of the Psalms—this book of prayer that God has given the church and that the people of God can return in prayers raised out of their own times and places and circumstances.
The following commentary was adapted from the forthcoming Psalter Hymnal Handbook. John Stek, retired professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary and chair of the International Bible Translation Committee, prepared the textual commentary; Pamela Ruiter- Feenstra, professor of music at Eastern Michigan University, prepared the music notes.
How Long Will You Forget Me, LORD
An anguished prayer asking God to restore the psalmist from aprolonged, serious illness that encour-ages enemies to gloat over the prospect of his death.
Text: This lament appears to rise from a time of serious illness that could lead to death (v. 3). In singing these words, we take on our lips the prayer of an anguished, impatient psalmist who has waited long for God to restore health and vigor and thus deliver him from the gloating of his enemies (st. 1), and who prays for restoration lest death come and the enemies triumph (st. 2). In closing, we profess confidence in God's restoring power and vow to praise the LORD for his goodness (st. 3). Marie J. Post versified Psalm 13 in 1982 for the Psalter Hymnal.
st. 1 = vv. 1-2
st. 2 = vv. 3-4
st. 3 = vv. 5-6
Tune: J. T. White composed the tune THE CHURCH'S DESOLATION in 1844 for The Sacred Harp (1844), edited by B. F. White and E. J. King. There it became a setting for the text "Well May Thy Servants Mourn, My God, the Church's Desolation." Suitably plaintive for the text, this tune is reminiscent of other white spirituals from the southeastern United States. The melody was originally in the tenor and set to shape notes, an alternative style of tune writing used in several nineteenth-century tune books, such as The Sacred Harp. The four shapes were each set to distinct pitches to help people learn to sight-read by the shape of the notes. The setting of Psalm 13 omitted the repeat of the first line to fit the tune to the text for Psalm 13. Dale Grotenhuis harmonized the tune in 1986 for the Psalter Hymnal.
half note = 72
Liturgical Use: Times when God's people are weakened by sickness or other distresses, and opposing forces gloat over their vulnerability.
This lament psalm is the center of the preceding service of lament (p. 27) and is also discussed on page 24 with a suggestion for interwoven prayers from the psalm. When praying out of painful circumstances, consider the following structure for prayer. Two sets of ideas are provided, one totally unaccompanied, the other using the little prelude by Jan Overduin, which could also be used to link the stanzas.
Introduction: A solo instrument, perhaps a saxophone, plays the melody alone. Or use the organ introduction, perhaps using a reed stop on the organ for the left-hand melody.
Stanza 1: Sung unaccompanied by a male soloist, not necessarily standing in front, but perhaps miked from the back. The lament should not attempt to dramatize the text; the folk melody in and of itself will carry the appropriate depth of emotion, so sing it in good folk fashion, with stur-diness and strength, even with an edge of anger, rather than from a beaten-down attitude. Either sing completely unaccompanied or have the organ or another instrument play the first two-and-a-half measures of the right-hand part, dropping out when the soloist begins singing.
Stanza 2: Sung unaccompanied by the choir from the hymnal version, either all in harmony as written, or—for a low lament and closer to the original—place the tenors on the melody, the altos on the tenor line, and the sopranos on the alto line. One or two basses could join the melody to make sure it comes through; the rest of the basses stay on their line. Again, sing with strength.
Stanza 3: Sing twice; the first time the congregation and choir should sing in unison (either unaccompanied or with organ support); then repeat in canon, with the choir following the congregation after one measure. For an organ accompaniment to the canon, use the ostinato bass provided by Jan Overduin and simply trill on a high G and A in the right hand.
To You, O Lord, I Lift My Soul
For another way to sing the psalms, many congregations are returning to the ancient practice of "responsorial psalmody," similar to responsive reading but including the voice of the people in song. Responsorial psalmody—repeating short memorable refrains that capture the core idea of the psalm after reading sections of the psalm—has become very popular around the world. This ancient practice dates back to the Old Testament, when the priests may have chanted the psalm text and invited the people to respond with alleluias and amens. Psalm 136 is the clearest example of responsorial structure.
This setting of Psalm 25 (found also in Songs for LIFE) was composed by Marty Haugen, well-known composer of much new contemporary music for the church. Here are several ideas for singing this setting of Psalm 25.
If you have a choir, just give them a chord and let them sing the psalm as an introduction rather than having the organ play the tune through first. If the choir stands near the front, the director should first direct the choir, accompanied by keyboard, and then turn, without missing a beat, and direct the congregation, perhaps with the added accompaniment in a duet fashion. The chordal style would be best played on the organ, and the more active rhythmic setting on piano.
Then have someone read the first section of text, followed by everyone singing the refrain again. There is no need for a keyboard introduction; the time is short enough to remember the pitch. The organist can simply start playing, and if the choir or worship leader begins right away as well, the congregation will have no trouble entering. There is no need to place the entire psalm text in the bulletin either; simply the refrain will be enough, though the choir and worship leaders should have the entire page.
Using one reader will be the simplest. But also consider having two or even four different readers. Experiment with having them stand in different parts of the congregation without mikes, if the acoustics will permit them to be heard easily.
An alternate approach is to involve the children of the congregation instead of or in addition to the choir. A few weeks before singing this psalm, teach the refrain along with signing motions to the children in church school. Then on the Sunday you sing it together, invite them forward to lead the congregation. Perhaps the entire congregation will want to learn the signs to the simple refrain of this profound prayer. Consider using Psalm 25 as a call to confession or a response to another passage of Scripture.
La Palabra Del Senor Es Recta
Righteous and Just Is the Word of the Lord
Psalm 33 is a rich psalm of praise that is neatly structured into an invitation (w. 1-3), two eight-verse sections of praise to the Lord (w. 4-11 and 12-19), and a concluding response of trust. The invitation ends, "Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy" (v. 3), which appropriately leads right into the first praise section, the text of this song. We sing to our Creator, the God of purpose and power who not only created the earth but will complete all his plans for it.
One way to sing this psalm would be to have the congregation responsively read the opening and the concluding sections, and sing this one middle section. For the bulletin, type out the text for the responsive reading and the stanzas that the choir will sing; include only the music of the refrain. The text has many liturgical possiblities—as opening praise or as a response of joy after the proclamation of the Word.
This setting of Psalm 33 was composed by Juan Luis Garcia, who was born in Cuba in 1935 and since 1962 has served a number of Catholic parishes in Miami, Florida. The Cuban-style melody features two-against-three rhythms. The main part of the phrases swings along in a duple pattern of six-eight rhythms, and most phrases end with a triple pattern of quarter notes. Not only the rhythm shifts; even the mode changes from minor to major.
To teach the melody, begin with the choir and have them first repeat phrases you sing for them without letting them look at the music. It's easier to sing this one by ear than by eye! Choose a tempo that permits the words to come through without "crowding" them; then settle into that tempo with a good swinging rhythm.
Let the choir or a small ensemble enjoy learning this song and singing it by themselves the first time in worship. Sing throughout in unison or in two parts on the parallel thirds so characteristic of Hispanic music. The repetitions in the melody also invite groups of men and women to sing alternate phrases. A week or two later, sing it again, inviting the congregation to join on the refrain, but keep the choir or solo voices on the stanzas.
For a prelude, try having two trumpeters on the upper voices and bass guitar on the bass line, with other guitar(s) providing the harmony. Piano would also be appropriate, but avoid the organ for this one. Add castenets and woodblocks on repetitions of the refrain. (You may want to repeat the above as a postlude to the service.) Before long, you will all want to start moving as well!