Psalmody in Contemporary Worship Resources


Psalm 150 "Praise ye the Lord" Block print by Charles Knowles. In The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles (New York: The Viking Press and Pinnacle Press, Inc. 1959, 1962).

©2001 by Elizabeth Liebert
San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, CA  94960

Note:  This essay introduces An Index of Psalm Hymns found on this web site.

In order to further facilitate psalm-singing, an extensive list of psalms and psalm-based hymns in several readily available hymnals appears in An Index of Psalm Hymns on this web-site.  This list includes hymn settings or psalm tones for almost all 150 psalms, though none of the hymnals actually sets every psalm to music.  However, two readily available resources do so.  The original Grail/Gelineau psalms is still in print (Carroll 1963) and these settings are easy to appropriate both for individual and congregational singing.  The International Commission on English in the Liturgy has completed a fresh, vivid, translation and accompanying musical settings for the entire psalter.  It is available in full music edition as well as an attractive volume of pointed psalms (Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer 1995).

In compiling the Index of Psalm Hymns, I looked for settings where the text is clearly a psalm or a paraphrase identified as a psalm.  However, I soon discovered that the allusions could be quite general, and sometimes the New Testament allusions were much more obvious than the psalm allusions.  These settings were "judgment calls;" sometimes I included them, other times not.  Sometimes a hymn was based on more than one psalm; generally I listed it under one psalm, though the choice of psalm was, again, a matter of judgment.  I have included several examples of psalm-hymns with a marked Christological focus; these are marked with an asterisk.  A few of Isaac Watts's Christianized psalm-hymns are also included, but for the most part, I omitted them because they "feel" much more like general Christian hymnody than psalm-hymnody—as indeed has been Watts's legacy.

The process of  constructing this Index yielded several important conclusions.  First, the spirituality of a tradition is clearly mirrored and articulated in its hymnody.  Several instances stand out; here  I will treat Anglican, Roman Catholic and African American hymnody.

In the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, plainsong and metered hymnody exist side-by-side, illustrating both the catholic and reformed strands in Anglican spirituality.  Everyone has access to the psalms, though not necessarily sung, because the entire psalter (unpointed) is included in the Book of Common Prayer.  Much early metered psalmody was "unofficially" attached to early versions of the Book of Common Prayer (Holladay 1993, 210), so the association of psalmody and hymnody is almost as old as the Book of Common Prayer itself.

Roman Catholicism has maintained two distinct traditions of singing the psalms, both unmetered (and in recent years adopted metered psalmody from the Protestant traditions, as well).  In certain religious orders which recite the Divine Office, the tradition of singing full, unedited psalms has continued unbroken for hundreds of years, and, since Vatican II, has gradually spread to include more of the laity.  In the Eucharist, the response to the first Scripture reading is always a psalm, but here it is a selection of three or four verses with an antiphon-refrain.  This second version is the way most lay Catholics encounter the psalms week after week.  The need for fresh settings for responsorial psalms has stimulated much contemporary psalm composition, resulting usually in a refrain with the three or four verses which the lectionary specifies for the responsorial psalm.  The two emphases are reflected in two widely used Roman Catholic hymnals;  Worship III has pointed settings for the psalms of the Divine Office, while Gather and Glory and Praise have the responsorial psalms for the Eucharist.  Needless to say, the lectionary selections have interpreted the psalms both by stress and omission.  A full diet will include the psalms in their entirety.

The third example relates to African American spirituals.  This body of traditional material echoes the psalms in many respects.  Both the psalms and the spirituals are poetic pilgrimage songs of faith.  Both bodies of religious poetic song evolved orally, the actual authors anonymous.  They share similar notions of God, corporate personality, language and the wholeness of life.  Teaching occurs in both sung traditions.  Both embody the whole human spectrum of emotions.  The voices of sufferers suffuse the language of the spirituals and the psalms, and indeed, the spirituals often follow the same general movement as lament psalms:  invocation, complaint, petition and conclusion (Kirk-Duggan 1997,62-70).  So we would be hard put to separate the spirituals from the psalms in any rigid manner.  Indeed, in a very real sense, the singers of the spirituals are psalmists in the original sense of that word; they create poetic sung prayer. 

Still, the link between the spirituals and the text of the psalms is seldom explicit.  The memory of African religions was still very much present in the community during the time that the spirituals were developing, so that appropriation of Scriptures, including psalms, was much more gradual than we might assume.  Also, access to the Christian scriptures, including the psalms, would have been aural/oral in a community forbidden for most of that period to read the text for themselves.  The term "spiritual" is also somewhat misleading:  what is now called a "spiritual" is more properly African American folk song composed in slavery which uses Biblical imagery.  All music in Africa was spiritual, and the slaves were simply continuing the African tradition of singing to accompany work and other daily activities, never separating the "secular" from the religious.  The symbols of Christianity suited the poetic needs of these early African American folk composers (Jones 1993, 7, 9).  The tradition that created the spirituals engaged the Biblical imagery with the experience of slavery and created a new fusion of the realities expressed otherwise in the Biblical canon.  In working with one African American hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing II (1993), it was striking that the hymnal's biblical references to the psalms did not include any African American spirituals.

The task of choosing the psalm-based hymnody also reinforced the conviction that the psalms range so broadly over the human experience of prayer and life that virtually everything can be included.  This scope came home through in the immense range of allusions that were attributed to the psalms in the various hymnals.  Indeed, the cadence and images of the psalms suffuse much explicitly Christian prayer.  The psalms are, inevitably, Christian prayer, whatever else they may also be to the community which produced them.

The third observation from the psalm-hymn selection centered around the strengths and limitations of the metered psalm settings.  These hymns often pick out specific aspects of the psalm and expand them, much as we might do in lectio divina.  This strength may also serve as a limitation, however, from the perspective of the entire psalm.  The entire psalm may engage several different religious sensibilities--indeed, laments frequently end in praise and praise psalms frequently begin by relating the lamentable situation that God has transformed.  The psalm-hymn frequently remains with one or other of these religious sentiments (usually the praise) and allows us to let the other slip out of our consciousness.  Sometimes it is the very juxtaposition of the sentiments and the movement between them that reveals the deep power of the psalms as poetic prayer.  In any case, metered psalm hymns are an interpretation of the psalms, analogous to the responsorial psalm, as indeed is every translation.

As the Index of Psalm Hymns reveals, resources for singing metered versions of psalms are found in most traditional hymnals. But resources for singing unmetered psalms are also surprisingly available.  Many recent hymnals, including Worship III (1986, Roman Catholic), the United Methodist Hymnal(1989), the New Century Hymnal (1995,UCC) and the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and its companion volume With One Voice (1995) offer most of the psalms in a pointed format, that is, marked for singing to standard psalm-tones.  Worship III, the New Century Hymnal and the United Methodist Hymnal also include one or two antiphons to accompany the psalms.

Consistent with its tradition of metered psalmody, the Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) contains mostly metered psalms.  The unmetered psalms pointed for singing occur in more specialized resources, The Book of Common Worship (1993)and The Psalter:  Psalms and Canticles for Singing (1993), neither of which typically sits in the pews of Presbyterian churches.  However, the Daily Prayer section of the Book of Common Worship has been published as a separate small volume, especially designed for individual and congregational daily praying of the psalms; in this format it is available to all. 

A brief word about how this system of pointing works may encourage you to sing the psalms in this style.  The principle is simple.  A straightforward melody (tone) of 2, 3, or 4 sections is provided, consisting of dark and open notes.  The dark notes each receive one syllable, the open notes receive all the syllables which occur until the next point (mark), which may be a dot, an accent mark or an underline, depending on the particular resource you are using.  When your reach that syllable, you simply match it to the next black note.  Continue matching black notes to single syllables and open notes to all the rest of the verses.  All the syllables and words that are sung to the open note take the rhythm and stress of ordinary speech--hence "unmetered."  The introductory pages to the psalter section will generally have more extensive directions.  Once you get the feel for the rhythm and placement and learn a few simple tunes, you are free to sing the entire psalter.  Groups that have neither sung it nor even heard such psalm-singing can learn it in as little as fifteen minutes.  A more extensive explanation can be found in  John Endres and Elizabeth Liebert, A Retreat With the Psalms:  Resources for Personal and Communal Prayer (New York:  Paulist Press, 2001), Chapter 2.

Works Cited

Book of Common Prayer.  1979.  New York:  Church Hymnal Corporation.

Book of Common Worship.  1993.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.

Book of Common Worship:  Daily Prayer.  1993.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.

Carroll, J. Robert, ed.  1963.  The Grail/Gelineau Psalter:  150 Psalms and 18 Canticles.  Chicago:  G.I.A. Publications.

Gather:  Comprehensive.  1994.  Chicago:  G.I.A. Publications.

Glory and Praise.  Second Edition.  1997.  Portland, OR:  OCP Publications.

Holladay, William L. 1993. The Psalms through Three Thousand Years:  Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses.  Minneapolis:  Fortress.

Hymnal 1982.  New York:  Church Hymnal Corporation.

Jones, Arthur C.  Wade in the Water:  The Wisdom of the Spirituals.  1993.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis.

Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl A.  Exorcizing Evil:  A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals.  1997.  Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis.

Lift Every Voice and Sing II:  An African American Hymnal.  1993. New York:  Church Hymnal Corporation.

Lutheran Book of Worship.  1978.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg.

New  Century Hymnal.  1995.  Cleveland:  The Pilgrim Press.

The Prebyterian Hymnal:  Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs.  1990.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.

Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer.  1995.  Chicago:  Liturgy Training Publications.

The Psalter:  Psalms and Canticles for Singing.  1993.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.

United Methodist Hymnal.  1989.  Nashville:  United Methodist Publishing House.

With One Voice:  A Lutheran Resource for Worship.  1995.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg.

Worship:  A Hymnal and Service Book for Roman Catholics.  Third. Edition.  1986.  Chicago:  G.I.A. Publications.

(Rev. June, 2001)

Back to A Retreat with the Psalms