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CNP Feedback - An Easier Psalm?

Q. Dear CNP:

I use your web site to help me with my liturgical planning each week. Thank you for this valuable resource!

Can you tell me what the GIRM says about the responsorial psalms? Our cantors have very limited musical ability. When we can't find a psalm setting they can handle (such as Psalm 110 on Corpus Christi), is it more acceptable to sing another psalm, or to recite the proper psalm for the day?

To Singer Not

A. Dear Singer:

Thank you for your kind words about the CanticaNOVA Publications website.

In response to your question about the Responsorial Psalm, it is always better to sing some version of the psalm rather than recite it. The psalms are songs of the Old Testament, the hymnal of the Bible. It would make as much sense to recite the Responsorial Psalm as to recite the Entrance Song (e.g. "Praise to the Lord, the almighty, the King of creation; O my soul, praise him for he is ...").

The Church meticulously matches a Responsorial Psalm with the First Reading for every liturgy in the year. The best option is to sing this psalm, since it amplifies some theme found in the reading to which it is used as a "response." There are obviously many volumes of psalm settings available, some from CNP, which follow the three-year cycle. Some of these, as you indicate, may be more difficult than your cantors can handle. There are other options for singing the prescribed text, though. Using a simple, repeated psalm tone is a way to chant the psalm without taxing the musical competence of the cantor or the congregation.

  1. The Gregorian psalm tones are simple and relatively familiar patterns that can be used to chant the psalms. Here are two (unfortunately, complicated) webpages with examples of the psalm tones:
    Using the tones is not as difficult as these pages make it. If you send a self-addressed, stamped envelope [letter size] to CanticaNOVA Publications, PO Box 1388, Charles Town, WV 25414-7388, I'll be happy to send a more "user-friendly" version of the music.
  2. There are other psalm tones, like the Meinrad tones, which are particularly suited to English text [see Saint Meinrad Archabbey]. The CNP book, Universal Music for Evening Prayer, contains Meinrad-style psalm tone chants and instructions for their use.
  3. Anglican chant can also be used quite effectively to set English text. Many examples can be found in an Episcopal hymnal.

With any of the three options above (or others) one can set any text to music. The congregational refrain is matched to the chant tone; the verses likewise are "pointed" to indicate where the changes from the "reciting tone" occur.

There is, however, another recourse, if the Responsorial Psalm setting for a particular liturgy is too difficult. One has the option of substituting a "common" Responsorial Psalm for any of the specific psalms in the Lectionary. The Church gives us one or more common (or "general") Responsorial Psalms for each season:

  • Advent:   Psalm 25 or Psalm 85
  • Christmastide:   Psalm 98
  • Epiphany:  Psalm 72
  • Lent:   Psalm 51 or Psalm 91 or Psalm 130
  • Holy Week:   Psalm 22
  • Easter Vigil:   Psalm 136
  • Eastertide:   Psalm 118 or Psalm 66
  • Ascension: Psalm 47
  • Pentecost:   Psalm 104
  • Ordinary Time:   Psalm 19 or Psalm 27 or Psalm 34 or Psalm 63 or Psalm 95 or Psalm 100 or Psalm 103 or Psalm 145
  • Last Weeks in Ordinary Time:  Psalm 122

Most publishers offer settings of these Common Responsorial Psalms in the same books as the specific psalms. Once these common psalms are learned, they can easily replace difficult specific psalms.

For example, for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ [Corpus Christi], one might replace Psalm 110 with a setting of the common psalm for Ordinary Time, Psalm 34, with its refrain, "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord."

We can sing the specific psalm using a simple psalm tone or we can replace a specific psalm with a common psalm. What we should not do is recite a psalm (since it's really a hymn), and what we cannot ever do, is replace an approved translation of one of the Responsorial Psalms in the Lectionary with a paraphrase by a contemporary composer. For example, "Shepherd Me, O God," by Marty Haugen, is not an approved translation of Psalm 23 and may not be used as the Responsorial Psalm ... ever!

I hope this is helpful in your quest to "sing psalms to our God with melodious song" [Psalm 98:5].

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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