Responsorial Psalms, Inflected
text adapted from the St. Helena Psalter
music by Thomas Lloyd
Psalms 78, 99, 105, 106, 139
One of the most common ways of singing the psalms liturgically is by having the congregation repeat a simple antiphon or refrain in between verses sung by a solo cantor sing the verses. In this manner the cantor usually sings the verses by using the same simple psalm tone formula for each verse.
As a student in seminary (Yale/Berkeley), I was often asked to lead responsorial psalms. It was there, under the guidance of Henri Nouwen and others, that I began to improvise the singing of the verses rather than using a psalm tone formula. The idea was to bring to the psalm more of a sense of immediate prayerfulness and spontaneity; to make the recitation of the psalm less a matter of rote but without drawing attention to the singing itself.
While never recording or writing down these improvisations (which seemed to me then would violate the whole spirit of the practice!) certain modal patterns and tendencies began to develop that kept the improvisations within certain bounds of expressivity while allowing inflection of the many nuances of these ancient prayers.
As director of music at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, I wanted my gifted choral scholars to take turns leading the psalms in this way, but improvisation was not comfortable at first. So I began to “compose” settings of the verses as well as the antiphons in the style I had come to use for improvisation.
The collection following includes the first of these attempts at notated improvisation. The simple manner of notation using unmetered long and short noteheads without stems or beams is meant to encourage the singing to flow according to the natural inflection of the of the words. I would encourage cantors to bring their own musicality to the singing rather than feeling bound to seeking a “correct” interpretation. In fact, nothing would please me more than to inspire others to improvise their own style of inflected psalm chanting in the spirit of these examples.
The texts are adapted from the St. Helena Psalter. The sisters have done a beautiful job of conjuring translations of the psalms and breviary that manage to both be gender-inclusive and naturally poetic. Their inspired renditions are a blessing to us all.
- TL October 2017