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Chanting the Psalms 7

In “Psalters and Sourcebooks,” the sixth chapter of Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault gives a summary of some of the resources available for people who are serious about psalmody. Of course, the obvious place to start is with the Bible itself, but for those interested in chanting the psalms, not all translations are created equal! Many translations, while technically accurate and even beautiful, do not lend themselves to singing by casting the psalms in metrically straightforward verse that can support a simple tune.

In addition to standard Bible translations, there are a number of stand-alone psalters, of which two in particular should be noted:

  • The Book of Common Prayer contains a translation of the Psalms that easily lends itself to chanting. In fact, the text comes with a simple form of “pointing” or chant notation already provided.
  • The Grail Psalms were developed for Catholics when that church shifted from Latin to vernacular forms of liturgy. These translations “are straightforward both poetically and metrically, which makes them a good basic libretto” (63).

Although not mentioned by Bourgeault, a few years back I picked up Psalms for Praise and Worship by John Holbert, S. T. Kimbrough Jr., and Carlton R. Young (Abingdon, 1992). The translations are usually quite good, although probably more “politically correct” than some would appreciate. The beauty of the book for me is its extensive collection of responses—127 of them—some of which are drawn from traditional Protestant hymnody. (We’ll get around to psalm responses or antiphons in another few days.)

In addition, Bourgeault highlights several more “dynamic translations” of the Psalms that seek to address perceived problems of violence, religious intolerance, or political incorrectness:

  • A Book of Psalms by Stephen Mitchell simply eliminates the most problematic imprecatory psalms, although Bourgeault likes what he does with the psalms he in fact includes.
  • Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness by Nan Merrill receives fuller coverage than any of the other resources in this chapter, although the examples provided suggest it is a psalm paraphrase that does not deserve to be called a translation at all.
  • Ancient Songs Sung Anew by Lynn Bauman attempts to discover “what the psalms would sound like if prayed in words that expressed the conditions and experiences of contemporary life” (67).

Bourgeault also takes a moment at the end of the chapter to explain the “numbering hiccup” by which the psalms in the Hebrew canon (followed by Protestants and, more recently, by Catholics) are usually one number off from the same psalms in the Greek canon (followed by Orthodox). In other words, the psalm that begins “The Lord is my shepherd” is Psalm 23 to some people and Psalm 22 to others. This is a minor issue, but it would be sure to confuse some if it weren’t addressed somewhere.

Next: Part 8

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