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Chanting the Psalms 9

In chapter 9, “Reading Simple Psalm Notation” and chapter 11, “Reading Gregorian Notation,” Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms begins to expand our repertoire of psalm tones and (hopefully) our ability to make some sense out of what we may see in printed psalm texts arranged for chanting. Although I can read music after a fashion (Junior High School band, third clarinet, but that was back when Gregorian chant was still in fashion!) I’ve never been taught how to match up the little dots on the musical staff with the notes that are supposed to be coming out of my mouth. In other words, what little I know about the subject is largely irrelevant for the task at hand. Still, the instructional CD is at hand, and I’ve always been fairly good at singing by ear.

What was most helpful in chapter 9 was an exposure to some additional psalm tones that I can learn to sing by ear, as well as some practical hints at marking up or “pointing” a psalm text as a memory aid so that, in the privacy of my own psalmody, I’ll know when to move from the reciting tone (the monotone note on which most of each line is chanted) onto the “passing tones” until arriving, at the end of the line, on the “cadence tone.” There are some beautiful—and singable—psalm tones in this chapter. The suggested tone for Psalm 100 from the New Camaldoli Monastery is great and easy to learn. In fact, it is the tone I’ve been using for over a year as I have worked to begin my day with this very psalm.

As for chapter 11, I’m sure some will find it helpful, and Gregorian chant is certainly beautiful, but it is beyond my grasp to incorporate this form of chant into my repertoire.

Nestled between these two chapters is chapter 10, “The Wide World of Antiphons,” which explores the monastic custom of elaborating on a psalm by pairing it with a short line, derived either from the psalm itself or some other source, to provide a lens through which to encounter the psalm itself. Bourgeault refers to this approach as a “psalm sandwich”:

If you can imagine the psalm as the meat of this sandwich, the bread on either side is provided by a contrasting musical composition known as an antiphon. As in any good sandwich, the purpose of the bread is to help you get your hands around the contents, while at the same time highlighting its flavor. (111)

An antiphon is thus a contrasting melodic line, similar to a refrain. In monastic communities, the antiphons can be expected to vary throughout the year according to the changing liturgical seasons. Of course, the psalms are perfectly serviceable without any antiphons at all, although they do serve to reinforce the mood of a psalm and tease out its deeper meanings. This chapter also includes some additional tones, including very nice ones for the Benedictus and Magnificat, should one wish to add these to one’s devotional practice, and some simple settings of the “O Antiphons,” and just in time for Advent!

Bourgeault concludes this chapter with a few words about the ancient Christian practice of interpreting Christ as the center and focus of all of Scripture, and of the psalms in particular. We see this in the use of christocentric antiphons and also in the monastic tradition of appending a trinitarian doxology to psalms, thus giving them a more overtly Christian message.

In monastic psalmody, this subtle contextualization suggests that “the yearnings expressed in the psalms find their fulfillment in Christ” (124). This raises potentially explosive issues in Jewish-Christian relations, especially in light of many unfortunate ways in which Christians have traditionally read the New Testament, in which anything overtly Jewish is understood to be inferior by definition and too great a discontinuity is asserted between the teachings of the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish apostles and the other forms of Jewish piety and thought we encounter in the text.

While some would favor a wholesale liturgical housecleaning‚ pruning away the christological and trinitarian antiphons and doxologies‚ Bourgeault believes the better solution is not no antiphons but new ones. The antiphons are the most fluid and creative part of psalmody, “and their function has always been to invite a dialogue between what is fixed and unchanging (such as the ancient words of the psalms themselves) and the evolving perceptions and sensibilities of our own time” (126). We should not shelve the church’s rich treasury of antiphons but rather “harness the creative power of the antiphon principle itself” (126).

She suggests mining the spiritual writings not only of Christians but of mystics from many traditions for possible antiphon material. This does not strike me as a personally satisfying approach.

First, I must confess that I am quite comfortable with a christological reading of Psalms, and indeed of the whole Bible. Moderate Baptists have recently been up in arms that the revised doctrinal statement of Southern Baptists no longer contains the important statement that “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Moderates see this affirmation as a guard against precisely the kind of violent, patriarchal readings of Scripture that Bourgeault (and any sensible believer, Christian or Jewish) is eager to avoid. And the recent track record of the Southern Baptist Convention tends to make me think the moderates are largely right on this issue: the Baptists who refuse to confess Christ as their exegetical plumline are not the ones seeking more respectful dialogue with adherents of other world religions! The fact is, something is always going to be the central focus of our interpretation of the Bible. For Christians, why not let it be Jesus?

Second, Bourgeault herself seems to know at some level that this proposal is missing the target. She admits that Christian contemplatives simply do not interpret the traditional antiphonal material in an antisemitic or otherwise inappropriate way:

But in more than thirty years of intimate association with Christian contemplative monasticism, I can honestly say that I have yet to see a single example of the kind of rigid intolerance and literalism so typical of religious fundamentalism… (125)

In other words, the people who live most closely with the psalms and the traditional antiphons and doxologies are among those least likely to need the “corrective” that would supposedly come from adding antiphons written by Muslims, Buddhists, and the like. I appreciate that many Christians read the Bible with faulty and uncharitable views of Jews and Judaism; but these are not likely to be the people chanting the Divine Office on a regular basis!

Next: Part 10

technorati tags: chanting, cynthia bourgeault, psalms

1 Comment

  1. The question – how do we read – is clearly critical for life. I do not expect to read the Scripture as portrayed in Neale and Littledale: Commentary on the Psalms from primitive and mediaeval writers: and from the various office-books and hymns of the Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Gallican, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac rites (c 1800 I think). The assumptions of the height of Christendom in the Colonial West are not always appealing, but I do want to read the Psalter the way the writers of the NT read it – particularly in the letter to the Hebrews. The dialogue between the Father and the Son is our dialogue. To me this is the core of the covenant process for an individual. How this reading of covenant comes to apply to the assembly is also of interest to me – and a hard question given the state of the body today.


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