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Instructed Eucharist in review: Church music as an obsession with Psalms

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I don’t plan to write regularly in this space this summer, even though I have just recently started this blog. But I have been thinking so much about the role of our music in our services at St. Peter’s in light of this past Sunday’s Instructed Eucharist and Rector’s Forum, and I want to write a little bit more in depth here. We will hold Part 2 of the Instructed Eucharist (focusing on Holy Communion) on Sunday, September 2.

Our church music could best be described as an obsession with Psalms.

The Psalms are so important to Anglicanism that they have been reprinted in every Book of Common Prayer (BCP) since 1662.

This same 1662 version of the Psalter was included in American BCPs until 1928. In the lead up what became the 1979 BCP, the Psalms were carefully retranslated, and one of the poets involved was W. H. Auden. (There is a fascinating book about 1979 Psalter by J. Chester Johnson, the poet who succeeded Auden on the committee, called  Auden, the Psalms, and Me.)

One of the reasons that the Book of Psalms is the only book of the bible to be rreprinted in full within our Prayer Book is that it is very convenient that the Psalms be printed in the same volume with the services of daily Morning and Evening Prayer.

If you look closely at the Psalms in the prayer book, you will notice that the psalter is divided into a monthly cycle. This is the cycle to which we adhere at services of Evensong at St. Peter’s. For instance, if you come to Evensong on the 15th of the month, the Psalms you will hear sung are those designated for the 15th Evening.

And while Anglicans best know the Psalms as part of daily prayer, they have a much longer more complicated history as part of the order of Holy Communion.

This work continues, even here at St. Peter’s. And I’ll explain our unique role in this below.

Let’s now turn our attention to the order of the service itself, and I think you’ll see just how influential the Psalms have been in the history and practice of our church music.

Organ Prelude

Music before the service is a kind of “sonic incense.” It’s in the air as people arrive. For many worshippers, it accompanies private prayer and devotions before the service. For some worshippers, the specifics of this music itself may be the stuff or prayer and devotion. In another sense, this is the music that accompanies the first "procession" of the service: the arrival of the People. A good organ prelude reflects the sounds of the music for the day and the character of the liturgical season.


The Introit was originally a Psalm sung at the entrance of the ministers. The Introit Psalm was proper to it’s day. For instance, you would expect to hear a rather festive Psalm during the Easter season, but a more penitential psalm during Lent.

In many places today, you find that any piece of choral music will suffice for an introit, but the yearly rotation of Introit Psalms was fixed and was an expected part of worship in many places. The words of all the proper Introits for the year are printed in the back of the English Hymnal of 1906. And it is from this hymnal that we sing our Introits here at St. Peter’s. These Introits were historically sung to plainsong tones. But,  being good Anglicans, I have provided Anglican Chant for the Introits for the whole year. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only church to sing the Introits this way.

Entrance Hymn

If the Introit was originally sung at the entrance of the ministers, you might notice that we don’t do it this way anymore. We delay the entrance of the ministers until the singing of a hymn when all can be involved in the music. This first hymn of the service allows all who have gathered to sing together and to open themselves to the presence of Christ. Led by the Cross, the Choir and Clergy enter the church. This act symbolizes the gathering of the community in the name of Christ.

This points to one of the most consistent trends in church music in recent centuries: that of the increasing musical participation of the congregation. 

Gloria in excelsis (most often simply called “The Gloria”)

Historically the Gloria was the great Song of Praise of the church sung as part of this entrance Rite. But for much of the history of the Book of Common Prayer, it has been relegated to the end of Communion. As recently as the 1928 BCP, the Gloria was sung after the Postcommunion Prayer.

This is where the liturgical reform movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s has done some great work in recovering a more ancient pattern. Our 1979 BCP restores the Gloria to its historic place as part of the entrance rite.

The Gloria, a regular part of Christian worship for a millennium, begins with the song of the angels in Luke 2:14.


All early Christian writers who mention the Psalms say they were sung. At St. Peter's it is our tradition to say the Psalm responsively in services of Holy Eucharist. But the Psalm is a relatively new addition to this liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. Verses of the Psalms were found in the minor propers of the service (the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion). With the disappearance of many of these Psalm elements , we have seen the introduction of a single proper Psalm that is part of the Lectionary readings for the day.


The first Anglican hymns were, you guessed it, Psalms.

The development of hymn singing in the Anglican Church began with metrical paraphrases of the Psalms. These were rhymed hymns that were very closely based on Psalm texts.

One of the first collections of these Psalm paraphrases was known by the last name of its authors/compilers:  the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter. Hymn 378 in our Hymnal comes from this collection. It is a paraphrase of Psalm 100 by William Kethe.

All people that on earth do dwell,
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice:
Him serve with fear, his praise forth tell,
come ye before him and rejoice.

Another familiar hymn that you may not think of as a Psalm paraphrase is by the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts: "Joy to the world, the Lord is come". Here, we begin to see a development of the paraphrase tradition. Watts is drawing from more than one Psalm, and incorporating other verses of scripture. "Joy to the world" is a paraphrase of verses from Psalms 98 and 96 with a sprinkle of Genesis 3.

Interestingly, the previous hymnal of the Episcopal Church, the Hymnal 1940, lists this as an General hymn (in the Rector's Forum I mistakenly said "Advent"). Look for it soon at a non-Christmas service near you, possibly sung to the hymn tune ‘Richmond’ as it was in the Hymnal 1940.

Joy to the World; The Lord is come
Let Earth receive her King: 
Let every Heart prepare him Room, 
And Heaven and Nature sing.

After this, the hymn writing skill Charles Wesley and others helped establish the hymn as a worthy genre of sacred music for Anglican worship, one that need not have a literal basis in a Psalm.

In the last half century or so, we have enjoyed what many have described a "hymn explosion" with new voices and styles being introduced at a rapid pace. 

At present the Episcopal Church enjoys a wide and ecumenical breadth in her hymnody, though it should be noted that we will now be the last mainline denomination to revise our hymnal (should General Convention choose to do so). Our 1982 Hymnal was seen as pioneering at the time, but in the years since the Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others have all updated their hymnals, and some of them more than once.

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The Second Sunday after Pentecost, in which we consider a "missing" verse of the Psalm

It's probably no secret to anyone that one of my very favorite composers is Herbert Howells (1892–1983).

And this Sunday, there's an opportunity to play Howells that's just too good to pass up.

The Psalm we'll be reading this Sunday is Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17. It's a wonderful Psalm about how much God knows, and how much God sees.

But one of the verses of this Psalm that we will not read together this Sunday is verse 11.

Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
    darkness and light to you are both alike.

This single Psalm verse is the subject of a marvelous Psalm-Prelude by Herbert Howells, and it will be the Prelude to the service this Sunday.

Here's one of my favorite recordings of this piece by Stephen Cleobury on the organ of King's College, Cambridge.

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Trinity Sunday, in which we consider the Divine Dance

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," or so goes the oft-repeated aphorism.

And if music generally is tricky to write about, church music can be even more so. And couple that with the tremendously mysterious feast day which we call Trinity Sunday and all bets are off. 

So rather than write anything, maybe we should dance our way into the music instead.

 The poet Malcolm Guite combines music and dance images in his sonnet "Trinity Sunday":

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

Hear also the words of Thomas Merton, from his New Seeds of Contemplation: 

"For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."

All of this is to say that we dance around the Trinity in an unusual piece by American composer William Albright (1944–1988), which we will sing at Communion. His An Alleluia Super-Round is written for a minimum of eight voices, all of whom sing the word "Alleluia" at different times and different speeds.  The piece begins with a single voice, and then another (as you would expect a round to begin), but since the voices may sing independently of each other the resulting music is left, to some degree, to chance. No two performances of this work are alike. From its gentle beginning, the piece grows until all voices enter. More exuberant iterations of "Alleluia" emerge from the texture until, finally, all voices come to rest on a single pitch. 

The Gloria in excelsis is sung by the Choir to the setting from the Missa Brevis by Lennox Berkeley (1903–1989)The Choir sang the Sanctus from this Mass on Palm Sunday. 

The organ voluntaries which frame our Trinity Sunday service are from J. S. Bach’s Monumental Clavierubung III, one of the few collections the composer saw published in his lifetime. The concluding voluntary, the "St. Anne" Fugue in E-flat, BWV 552b, with its triple fugue and a key signature of three flats is replete with Trinitarian symbolism. The opening fugue subject’s resemblance to the hymn tune St. Anne (Hymn 680: “O God, our help in ages past”) gives this piece its nickname.

By the way, please feel free to make your way up to the organ console during the concluding voluntary if ever you would like to see the organ up close.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur” is a sonnet overflowing with Biblical imagery. The “ooze of oil / Crushed” is a reference to Gethsemane (literally the “place of the olive-press”) and the Crucifixion. The image of bare soil at once conjures the parable of the sower and speaks to a spiritually barren state. And “nor can foot feel, being shod” reminds us that all the earth is holy ground. The final sestet affirms the promise that God’s glory will continue to “flame out” and that God will help us to “become participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Kenneth Leighton’s (1929–1988) sublime setting of this sonnet, sung at the Offertory, includes a chord for “God” simultaneously D major and D minor, “a harmonically ambiguous, unsettling combination of major and minor, joy and pain.” 

 God's Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. 
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; 
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil 
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck* his rod? 
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; 
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man's smell: the soil 
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 
And for all this, nature is never spent; 
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went 
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — 
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent 
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

* reck = to pay heed to