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Friday, March 22, 2013

SongStories 4 - Psalm 22 for Passion Sunday

Sunday, we will be using my newish (2005, published 2007) setting of Psalm 22. Psalm 22, you will remember, is the psalm of lament which begins, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" It is sung all three years of the lectionary on Passion Sunday, and while the psalm is used once or twice on other Sundays in the cycle, it's only used on Passion (Palm) Sunday with this unique refrain. Mark's passion narrative, the earliest of the four accounts, indicates that Jesus is silent throughout his entire ordeal except for crying out the first line of this psalm, which the gospel preserves in his native tongue: eloi, eloi, lema sabacthani? Gone are the "seven last words" added in other accounts; there is just this cry of abandonment and anguish. To the religious ear, however, attuned to the language of the psalms of lament, the terrifying phrase is pregnant with the rest of the psalm's prayer, which begins in accusation and terror, but ends in confidence and praise.

The usual form of the "song (cantus) between the readings" is responsorial in the Catholic Church. That means that a "responsory" is chosen, a sentence from the psalm or another scripture around which we hear the rest of the psalm text, in effect, proclaiming God's word together in a way that allows reflection and digestion of the text. The Introduction to the Lectionary allows for several ways for this to happen:

As a rule the responsorial psalm should be sung. There are two established ways of singing the psalm after the first reading: responsorially and directly. In responsorial singing, which, as far as possible, is to be given preference, the psalmist, or cantor of the psalm, sings the psalm verse and the whole congregation joins in by singing the response. In direct singing of the psalm there is no intervening response by the community; either the psalmist, or cantor of the psalm, sings the psalm alone as the community listens or else all sing it together.
The "problem" that arises in Psalm 22 especially has been articulated well by Michael Joncas in various keynotes and workshops. The responsorial form depends on the meaning the of the psalm being enriched by repetition of the refrain. Psalm 22, being a psalm of lament, develops in a particular way. The lament psalm has a particular form of its own: it begins with a complaint or a cry out to God; it details the problem of the psalmist or community; it gives reasons why God should help; it remembers that God has helped Israel or the psalmist in the past; it ends in praise and confidence, often with a vow to give thanks and praise in the temple. As you can see, there is a development of thought within the form of the psalm itself.

Here is a SoundCloud comparison of my two settings of Psalm 22, the first from Cries of the Spirit, Volume 2 (and originally on You Alone), which I wrote in 1971 or so, and the second excerpt from the version being discussed in this article, from 2004.

While the responsorial form works well almost all of the time, in the case of Psalm 22, we hit the obvious snag. The refrain, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me" works well enough at the beginning of the psalm ("all who see me scoff at me..." "...a pack of criminals is closing in upon me...") but by the end, the psalmist is singing "You who fear the Lord, praise him! O house of Israel, bless the Lord! I will proclaim your name in the vast assembly!", and the vast assembly is still singing, usually in a mournful tone, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me." The integrity of the literary and prayer form of the psalm has been ignored, and the result is a confusion of rhetoric that may be jarring and not especially helpful to the liturgical use of Scripture.

What I've tried to do in this new setting of Psalm 22 is follow the lead of the (late) great Bernard Huijbers in the musical forms he has used over the years (in "Song of All Seed," for instance), and rather than using a single responsorial phrase, I use a repeated phrase at the end of each stanza as the responsory. For instance:

Cantor: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
All: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Cantor: All who see me scoff at me. With parted lips, they mock me.
They wag their heads: He relied on God,
let God rescue him if he loves him!
All: Let God rescue him if he loves him!
This continues through all four strophes appointed for the psalm this day, ending with an ostinato, introduced by the cantor, on the text, "You who fear the Lord, praise him, praise him!" While the choir and assembly continue the ostinato, the cantor sings the closing verses of the psalm.

The cantors at St. Anne work really hard at proclaiming the psalm well, and over the last several years the experience of singing the psalm this way has encouraged me about its form. They also put some of my doubts to rest about the work itself, doubts which creep up in the intervening 364 days between liturgical uses about the musicality, the strangeness, and the usual self-doubt caused by my inability to play a keyboard reduction of it without sounding like each of my fingers is thinking independently and rebelliously. When I'm able to turn the whole thing over to the choir, assembly, cantor, and ensemble in the context of worship, all that fades away, and what is left is what seems to me to be a really good attempt to do justice both to the ancient form of the psalm of lament and to the liturgical preference for responsorial singing of the cantus between the readings.

We were able to record this setting on our 2006 GIA collection Today. You can check out the printed music, if you're feeling brave for next year, by clicking on this link.

Off we go into Holy Week. In ten days or so, it will be a happy memory. But there are miles to go before we nap next Monday. Time to start that journey.

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