“THERE is a psalm that will match and trump almost any given situation. If you are feeling joyful, there is a psalm that is more joyful than you. If you are feeling desperate, there is a psalm that is more desperate than you. If you are feeling isolated, there is a psalm that is more isolated than you.”
Not my words but those of the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, expressed in an address, “Snatches of Old Tunes”, at last year’s Bloxham Festival. Rarely can more heads have nodded in agreement and recognition.
“They give permission for my joy to be exuberant, my frustration to be uninhibited, and my anger to be released,” Bishop Cottrell said, rueing the absence of psalms in many churches’ main Sunday worship: “On their deathbed, [these congregations] will have snatches of choruses, but not the songs of scripture.”
Today begins a global celebration in which all 150 psalms are to be sung in a single weekend. The music, from 150 composers, represents 1000 years of choral music, and the 12-concert cycle will be sung at its inaugural performance in Utrecht by the Tallis Scholars, Det Norske Solistkor, the Choir of Trinity, Wall Street, and the Nederlands Kamerkoor, which initiated the event. It will be repeated in New York and Brussels later in the year.
CENTURIES ago, people devoted themselves to reciting all the Psalms in the course of a week. “Their themes of loss, compassion, consolation, and hope could act as a mirror of society today,” the Kamerkoor’s managing director, Tido Vissor, said. “They portray things on a human scale. This is not the word of God being poured out over man, but the voice of man, who is wrestling with life’s big questions.” The project also celebrates the Psalms as one of the most important literary sources for the choral tradition.
Chronicle/AlamySong and dance: David sings his psalms, accompanied by musicians and dancersFor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Psalms were the “prayer-book of the Bible”, sustaining him throughout his imprisonment. For Bishop Tom Wright, “to think about the psalms is like thinking about breathing.” They are the hymn-book that Jesus and his early followers would have known by heart, the “steady, sustained sub-current of healthy Christian living”, he suggests in his recently published Finding God in the Psalms. The book is an invitation, he says, “to pray and live the Psalms”, and one, he hopes, that will stimulate leaders to reintegrate the Psalms into regular worship.
“The story the songs tell is the story Jesus came to complete. It is the story of the Creator God taking his power and reigning, ruling on earth as in heaven, delighting the whole of creation by sorting out its messes and muddles, its injuries and injustices, once and for all,” he writes.
“It is also the story of malevolent enemies prowling around, of people whispering lies and setting traps, and of sleepless nights and bottles full of tears.
”Part of the strange work of the Psalms is to draw the terror and shame of all the ages together to a point where it becomes intense and unbearable, turning itself into a great scream of pain, the pain of Israel, the pain of Adam and Eve, the pain that shouts outs, in the most paradoxical act of worship, to ask why God has abandoned it.
“And then, of course, the Psalms tell the story of strange vindication, of dramatic reversal, of wondrous rescue, comfort, and restoration. All of these stories live together in the songs, side by side and frequently rolled into one.”
FOR thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshippers, worship songs — some using phrases from the Psalms here and there — have largely displaced “the steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves”, Bishop Wright suggests. He finds it impossible to imagine a growing and maturing church or individual Christian doing without the Psalms.
Zev Radovan/BibleLandPictures/ AlamyRelic: the “Psalms” scroll from Qumran cave 11, written c.30-50 CE“Much of what the songs are designed to do, they are designed to do as a complete set. We should resist, as a general or normal practice, the picking and choosing, the dotting here and there, the selection of a few scattered psalm verses, which has become commonplace in some circles where the songs are still used.
“We should do our best to find ways to use the whole Psalter. We should say or sing all the puzzling and disturbing bits along with the easy and ‘nice’ ones. We should allow the flow and the balance of the entire set to make their points, with the sharp highs and lows of the Psalter all there to express and embody the highs and lows of all human life, of our own human life.”
THE Master of the Music at St Albans Cathedral, Andrew Lucas, knows the whole Psalter better than most. He collaborated with the late John Scott, organist and director of music at St Paul’s Cathedral for 14 years, on repointing and recording all 150 psalms, and has produced his own Psalter at St Albans, a simpler version of Scott’s, and based on those of his predecessors at the cathedral.
When you sing psalms daily, he says, it “becomes a personal thing, once you start getting frustrated by the awkwardness of a bit of pointing, or something that feels a bit clunky.
“From my own experience, and watching what John Scott did, it was trying to find the most natural way of getting the words over, where the principal accents fall. The Parish Psalter is one of the simplest ones. It mostly involves reciting as long as possible and then putting in the last three or four syllables of those chords, a very simple system — I suppose, inspired by plainsong.”
It is the poetry of the Psalms that is the wonder, he reflects. “They’re a human reaction, unlike the other readings from the Bible at evensong, which are either history, or lessons in morality, or Christian teaching. When you get to the Psalms, there is everything you feel, everything that gets you down, everything that makes you happy — praising creation, or just the beauty of things, or just worshipping God by saying so.
INTERFOTO/AlamyIn the beginning: woodcut by Lucas Cranach the elder showing Martin Luther, the first print of the complete Bible translation, Wittenberg 1534“That’s the wonderful thing about them: they teach you about yourself. In the services, they are a fantastic moment of contemplation for everyone.”
TRYING to explain that to choristers — “who often see psalms as evils to be got through” — can be difficult, he says with a smile, though it’s something they can learn to love. He has no hesitation in naming Psalm 128 as his favourite. The mere fact that he can summon it up today, while talking on the phone from a car park in Portugal, is testament to the way in which the Psalms can inhabit the soul.
“It’s the most beautiful set of words,” he says: “‘Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine: upon the walls of thy house. Thy children like the olive branches round about thy table. . .’
“It’s just beautiful, meditative: all’s right with the world, God’s in his heaven, and everything will be all right. Short, only eight verses. The chant is in E major by Charles Macpherson.”
FOR my own part, the Psalms were the only thing I could tolerate in the wreck of bereavement. A colleague recalls, after the birth of one of her children, casting aside the glossy magazines that had distracted her during labour, “because of the vapidity of their content and the life-changing experience of childbirth”, and “suddenly finding what I was looking for in Psalm 103”.
Who knows, Bishop Cottrell reflected, whether the “snatches of old tunes” — the words that Shakespeare’s Ophelia brought out at her hour of death — might have been the Psalms? “They are prayers, poems, and songs to be read and sung and chanted and shared out loud and together. . .
“What a gift to mind and spirit to receive and know the Psalter by heart, and to be able to draw upon its riches of poetry and thought, so that one’s own words and prayers are shaped by this praying, and are there for you when your own words fail.”
The historian Tom Holland, who will be giving a keynote lecture at the Utrecht festival, reflected: “For millennia, the Psalms have provided the language with which Jews and Christians have sought to express both their understanding of the divine and their own relationship to the divine.
“Origen described scripture as a great mansion full of locked rooms, the keys to which lay scattered about the house. No book in the entire Bible has furnished more keys than the Psalms. What they serve to unlock is not merely scripture, but many of the closed doors of Western history.”
The Tallis ScholarsEACH of the four choirs at the festival will be singing one quarter of the 150 psalms. The Tallis Scholars, who specialise in unaccompanied music, have opted for the Renaissance pieces on offer, and will be singing 38 psalms in all, only three of which will have organ accompaniment.
It has come home to the choirs just how universal the Psalms are. The Scholars have a large library comprising thousands of copies of Renaissance music; so it’s a source of wonder to their conductor, Peter Phillips, that only one of the 38 pieces — a six-part setting by Jean Mouton — was already in the library.
“Boxes and boxes of paper have come over from Holland — a huge, logistically impressive exercise,” he says. “Tido Vissor has made an archive of every psalm setting he could find, and it runs into thousands. Not only are we doing 150 collectively, but no composer is repeated, and there are new commissions, too.”
The Scholars will be singing in Hebrew (”Our Hebrew may be a bit rusty”), Latin, and Old English (”the best”), and even a specially requested German translation from the Danish — “because pronouncing Danish is particularly difficult, and we have limited rehearsal time. . .”.
His love of the Psalms goes back a long way. He recalls the pleasure of doing evensong with a choir at Merton College, Oxford. The Psalms, he says, “are sort of out of time. Many a cathedral organist would say the same. They are so direct and honest, and they have a universal application — which is the point of this project, really.”
That has been brought home in a particular facet of the Psalms project. An early suggestion from the Dutch organisers that the concerts might be repeated in New York received an initially lukewarm response. But then Donald Trump was elected President.
As a consequence, the organisers “thought maybe the Psalms had something to say that Trump clearly does not have to say”, Peter Phillips concludes. “It will be presented as a rebuttal of his position.”
That surely says it all.