Thursday, 20 March 2014

My current thoughts on the performance of the Music of the Psalter

These notes are about the music implied by the te'amim in the Hebrew Bible as deciphered by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura. My primary focus at present is the Psalms, but the music I have decoded for other books of the Bible shows very similar issues in pulse, focus and musical line. See for example on Amos, and on the use of the ornament shalshelet. The only difference noted to date is that the longest recitations tend to be shorter in the Psalms. 

In general, a psalm is written to be sung to a syllabic pulse after the manner of plainchant. That is, syllables gather themselves together equally in ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, and so on, each group creating a single long pulse to the musical line subdivided into syllables of equal duration with little if any additional word stress. Ornaments (written in 8th notes) will naturally extend a syllable's length. Recitation may be spelled out in quarter notes but neither quarter nor eighth note values are to be slavishly interpreted. It is possible, however, that some psalms were sung rhythmically. Where this may be the case for Hebrew, an equivalent English rhythm may be found.

[Note, all the music referred to is at this shared resource. If XML is beyond your software, let me know and I can generate or convert any file to a human readable form, pdf or png.]


The dashed bar lines immediately precede the stressed syllable in Hebrew. The direction of the vocal line and its pulse is thus signaled by the barline which always happens on a change in the reciting note. [Note: where a reciting note changes without the presence of a barline, this is an indication that the music has been changed because of an error in the Westminster Leningrad Codex.] This is true whether one is reading poetry or prose. The English translation has been underlaid with this stress in mind. For example, in verse 24 of Psalm 18. And I am וָאֱהִ֣י complete תָמִ֣ים with him עִמּ֑וֹ. The stress is thus not on complete but on am. The word him, occurs on the resting note in the verse. 

The subdominant A is signaled by the sign called atnah, or place of rest. In mode 4, the A is sharpened and acts against any suggestion of rest or repose. Note also that some verses have no rest point and may sometimes be chanted as a single phrase. Some verses have multiple phrases, but never more than one rest point. The rest point is marked with a caesura indicating the appropriateness of a pause – even in the middle of a sentence, as one would pause in plainsong to allow consideration of the words. Continuing with verse 24 above, there are 7 beats after the breathing mark at the rest point, all on the same reciting note. The variation in pitch is determined in this section through the ornaments, which always return to the reciting note. The musical line in this verse will lead to the stress on the second syllable of iniquity.

The Hebrew pulse and accents may suggest other possible performance ideas or word underlay to the choir director. Such performance ideas are encouraged. Since many of the psalms are ‘for the choir director’, choir directors may of course use their discretion in suggesting alternatives with respect to mode, rhythm or pitch or even the addition and interpretation of ornaments.

Awkward intervals

Yes, there are some awkward intervals but they can be learned and often are surprising annotations on the text. Psalm 4 provides a good example. The rising augmented fifth in verse 7 colours the extreme rudeness and provocation in the words. The music confirms the quotation marks noted in the English. The next rising perfect fifth contrasts faith with provocation.

Word painting

The music is not there for its own sake, but for the words. In every psalm, the music provides what one could call an intense punctuation, demanding from singer and hearer alike an intention that goes behond the habitual and becomes clothing indeed.

Psalm 32 provides a good example. Note the bucking horse and mule. Note also the words on the atnah or rest point in the verse. There is no atnah in verse 1. Words on the atnah in the following verses are: iniquity, bones worn out, changed, Yahweh, many waters, security, walk, curbed, Yahweh, righteous ones. There is a progression in this psalm from trouble to release including the reference to the judgment of many waters and the need for a secure guided walk for the poet / singer.


In the English libretto, the symbol / indicates that the note is not needed and has therefore a zero time value. (It is curious to me that though, of course, there are often more words in English than in Hebrew, there are equally often more syllables in Hebrew than there are in English!) If the English libretto has multiple syllables for a single note, then subdivide all the syllables and gather them equally into the current reciting note. Slurs apply to the English libretto to assist the singer. The underlay has been designed so as to imitate in English with the least compromise the line and stress of the Hebrew. So wherever possible, without distorting the English word order beyond recognition, ornaments are on an equivalent syllable and slurred as in the Hebrew and the change in reciting note reflects a similar word and stress as in the Hebrew. It is evident that sometimes the English gloss and pulse match the Hebrew word for word, but equally, sometimes there must be compromises made when trying to match words in the musical line. Singing in Hebrew remains an option. Reworking the English underlay is also possible. Note that there are particular difficulties with maintaining Hebrew letter order in translation of the acrostics where the poet is at play, if sometimes reluctantly.

I have been very careful through the use of a computer controlled system, to choose different glosses in English to correspond to different Hebrew words. So, for example, as there are 7 synonyms for fear in the Hebrew, so there are 7 different words in English for these words. Similarly, a word used once in the Psalms requires an English word that is used only once. At the same time, some words require different glosses in different situations. For example, the word, nefesh, traditionally translated soul, that part of the body between chin and shoulders, may be translated throat, or being, or even just as a personal pronoun. So sometimes a single word in Hebrew will be rendered in the host language by several differing English words or combinations of words. For more detail about the translation and word usage patterns, please refer to Seeing the Psalter.

The Name

In many translations, the Name, יהוה the four letters yod, heh, vav, heh, is rendered as the LORD. Such a rendering fails both grammatically and theologically: theologically because the Name is intimate, grammatically, because the Name must behave as a proper name, not as title or rank. Debate is extensive over how the Name was pronounced or when it stopped being said as a name. In my transcriptions, the mid 20th century rendering Yahweh has been used. This may be sung as two or three syllables as needed. There is a suggestion from the stresses in the music that it was three syllables with the stress on the third. There are no consonants in the name. Sing it as Ee-aa-oo-eh with the oo bordering on an O. It is a good singing exercise.

Invocations, selah and other words

The invocations or inscriptions are an integral part of the music, as are the interjections like selah or higgaion whose meaning is uncertain. These have remained in the music as given. Use the moments creatively.


All sorts of instruments may be used. Composers and arrangers are encouraged to find the appropriate registers. In some psalms like Psalms 2 and 150, percussion seems invited. In the absence of timpani, hand-clapping or striking the pews with the palm may produce the desired effect. All the psalms work very well unaccompanied. It is also feasible to add vocal parts to the implied harmonies.

The music assigns suggested differing voices to verses or part of verses: to one or two cantors, and to up to 9 chorus combinations, Men, Women, Tutti and each divided or not between Cantoris and Decani. These assignments reflect the separation of voices in the text itself and occasionally also highlight rhetorical structures.


Determining the mode of a particular psalm is subjective at the moment. It may be that some note patterns are unacceptable in some modes. This is an uncertain decision, since instrument and voice can each be tuned to each of these modes. Equally, it may be that some psalms even if sung together were sung in two differing modes. If different tuning is required, then two instruments may be prepared. The Selah may give the player a chance to change instruments.

For liturgical use I have written some glorias - the style of music lends itself to such writing. I could imagine that drone, and even limited multi-part harmony could be added.

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