Thursday, May 14, 2020

Chanting the Psalms and other things

I haven't forgotten about the psalms, about singing, even though I have a perpetual frog in my throat. No friend of mine. I haven't forgotten the feel of the 16th century English rhythms of Coverdale such as was beautifully demonstrated in Sarah's quarantine composition, which moves from lament to praise in the same way as the construction of the Psalter from its centre to the end and as a whole. There's nothing I can think of that this 'thin book' (to cite another real teacher) misses.

I still give advice in how to sing and how to read and sense if someone is feeding you good advice or unsubstantiated opinion. There's little point in having an opinion that might mislead you in the actual reading and hearing of this masterpiece of poetic construction that holds and calls the human spirit into its fullness.

I responded to one who is learning about chanting, when I felt he might be hearing a potentially unsubstantiated claim about parallelism and rhyme in Hebrew poetry. (He is in no danger of not hearing, but abstractions, especially touted from advertised famous writers, can be distracting even to an obsessive learner.)
My own opinion on the poetry is that sound is vital to understanding through repeated words, an objective measure. But I am a long way from knowing how to hear well. I can give advice, but I can't do it! Parallelism is notoriously complex and at times quite subjective. I think it is overrated but still important. It is third in importance to me for hearing: first, music, second, sound patterns, third parallelism. As far as the pronunciation of Yahweh, you're on a long journey. I think of the Name as all vowels, eeaaooaaee - a very good singing exercise. Sing through the end of the phrase - don't imitate that CBC reporter who always loses her breath at the end of every sentence.
Then I tried again to say in words what I like to hear in chanting whether the psalms or Torah or any other text.
My advice is to discover the pulse (not meter) in the words. Don't throw away any syllable. Within the pulsed group make them all roughly equal, both the stressed and the unstressed, the important as well as the unimportant. A pulsed group may be 2, 3, 4, 5 syllables. Possibly even more. The consecutive pulses will define a line of music: pa-pa-/pa pa-pa-/pa-pa pa-pa pa-pa-/pa pa-pa-pa-pa-/pa. Typically there will be one slightly stressed / syllable in the group and slight but audible gaps ' ' between the groups. This style is heard in good Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican plainsong. In the prose books as in Anglican chant, the pulses may be more like speech rhythm. But never throw away syllables. Sing through them all.
What an impossible task - here I should have demonstrated with an example not a bunch of unreadable papa's, though that is a good exercise.

I recall that longest recitation of any book in the Bible, 55 syllables if I remember correctly. No, not exactly. On page 128 of The Song in the Night, I read that 2 Kings 23:4 was 55 syllables, Nehemiah 10:40 is 51, but Judges 10:6 has a recitation of 62 syllables. Note how it is divided by the accents. These required some stresses (not to mention breathing   gaps) longer than one would do in western plainsong.
Judges 10:6, the longest recitation that I have found in the Hebrew Bible
A kindle edition of Seeing the Psalter is available on Amazon. This is a full exploration of the sounds of the Psalms through the recurring word patterns. It also introduces the music and parallelism as techniques for learning this body of poetry.

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