The Psalms have been a part of daily worship for well over two thousand years. Gloriae Dei Cantores has chanted the Psalms in worship services for more than thirty years and brings a wealth of experience and devotion to the expression of the Psalms. Having already presented several recordings of Gregorian chant, the choir has been turning its attention to the Psalms as expressed through Anglican chant. The present recording, the third of three volumes, presents psalms of thankfulness and praise. This brief essay wishes to explore the musical characteristics of the psalms and Anglican chant in particular and how it illuminates the ancient texts.
Harmonized chant or Anglican chant as it is now called has its roots in the father of Western music, Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant was the vehicle to express the human feelings of praise, joy, hope, sorrow, pain, trust and love that the Psalms embody. Its flexibility and endless resources of melody provide a vast realm of possibilities of expression. After a thousand years of the chant and the development of harmony and singing in more than one voice, the chant became a rather different breed; indeed by the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the chant had slowed so much so that each note constituted a major event. It was out of this metamorphosis that the first books of psalms was published, mostly set to plainchant (as it was now called) but including some that were harmonized by such famous composers as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. By the 18th century, the use of plainchant had virtually disappeared and the psalms were sung to harmony with the main melody always in the top voice. As the 19th century opened, we see the first books of Anglican chant published and disseminated throughout churches, further refined as to musical characteristics of melody and harmony and now for the first time, having specific tunes assigned to specific psalms. There now followed many Anglican Psalters with literally hundreds of new tunes for the use of choirs. One can argue that many of the greatest tunes come from this era with their devotion to illuminating and supporting the text simply and with specific character.
In addition to the chant itself, the colorful use of the organ enriches the emotional and spiritual character of each psalm providing an additional tapestry of sound that supports the text. Also, the custom of chanting the psalms in an antiphonal manner (using the north and south sides of the church) can be heard here. The combination of tune and organ can add to the complex emotions engendered by a certain psalm; hear for example how the changing organ colors and dynamics illuminate the emotions of Psalm 103. A powerful choral unison and a prayerful richness of harmony are both heard in Psalm 67, underpinned by the reeds and delicate strings of the organ. The classic setting by C.V. Stanford of the great praise psalm, Psalm 150, is a perfect example of how the marriage of text and music further intensifies the spirit of joy and thanksgiving.
While the choice of psalm tunes is entirely personal, Gloriae Dei Cantores is deeply indebted to the late George Guest, of St. John’s College, Cambridge, for his tireless help with the development of Anglican chant in the choir’s repertory. The psalter he provided for the choir as well as his enormous gift in “pointing” the psalms has been a great influence on the interpretations heard here. The final element is of course, the experience in using the Anglican chant in daily worship, and this last characteristic is what Gloriae Dei Cantores brings with great passion and devotion to its chanting of the psalms.