Thursday, January 4, 2018

All Psalms All the Time

Well, not quite all the psalms, and I don’t know how long this resource will be available.
A subscription to Spotify Premium is not only a self-indulgence, it is good for my mental health (the Spotify ads make me angry) and it keeps me exploring and learning new music. It is also—it turns out—good for my soul. (Though, full disclosure, as I write this I am listening to an Enrico Morricone playlist of western movie soundtracks.)

Weekly and monthly playlists show up in the many “Genres & Moods” categories. I always look at what’s on offer in the Classical Category. (For a brief post on the amazing Symphonies playlist, see my other blog.) Right after Thanksgiving a new playlist appeared: 150 Psalms in Classical Music. Brilliant! With my pattern of daily psalm readings, this is how I would engage the psalms through December.

And what a playlist! It includes Gregorian chant, Anglican chant, and newly composed chant. Genevan psalms and German Baroque settings. Settings in Latin, Hebrew, English, German, French, and more. Tracks lasting barely two minutes, and pieces up to fifteen minutes. It is a rich resource of the splendid variety of musical engagement with that most musical heart of the Bible.

Was it well curated? That’s a tough call. I came to terms with it by acknowledging that it is not called “The Complete Book of Psalms in Classical Music,” nor “All 150 Psalms in Classical Music.” Not least because of course musical settings of every complete psalm is a lot of music! Think of Psalm 119 alone—golly. But as to its including all psalms, where there’s the catch.

Because the curator of this list apparently did not take into account that the Latin Bible—while numbering psalms 1 through 150—numbers the psalms differently from the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles. (Long story there, and an interesting one, and I have to say that the Latin numbering has a supportable logic to it.)

So, for example, the list includes multiple versions of some psalms, noting only the numbering used by the composers, and in the process skips over psalms that got lost in the cracks. For example (the first one I noticed) Psalm 19 (Latin: Exaudiat te Dominus) is the English Psalm 20. So, the list has the same text in Latin and in English, but does not have a musical setting of the Hebrew/English Psalm 19 (the heavens declare the glory of God—of which there are many excellent musical settings). I won’t list the many cases; you get the point.

And in any case, even though I am a bit OCD about lists like this (“geez Louise, how hard would it be to get this right and make it complete?!?”) the playlist was such a gift to me that I would be an ingrate to find fault with it. Bravo, Spotify! Thank you! (Also, how do I get a job building Spotify playlists?) A very brief list of the composers I was surprised to hear includes Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Krzysztof Pendercki. I was delighted to hear psalms recorded by a friend, and a psalm commissioned by an organization I admire. I loved seeing the albums from which the psalms were selected (that alone will provide me many hours of exploring). The sheer variety of musical diversity within the broad category of “classical” is refreshing, stunning, and challenging.

Two takeaway thoughts about this list and the experience of listening through it. (In my OCD way: sequentially, five psalms a day. Some things don’t change.)
1—Someone at Spotify seemed to think there is enough interest is classical sacred music to warrant this playlist. Not to be snarky (really) but I wonder if it is even possible to find all 150 psalms in contemporary Christian musical styles? It would be interesting to attempt—but I leave that for someone with a higher tolerance than I have. Only, let such a list be psalm settings, not musical settings of random verses from the psalms. That is the challenge.
2—Over and over through December I was struck with the paucity of psalm singing in the churches I attend. While much of the so-called evangelical church debates what are hymns and spiritual songs, and what should be their balance in services, hardly anyone is faithfully, diligently, respectfully, historically attending to the first part of St. Paul’s injunction: sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs . . .