As someone who loves music but has never had the skills to write it, I am always fascinated when composers give a glimpse of the multitude of factors that come into play when writing a piece of music.
Following David Gambrell’s article on the history of the church’s use of the twenty-third Psalm, we have a brand new composition of an antiphon for that most popular of Psalms in Isaac Everett’s “Psalm 23: A Musical Exegesis.” In his article, Everett draws back the curtain of the compositional process and allows us to see the various factors which he takes into account when writing liturgical music.
After discussing the relationship between the Psalm’s form and its content and the occasions of the Psalm’s use in both Sunday worship and occasional services, Everett goes on to explain how those issues effect his decisions about mode, key and meter. He ends with the antiphon itself: a haunting melody that puts one in mind of Bach’s Bourrée in E minor.
When singing this antiphon with a worshiping community, I have the participants sing the antiphon through two or three times and then intersperse it with the text, which is read aloud. While the text is read, I improvise quietly beneath the reading, either in A major, in F minor, or shifting between the two, depending on the mood of the service. I have also sung this antiphon successfully over just a pedal tone, or even a capella....Singing in this call-and-response method not only creates dynamic interactivity, but also allows for full engagement by those who neither have the psalm memorized nor have a copy of the psalm in front of them. Alternatively, this antiphon can be used as a repetitive chant independent of the text itself, and as a gathering song, a meditation, or a response to a litany. The unresolved nature of the music lends itself to repetition, and the familiar character of the words will call the rest of the psalm to mind for many people, even if the text itself is never read.
Truly, if you only purchase one article from this issue of Liturgy, this should be the one you purchase. The antiphon is lovely, and you will enjoy using it in worship.
Isaac Everett (2012): Psalm 23: A Musical Exegesis, Liturgy, 27:3, 40.
Isaac Everett is the minister of liturgical arts for The Crossing, an emerging Christian community in Boston. He is a musician, songwriter, and hymnist with two albums of sacred music, Rotation and Transmission, available on Proost, iTunes, and Rhapsody. This article was adapted from The Emergent Psalter (New York: Church Publishing, 2009), a commentary and musical setting of the psalms written for intimate worship.