Great Art and a People’s Music

Ask directors of amateur Jewish choral societies to name great pieces of “Jewish music.” Chances are, their answers will include several psalm settings: from selections of Salomone Rossi’s 1622–23 Songs of Salomon, to Louis Lewandowski’s 1870s showpiece arrangement of Psalm 150, psalm settings by prominent Israeli composers such as Tzvi Avni and Yehzekel Braun, Leonard Bernstein’s 1965 Chichester Psalms (Pss. 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, 133), Robert Starer’s Psalms of Woe and Joy (Pss. 6, 136, 148), Benjie Ellen Schiller’s Psalm 150, and even, as a crossover curiosity, Franz Schubert’s late 1820s setting of Psalm 92. Featuring Hebrew texts, these settings connect singers with traditional canons of Jewish knowledge. At the same time, they represent “art” as long-form examples of melody, harmony, and form.

Ask congregants what psalms they know from the liturgy. Some might offer numbers (150, 145, 92, 23), or substitute Hebrew names (“Halleluyah,” “Ashrei,” “Mizmor Shir”/”Tzaddik Katamar,” “Hashem Ro’i”); some might identify specific liturgical moments for introducing sets of psalms (Kabbalat Shabbat, P’sukei D’Zimrah, Hallel). But to most, psalms instead integrate deeply into Judaism’s ritual fabric: as a spiritual “warm-up,” as part of the liturgy’s emotional trajectory, as spiritual sustenance when preparing a body for burial, as a marker of spiritual time, as a medium for private reflection. For most worshipers, psalms are one part of a multilayered liturgy, alongside prayer texts, biblical and rabbinic writings, praise songs (piyyutim), and vernacular-language readings. Worshipers include psalms in their musical knowledge, whether in near-silent prayer, lined-out, read in interpretive translations, or sung with full-throated melodies. But, for the most part, Jewish worshipers don’t “sing psalms.” Rather, they pray, using all of the textual and musical sources available to them in a single worshipful package.

In my years of studying cantors, I have seen the psalms receive respect as part of a larger body of Jewish prayer materials. But I don’t recall hearing students or cantors give the psalms their own category, or hearing the psalms singled out as a unique genre within Jewish worlds of music.

Look closer in all of these settings, and you’ll see an internally consistent system at work. The act of singing psalms in concert offers a means for Jews to connect to broad social and spiritual conversations. In 1963, Washington, D.C. cantor Sholom Katz led a “Choir of Cantors” on a two-LP album of psalm settings, where he noted that “the Psalter has become the hymnbook of humanity because it is an inexhaustible and indispensable expression of the human spirit.” Fifty years later, the Zamir Chorale of Boston released its album Psalmsensation, presenting prominent psalm settings by Jewish composers alongside settings by William Billings, Charles Ives, and other international artists, to create “a multiethnic concert experience.” Follow many of these same singers into personal and communal prayer settings, however, and the psalms will change their role accordingly. Such is the flexibility of a canonical text, both liturgically and musically. Through whispering or recitation, monophonic or choral singing, Jews thus mediate the psalms’ foundational place in Judeo-Christian tradition with their own specific traditions of spiritual practice.


Judah M. Cohen is Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Musicology at Indiana University. He has authored The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment, and Sounding Jewish Tradition: The Music of Central Synagogue. Recent publications include the “Jewish Music” article in the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, and the Music entry for Oxford Bibliographies in Jewish Studies. He is currently at work on a study of World War II-era narratives in musical theater.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Cohen. Judah M. (2014) “Great Art and a People’s Music,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 9.
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Psalm Singing in Roman Catholic Liturgy

Before the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholics were an unbiblical people. Today, all that has changed and the scriptures are familiar to regular churchgoers. Two major factors in making this transition have been the use of vernacular translations and the reintroduction of the Responsorial Psalm into the Mass after an absence of over fifteen hundred years.

With the Responsorial Psalm, the object of the post-conciliar liturgical reformers was to place into the mouths of worshipers the sung texts of brief psalm extracts as refrains, for this was always a sung item in the form in which it flourished in roughly the fifth through sixth centuries. The reason it had died out was because the musicians got hold of it, resulting in its replacement by prolix Latin Gradual chants, which effectively excluded the assembly as the music became more and more elaborate.

The post-conciliar reformers, then, were intent upon engaging the people once again as an integral part of the chant after the First Reading, which links that reading to the Gospel. To aid this, along with the reinstatement of the Responsorial Psalm, has come the reinstatement of the role of the cantor or psalmist (and this in turn has led to the development of the ministry of cantor or leader of song for the entire celebration, not just the psalm).

The classic Responsorial Psalm form consists of a refrain (often called a response) sung first by one or more cantors and repeated by all, followed by a stanza (often of four lines, or two psalm verses) sung by the cantor, with the people singing the refrain after each stanza. The form is called “responsorial” not just because it includes a response but because it is a response (to the First Reading). Not all scholars agree that this is the case, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does include instructions for singing the “Responsorial” Psalm without a response. (Very few people in fact do this.)

Responsorial psalmody developed out of an earlier form in which an Alleluia or other brief refrain was sung by the people at the end of every line of the psalm. The effect was something like a litany, and it is sometimes known as “antiphonal psalmody.”

A large musical repertoire has been generated in different styles over the forty-five years since the revised Ordo Lectionum Missae appeared in 1969. Some have been disappointed that the new Lectionary contains only excerpts from the psalms, normally four stanzas, rather than psalms being used in their entirety (which has in fact happened more recently with the increasing use of Entrance and Communion psalms with their antiphons). Complete psalms are, however, used in the Liturgy of the Hours, where they are bookended with an antiphon before and after. (For that reason this form is often incorrectly known as “antiphonal psalmody,” whereas, in its monastic form, it should be termed “alternating psalmody,” as it is sung by two sides of the choir or church in alternation.)

Anglican and Episcopal churches have also now adopted the responsorial format as a new way of singing the psalms, though not yet to a large extent. In the Catholic Church, the Psallite project has shown the pathway for numerous new variants on the basic refrain-plus-psalm form, and future challenges are emerging in the area of multilingual or intercultural psalmody. The Responsorial Psalm is undoubtedly one of the success stories of the post-conciliar reforms, and one can truly say that the vast majority of congregations now respond enthusiastically to the Psalmist’s exhortation: Psallite sapienter — “Sing praise with all your skill!” (Ps. 47:8).


Paul Inwood is an internationally-known liturgist, composer, organist, choral director, author and clinician. His work is found in hymnbooks across the English-speaking world, and he is a frequent contributor to liturgical journals, blogs and forums. He was responsible for the introduction of the music of Taizé into the UK in the 1970s and the music of the Iona Community into the USA in the 1980s. From 1986 to 1998 he was a president of the international liturgical music study group Universa Laus. In 2009 he was named Pastoral Musician of the Year by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.


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Recommended Citation: Inwood, Paul (2014) “Psalm Singing in the Roman Catholic Communion,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 10.
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All of Life Can Be Sung

She seemed to be nearing her last breath. The family had gathered. Then, unprompted, her young granddaughter started singing “The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want” to the old Scottish tune. Suddenly Psalm 23 was on her lips and the room filled with sung prayer.

This is one of the profound dimensions of singing the psalms: when they become the language of the heart, all of life can be sung. The trust, the praise, the comfort are here, but so also the lament, the trembling, and the anguish. Psalms provide for us a language that addresses God with the whole of life. They are the language of the soul made audible.

Whether it is “Out of the depths,” or “Make a joyful noise,” or “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” these ancient scriptural texts are always now: this feast, this fast, this grief, this gathering. The human body and the human spirit are given over to the Holy One who hears us in season and out of season. In that sense, the Psalter always lies in wait for us to discover anew the divine prompting.

Yet the psalms are also given to faith communities as discipline and rehearsal. Both are required for maturation of life with God. The psalms discipline us to all the great themes of scripture: creation, covenant, sin and struggle, instruction, hope, and the vision of a redeemed world. We learn to sing and pray over time even when we don’t “feel” exactly what the texts image. This is part of the mystery: we are called to rehearse for what we don’t fully understand about our world, the divine promises, and ourselves.

Like learning to play an instrument or learning to love deeply, learning to sing the world and our lives to God takes time. Sometimes the “music” comes naturally, but it often takes a long time before the psalms begin to sing us. The multiple musical forms given to the larger Jewish and Christian traditions blessedly come to our aid. Various traditions are more at home with some forms: metrical, responsorial, antiphonal, chant, improvisational, and through-composed. (Think here of the glorious tradition of choral anthems.) If we are fortunate, we may be able to sing the psalms in all these forms, thus liberating — even in the same psalm — multiple layers of meaning and relevance.

In my own experience as musician and as member of the assembly, I especially treasure how singing the psalms opens the emotional range of Christian faith. Sharing psalms, even in the simplest of musical settings, puts me in solidarity with others who also know the broken heart, the angers and fears, as well as unbounded joy and thanks. A community thus created also begins to sense that we are actually part of the greater chorus of the whole of creation: “Let everything that breathes, praise the Lord.” To sing and make music, no matter how humble, is a gift. Thus we render the exchange gift back to God — singing our lives and our world to the true Source of life and world.


Don E. Saliers is Cannon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Liturgy at Emory University.  He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Society for Christian Spirituality. Among his many publications are Worship As Theology and A Song to Sing; with his daughter Emily Saliers he coauthored A Life to Live.  An active musician, he is organist/choirmaster at Emory’s Cannon Chapel, and teaches in the summer sessions at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music, as well as leading seminars and retreats.


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Saliers, Don E. (2014) “All of Life can Be Sung,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 11.
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