Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
One of the more unusual music volumes in my collection is Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter. It was kindly bought for me as a Christmas gift by my parents-in-law a couple years ago, which was quite a surprise (though considering the vast length of my Amazon Wish Lists, it’s pretty easy for me to be surprised by gifts). There was brief concern on my part, as I had just purchased stack of old books of chant, mass parts, choral services for the Daily Office, and so forth… would this book be redundant?
It turns out no, what this provides is a little different, and a lot more organized. The title indicates that this book contains the Psalms marked for plainchant, but it has so much more inside. It has some information and history of plainchant, including instructions on how to read and sing it. It also provides chant settings (and text) for the entire Morning and Evening Office according to classical Prayer Book tradition! With the resources in this single volume, you can chant the entire Morning Prayer (Matins) or Evening Prayer (Evensong) service, including the Scripture lessons.
It includes a walk-through of the ritual/ceremonial for a solemn chanted Office, and provides several chant tones for several Canticles that could be used at the Morning and Evening Office, even including the Athanasian Creed, and some Marian Anthems for those who want to high-church it up at the end of Evensong. At the back, there’s a table of tones – an index of chant tunes, basically – which is a helpful study resource both for one who wants to learn to sing the chants regularly, and for one who wants to study this fascinating corner of music history.
It’s also worth noting that the plainchant tunes for the Psalms are not quite the same as in the traditional Roman Rite, but reflect the British variants that developed over the course of history. So although this is a very “old-fashioned” traditional book, it is not crypto-Papist, but celebrates our Anglican heritage.
Of course, all the worship text is in traditional Prayer Book English.
The ratings in short…
With all the resources and explanations in this book, it is inevitably a bit tricky to navigate at first. If you want to sing an Office, you need a bookmark in the Psalms section, in the Office liturgy section, and in the Canticles section.
Devotional Usefulness: 4/5
If you want to chant some or all of the Office, and don’t know how, this book will both teach you and provide everything you need for it. All you need besides this is the Collect of the Day and Scripture readings appointed in your Prayer Book. I give it a 4 instead of a 5 only because of all the explanatory text that makes the book a bit unwieldy… a more “professional” chorister or chanter would use a more streamlined book with fewer helps.
Reference Value: 5/5
If you don’t want to chant the Office, then this book is of purely academic value. But its academic value is superb. The history of chant, the application of chant in English practice, how to arrange and order a solemn Daily Office service, all make this book quite handy on your shelf even if you never intend to chant the Psalms in your church.
Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter is available from Lancelot Andrewes Press.
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For those who are interested, there are recordings of the Psalms chanted to the tones in the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter on the CanticaSacra.org website. This is a resource for those who are learning how to chant the Psalms and may not feel confident in doing it alone yet. From the main page, go to “Music in Our Liturgy,” then “Psalms,” then “Psalms by Number” to find the list of recordings.
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