Ideally, both according to Prayer Book tradition as well as the general history Christian worship, the Psalms are most appropriate sung, not simply read aloud. And when people talk about singing, that universally means chanting (until, say, the 14th century when modern European music began to emerge out of the Greco-Roman chant tradition). Among the early Anglican Reformers, chant did get a new lease on life in the English language thanks to composers like John Merbecke, but for the most part among Anglicans the chant tradition went into hibernation in the 17th and 18th centuries, finally to re-emerge in 19th century as “Anglican Chant.”
Anglican Chant is distinct from plainchant or Gregorian chant in that it has contemporary harmonizations – a choir or congregation can chant together in four-part harmony. Thus it utilizes the melodic simplicity of plainchant and the harmonic beauty of English hymnody. Anglican Chant also stands distinct from ancient plainchant in that it has very little over-arching regulation on matching tunes to texts. So there is much more room for freedom of expression, new chant tunes and combinations, and even in pointing the text (meaning, lining up the text with the notes).
Why Anglican Chant? The singing of “metric psalms” enjoyed pride of place for those couple centuries when chant was in remission. Metric psalms are perhaps easier for us to sing because they use familiar tunes and styles. The downside of metric psalms, however, is that the Psalms are not written in English poetic rhythms or rhyme schemes, necessitating an entirely new translation. This means neglect of the beautiful Psalter in our Prayer Books, less standardization of the actual translation (so the formation value is less prominent), and a much looser translation overall in order to force thousands-of-years-old poems into modern poetic styles. If you use plainchant, or Anglican chant, you don’t have to re-translate the Psalms, but sing the text as it stands. And to those of us who care deeply about the Word of God, that should be a very important consideration indeed!
There are videos on YouTube such as this one which can help you learn Anglican Chant. There are also books and hymnals that have detailed written explanations. But what I’d like to introduce you to here is Simplified Anglican Chant. As the name suggests, this is a simpler version of the Anglican Chant you’ll hear and see in the videos and books above.
Simplified Anglican Chant is notated as four measures of music with two sets of notes each. Each measure equals one half-verse of Psalm text. Thus one full line of Simplified Anglican Chant equals two verses in the text of the Psalm.* The majority of the half-verse is sung on the first note; the last ‘strong’ syllable is where you switch to the second note.
If you have the Book of Common Praise 2017, you’ll find an excellent explanation of this, complete with pictures, at “hymn” #738a. Hymns #739-750 are twelve different Simplified Anglican Chant tunes.
Whether you have that book or not, however, you can take a look at this video I put together a little while ago. In it, I go over some of the basics described above, and then demonstrate a few verses of Psalm 96 (which is among this morning’s appointed psalms, by the way).
The sample tune I used is not one of the twelve in the hymnal; it’s just one I vaguely remembered from when I was in a church choir nearly nine years ago.
* From the 2017 hymnal: “But what if a psalm contains an odd number of verses rather than an even number? Rather than finish the chant formula halfway through, which would be musically unfulfilling, the congregation can repeat the second half of the chant formula (measures 3 and 4) for the last verse of the psalm.“