A couple years ago I jumped on a rare offer: someone was selling a pile of old and out-of-print books of liturgical music and I managed to procure a nice stack. The downside with them is that they are keyed to the traditional lectionary and calendar, so very little of it is stuff that I can use in my own church without careful adaptation and re-purposing. But if I do end up in a 1928 Prayer Book parish some day, or start up a traditional service, this vintage materials could be super handy.
The book I’ve ended up using the most, in my own devotions, is The American Psalter, published by The H. W. Gray Company in 1930, for the Protestant Episcopal Church.
The Preface provides a quick history of Anglican Chant, noting John Merbecke and dwelling particularly on Thomas Tallis, both from the first century of the English Reformation. Some people accuse Anglican Chant of being an Anglo-Catholic invention of the 19th century; historical information like this helps bust that myth. The method of “pointing”, that is, matching the text to the chant tune, is outlined, noting its diverse methods over the years since, and works its way toward explaining how the present volume works, and how to sing its contents.
The American Psalter contains chants for the “Choral Service” (that is, the main prayers and responses of the Daily Office), Anglican Chant tunes for the various Canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, and all 150 Psalms. A handful of other anthems are provided after, and every chant tune is indexed in the end. Of course, the text of all these canticles and psalms match the 1928 Prayer Book, but now that we have the New Coverdale Psalter in the 2019 Prayer Book, with verbiage that closely resembles the original Prayer Book Psalter, it is pleasantly easy to line up this 90-year-old book with our brand-new Prayer Book. I used it pretty frequently this past summer, as I began to settle into the 2019 BCP and got into a chanting mood for a while.
Now, this book is probably hard to find these days, so in a sense writing about it today, in 2020, seems a bit silly. How are you, the reader, going to benefit from this? I’ll share an example of an insight from this book that may spark creativity from my fellow modern-day chanters. Several Psalms are quite long, and using the same chant for fifteen minutes could get monotonous. What The American Psalter does is break up a long psalm into multiple chants.This isn’t the whole of Psalm 107, but you can get the idea. It begins (on the previous page) with a cheerful Single Chant in D Major for three verses “O Give thanks unto the Lord…” followed by a somber Single Chant in D Minor for verses 4 & 5 “They went astray in the wilderness…” Then, on the pages shown in the picture above, the Psalm switches between about three different-but-related chants reflecting the different voices and moods as the narrative of Psalm 107 unfolds.
This is probably the most complex example; other long psalms receive more simple treatment. Psalm 109 spends verses 1-4 in a pleasant C Major Double Chant, changes to an A Minor Double Chant with a similar melodic contour for verses 5-19, and switches back to the original chant for verses 20-30. Even simpler is Psalm 44, wherein verses 1-9 are sung with a Double Chant in G Major, and verses 10-26 sung in the exact same chant tune transposed to G Minor.
The underlying lesson here is that chanting does not have to be boring or unimaginative. The wealth of chant tunes, and the ease with which one can edit them, opens up a world of musical possibilities. Opting for Anglican Chant in your church does not have to mean that your skilled musicians are out of a job! Yes, chanting is extremely simple, and you don’t need particularly talented musicians to make it happen (which is kind of the point of chant, really, being something simple for all voices to join in), but there is still room for talent, creativity, and skill to step in.
Anyway, don’t go out of your way to track down a copy of this book unless you’re particularly trying to build a church music resource library. Instead, keep your eye on the ACNA committee for music’s Psalter Page. They’re still pretty early in their work of compiling chant psalters for the 2019 Prayer Book, so if you’ve got ideas, encouragements, or questions, now’s your chance to make a difference!