King David playing the harp among angels (1628)
Hendrick Ter Brugghen (Dutch, 1588-1629)

The Psalms. We sing them at Sunday Mass. At the Liturgy of the Hours. The texts make up Antiphons. Many of our beloved hymns are grounded in the Psalms (such as the very popular “On Eagles Wings” by Michael Joncas, which is a musical setting of Psalm 91. Music ministers often can find musical settings of Psalms, but what is behind them that

While you may be aware that there are 150 different Psalms, the Psalms are organized into five “books”.

1. Psalms 1-41 Early collection of Davidic hymns
2. Psalms 42-72 Northern collection of hymns
3. Psalms 73-89 A collection from the Temple singers
4. Psalms 90-106 Psalms from a royal collection (for New Years?)
5. Psalms 107-150 A second and expanded Davidic royal collection

Understanding the context of where they come from is helpful. But even though they appear in different books, there are several categories of Psalms, characterized well by Fr. Lawrence Boadt, CSP:

1. Hymns of praise
2. Thanksgiving hymns
3. Individual laments
4. Community laments
5. Royal psalms honoring either THE LORD as king or the earthly king as his deputy
6. Wisdom Psalms

Perhaps you can immediately think of some that meet the category.

Psalm 51 appears on Ash Wednesday and then again the First Sunday of Lent in Year A. Looking at the Psalm 51 settings available on slmusic.org, there is a common denominator: the prevalence of minor chords. Sometimes they are referred to as “sad” chords!

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” The singer is traditionally King David after his great sins with Bathsheba and Uriah. Would “sad” be the right emotion for an individual lament?

Also consider Palm Sunday and Psalm 22. “My God, my God. Why have you abandoned me?”

By contrast, Easter Sunday – filled with Easter joy – we joyfully declare, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad!” You will not find a lot of “sad” chords in the Simply Liturgical page for Easter Sunday.

It is very easy to compare the subtle penitential nature of Lent and joy of Easter.

The rest of the year, it will be up to the music minister to capture the emotion. A Psalm of lament should sound like someone lamenting. Royal Psalms should sound majestic. Praise and Thanksgiving should sound joyful. Considering the context will surely help music ministers capture the essence of the true meaning of the text.

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