Oct 15, 2007

The Chabanel Psalms

Online Edition: October 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 7

The Chabanel Psalms
New and Better Psalms for Your Parish

An Interview with Jeffrey Ostrowski

More good news in the world of Catholic music — the Chabanel Psalms. In August, a new website appeared that provides free downloads of beautiful, solemn, and supremely practical settings of the Responsorial Psalms for the entire liturgical year: http://chabanelpsalms.org. The work of the youthful church music scholar and composer Jeffrey Ostrowski, the Chabanel Psalms — named for Saint Noël Chabanel, one of the North American Jesuit martyrs — is a valuable resource that provides a viable option for parishes who want to improve their liturgical music.

Following is our interview with the composer, who generously offers this free gift to the Church.

Q. What prompted you to compose music for all three liturgical cycles of Catholic Responsorial Psalms?

A: I’m a music director who works within the “ordinary form” of the Mass, in regular parish environments. But for many years, I was privileged to be the music director at a parish where the “extraordinary form” of Mass was offered. The psalm issue in the old form was uncomplicated. But the Responsorial Psalm that is commonly used in the new form presents a puzzle.

In my experience, nearly every Responsorial Psalm I had ever heard sung in parishes was seriously defective. Most often, they are musically trite, awkward, and, in short, unworthy of the House of God. I also found the texts themselves very confusing; that is, I could not find a readily available resource that clearly showed which texts are prescribed for each Mass during the different liturgical years. In the books from “mainstream” publishers, I found that divergence from the official, prescribed text was the norm rather than the exception.

Q: So you decided to do something about it?

A: Yes. I took it upon myself to write every Responsorial Psalm that I ever used (even for Spanish Masses), which (as you can imagine) really did get me familiar with this part of the Mass. In the “extraordinary form” of Mass, we often used a “psalm tone” for a Gradual, Tract, or Alleluia verse, so I saw no reason why the Responsorial Psalm verses could not be set to a beautiful Gregorian psalm tone — with a dignified, simple, beautiful modal refrain.

Q: So these settings have all been tested in real time, so to speak.

A: All of them. It is a delight to see the congregation lift their voices to God in the psalms using the melodies I composed, and the extent to which people joined in singing taught me a lot about what works in a parish setting. A great church musician once said, “You have to know what the butter costs.” In other words, it is one thing to sit back and think about what might work in a parish setting, and another to actually test these ideas. I find that when provided with a dignified-yet-simple setting of the holy text, the entire congregation never fails to sing with joy!

Since posting the Chabanel Psalms online, I’ve received dozens and dozens of appreciative messages from directors of music, publishers, and pastors. They say that they are using them and that they work. This is just great! But it wasn’t on my own initiative that we put all these online. Last summer, the Catholic artists’ institute, Corpus Christi Watershed, asked me to do a liturgical project. I thought there was a real need for what I had been doing five times a Sunday for two years, so my purpose was to fill this gap. Thus, thanks to the generosity of Watershed, the Chabanel Psalms were born!

Q. Did you follow any type of a compositional model?

A: I truly did. I have to be careful here to be brief, since the model I chose is so astounding, yet so unknown, that I tend to talk about it far too much. My model was the Nova Organi Harmonia (NOH), a collection of Gregorian organ accompaniments done by the Lemmens Institute in Belgium during the 1940s. I describe this magnificent work in the Introductory Material on the Chabanel Psalms website, along with some examples. The main contributors to this 2,500-page work were Monsignor Jules Van Nuffel and Flor Peeters (who later published his Method of Gregorian Accompaniment to explain the principles followed by him and his peers in their creation of the NOH).

If I had to name the three most important aspects of this eight-volume collection, these would be: (1) every note and chord is gorgeously modal; (2) the entire work is done in a unified style; and (3) the creators of the NOH, following the lead of their predecessors, perfected the notation of chant accompaniments in a truly marvelous way. My careful study of the NOH over a period of years was indispensable to creating the Chabanel Psalms.

Q. How can organists and singers acquire a copy of the Chabanel Psalms?

A: The Chabanel Psalms are offered completely free of charge to anyone who has internet access. This generosity on the part of Corpus Christi Watershed stems from the fact that Watershed exists to serve the Church. You need only print, play, and sing.

Q. Some of the slots on the Chabanel website seem to have multiple entries. For example, on the Feast of the Epiphany, there are three different melodies: one in honor of Saint Casimir, one for Saint Dominic, and one for Saint Cyprian. Why is this?

A: I tried to take into consideration individual taste, giving people as many options as possible, so many of the feasts have multiple refrain melodies. Let’s say that you don’t care for the refrain melody in honor of Saint Casimir, but you still want to use the Chabanel Psalms on Epiphany. Well, why not try the Saint Dominic melody? Or, perhaps you feel that the Saint Cyprian melody would be the easiest for your congregation to pick up. I named the various refrain melodies after Catholic saints to avoid any confusion (if the singers go to the web site to print off their scores).

Q. The layout of the music is different for the singers and organist.

A: That is correct. The singers’ scores are formatted so that they fit on a single page, which saves time copying when an entire choir sings the Chabanel Psalms. The organist’s scores are formatted to minimize page turns, yet be as legible as possible. Formatting the scores this way was the most time-consuming part of all, but musicians will love it. Both singers and organists will appreciate that this formatting places each word of every single psalm verse and refrain directly above the corresponding note. As Vladimir Horowitz once said, “Music is already hard: why make it harder? Better to make it easier.”

Q. Musicians who have used them say that the Chabanel Psalms are distinctive and dignified. Why is this?

A: I think it’s because they are almost exclusively modal, and were individually written to fit the texts like a glove — rather than forcing the texts to fit the melody. That truly was my modus operandi. I tried to set the sacred text to eminently dignified melodies, worthy of the Church’s public worship of God. If I were to name an unusual element, it would be the different harmonizations I provide for the Chabanel Refrains.

Q: Why did you provide these multiple harmonizations?

A: The answer to that is slightly complex. I think that, by its very nature, the usual method of singing the Responsorial Psalm lowers the standard of music. The Liturgical Calendar has three cycles of readings: for Years A, B, and C. Thus there is a different Responsorial Psalm refrain every week.

The organist normally plays the melody once, the cantor sings it once, and then the congregation has to repeat it. The congregation ordinarily has to learn a new tune every week, and they only hear it twice before they have to repeat it! So this method, by its very nature, lowers the standard of music, because the refrain melody must be very simple for a congregation sing it at all.

I decided to compose most of the refrains in rhythm rather than free Gregorian rhythm, to make it easier for parishioners to learn them. My initial fears of mixing a Gregorian psalm tone with a rhythmic refrain turned out to be unfounded. (Renaissance polyphonic composers who set psalms, Magnificats, and hymns alternately with chant verses and polyphonic verses could doubtless have told me that in advance!)

Before doing this, I reflected on a particular Mass of Cristóbal de Morales, based on the Mille Regretz melody. (This Mass, in my opinion, is one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of the world!) I noticed that this great early Renaissance Spanish master was not content with the settings of this tune that already existed, so he based an entire Mass on the Mille Regretz tune, which repeats over and over in various voices (especially the high voices). Morales later composed alternate versions of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei (still based completely on the Mille Regretz melody), using ingenious compositional prowess that defies description.

If Morales could make masterpiece after masterpiece setting the same tune over and over, I reasoned, why could not this be done with the Responsorial Psalm idiom? Hence, organists who employ the Chabanel Psalms will notice numerous harmonizations of the same refrain tune — sometimes as many as ten different harmonizations (clearly labeled with large letters of the alphabet for the organist’s ease in choosing).

The organist can choose harmonizations based on the singers, the acoustics of the room, the size and type of the organ, the congregation’s musical skill, etc. He also can decide which harmonization would be appropriate as an introduction, as well as which one would be subtle enough for when the cantor sings the refrain the first time. Then, too, depending on how well the congregation does repeating the refrain and how many times the refrain is repeated on a particular Sunday, the organist is encouraged to use “more interesting” harmonizations with each repeat.

Many organists have the skill to “reharmonize” instantly, which they often do with hymns. However, I know of no published Responsorial Psalm collection that prints different harmonizations for organists who lack either the training or the time to do this. (Incidentally, the NOH editors did this as well, never harmonizing the same melody — even repeated verses of a Gregorian hymn — the same way twice. Oh, how artistic!)

Q. How do you think that the Chabanel Psalms will affect the musical idiom of the Responsorial Psalms?

A: I hope they bring people to appreciate the beauty of Gregorian chant (even a simple Gregorian psalm tone). Ultimately, it would be wonderful if Catholic churches could get back to singing the Gradual, instead of the Responsorial Psalm, because I think this is the best way to foster meditation on the word of God (which, after all, is what the Church says this part of the Mass should do).

However, there is also such a thing as taking people where they are, and the Responsorial Psalm has become the ordinary option. After all, the Graduals can be very difficult to sing. Most people are not aware that the Pontifical Commission appointed by Pius X to produce the Editio Vaticana (Vatican Edition of chant) considered this same question more than a century ago. I was astounded to learn that the great master of Gregorian chant and member of the Pontifical Commission, Dr. Peter Wagner, suggested that the Gradual and Alleluia be omitted entirely in Churches that could not easily prepare these difficult Latin chants!

Most people also do not realize that the rubrics for the pre-Conciliar (extraordinary) form of the Mass always allowed the Gradual’s Responsory to be repeated after the verse is sung, this being called the “responsorial method”; though I think very few choirs in the last century have ever sung the Gradual this way — that is, when the Gradual was sung at all!

Q. Have you completed the Chabanel Psalms?

A: I have completed and posted about four hundred scores, but have not finished all three liturgical years yet. Most of the missing feasts will not even occur until 2009. However, even if I were to die tomorrow, and never complete the missing psalms, one could still “get by” using the Seasonal Psalms, which are allowed by the Church “in order that the people may be able to join in the Responsorial Psalm more readily.”

Organists and composers are encouraged to e-mail me their own Responsorial Psalms, and if they are similar in style, I would like to post them on the Chabanel Psalms site as additional options that may be used. This is in keeping with the mission of Corpus Christi Watershed, which is to promote the work of Catholic artists. Please visit: http://chabanelpsalms.org.


Jeffrey Ostrowski, who was recently married, is a liturgical composer, music editor, organist, and early music scholar, who currently directs the Corpus Christi Cathedral Schola Cantorum, teaches choir at John Paul II High School, and works for Corpus Christi Watershed. (Adoremus reviewed his first CD, Dignus et Agnus, in April 2004.)

Corpus Christi Watershed, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was founded in the Fall of 2006 on the Feast of Saint Philip Howard, a poet and one of the English Martyrs. Another one of Watershed’s patrons is Saint Philip Neri, a fervent promoter of polyphony and excellence in sacred music; following his example, Watershed seeks to bring people to Christ through the arts. The organization is funded by donations. Among the duties of the Watershed staff are daily holy hours, the recitation of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and a commitment to the life of contemplative prayer. Visit Watershed on the web at http://corpuschristiwatershed.org/modules/news/.



The Editors