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Saturday, November 29, 2014

OCP's Grail Fail

When OCP touted composer Bob Hurd's new settings for the Grail Psalter, I met the news with some guarded optimism.  I was hopeful that perhaps OCP and Hurd had both turned a page and that something sacred would finally come forth from the publishing house and its composer.

The actual Grail Psalter is a beautifully translated text that is far superior to what we have in our present lectionaries.  The language is sacred and unambiguous.  Surely, such a sacred text deserves to be clothed in proper music.  The music should be the light that highlights the beauty of the text and the salt that gives it taste.

Unfortunately, Grail Psalms for Sunday Worship does neither.  The light it is supposed to shine towards the text winds up blinding it while too much salt kills the composition.  In his introduction to the compilation, Hurd paraphrases from the Introduction to the Lectionary, writing that "the primary focus of the assembly during the Liturgy of the Word" is "meditation".  He writes that "the responsorial psalm is key to this mediation, or 'chewing the cud' of the Word."  He later explains the method he employed for his compositions:
"Given this distinctive role of the responsorial psalm, it seemed to me that its musical form could be distinctive, too: leaner than the usual song form, more proportionate to the unfolding readings, and most especially, more conducive to a meditative posture of chewing the cud of the Word.  To accomplish this, I have blended chant and meter in these settings.  The refrains are in a contemporary, metered style.  The verses begin with chant tones and then turn back into metered music part way through in order to segue smoothly into the metered refrain."
While Hurd may have meant well, the compositions he created accomplish neither.  Music is supposed to be the handmaid of the sacred liturgy, not the other way around.  What Hurd wound up doing is to make the music matter more than the words that it is supposed to accentuate.

His setting for Psalm 16, "Lord, You Will Show Us the Path of Life" repeats the refrain for the sake of the music, rather than letting the text speak for itself.  The verses start off well, but, wind up turning into something that is more fit for a pop song than for the liturgy.  The setting for Psalm 19: "Your Words, Lord, Are Spirit and Life" also falls into the same trap.  There is no need to have the refrain repeated twice.  The verses can be salvaged if the same chant tone for the first half can be carried into the second half.  Psalm 90, "Fill Us with Your Love, O Lord and  We Will Sing for Joy" carries with it an unnecessary repetition of the second half of the refrain.  Hurd forces the text into his music instead of the other way around.  He makes his musical setting more important than the words themselves.  Psalm 63, "My Soul Is Thirsting for You, O Lord, My God" could have worked, however, the second half of the verse has too much of a contemporary feel and the musical interludes between the repeated refrain do not give it the character of a proper responsorial psalm.  Psalm 40, "Here Am I Lord, I Come to Do Your Will" unnecessarily repeats the refrain. Rather than compose a clean and pure setting, Hurd adds too much salt to the composition, failing to give the text its proper seasoning.  Psalm 34, "Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord" suffers from the same fate;  its repetitive refrain does not really work.  If the refrain is sung once between verses, then it could certainly work.  Psalm 103, "The Lord is Kind and Merciful" (different from the one reviewed below) also carries the same double refrain that does not really help.  The music is the same the setting reviewed below, however, the repetitive refrain would be a strike against it.  Here, as in the other compositions, Hurd makes the music more important.  It would have been better to compose a different setting instead of recycling one that he previously used.  With the exception of those reviewed in the next paragraph, the rest of the Grail Psalm settings suffer from the same fate.

There are some small glimmers of hope. Hurd's version of Psalm 23, "The Lord is My Shepherd" is perhaps one of  the most passable of the group.  He was able to keep some of the integrity of what the responsorial psalm is supposed to be like.  However, even here, the over-use of instrumentation drowns out the beauty of the text.  The verses are not as overloaded with music as is the setting for Psalm 23.   Psalm 98, "The Lord Comes to Rule the Earth with Justice" is another one that seems hopeful; however, the verses would have to be tweaked as there is that over-emphasis on the music that leaves the words in the dust.  Psalm 19, "Lord, You Have the Words of Everlasting Life" is perhaps the most hopeful.  He does not repeat the text and he manages to preserve some semblance to what a responsporial psalm is supposed to sound like.  With some tweaking of the second half of the verse, this could work.  Psalm 103, "The Lord is Kind and Merciful, Slow to Anger and Rich in Compassion" is another one that is hopeful.  With some minor tweaking of the second half of the verses, it could also work.

Hurd would have been better off using the settings by Joseph Gelineau SJ for the Grail Psalter.  Gelineau's settings are beautiful and quite in tune with the sacred character of the liturgy.  They highlight the text, but do not overwhelm it.  Even Owen Aslett would have been better suited for the task.

I wish I could have found more psalms from Hurd's collection that would have been useful, but, after listening to the 27 compositions in their entirety, it was difficult as I could not chew the cud properly due to over seasoning.