Gaelic Psalm Chant

Maybe you thought Psalm chanting was always Gregorian (or Byzantine or Old Roman or Ambrosian or Mozarabic).

(David Koyzis also wrote of this, last year.) Scotland Glen quotes the liner notes of a recording:

Lowland Scots took well to ballad metre, which was familiar to them in folksong, & ‘reading the line’ (“precenting” in Scottish tradition, “lining-out” in American Southern tradition) became so much a part of the church’s praise that it came to be regarded as a venerable Scottish custom. Later church music reformers campaigned to abolish it, and it gradually became extinct, except in Gaelic-speaking areas.

When the psalms were translated into Gaelic the metre used was again ballad metre, so that the same Lowland tunes could be used. This metre was and is entirely alien to Gaelic literature and any other Gaelic poetry composed in it is parody. The way in which ‘reading the line’ broke up the quatrain into eight lines of differing length may have been a welcome alleviation of ballad metre for the Gaelic singer.

The person who read the line became known as the precentor. Nowadays it is the precentor’s duty not only to let the congregation hear clearly the text it is to sing next, but also to give a hint of the melody line by pinpointing its more important tunes. The repertoire varies from seventeen to twenty tunes, which are basically the same as those that appear under the same name in the Church Hymnary or the Scottish Psalter. Melodic modifications do occur in some of the tunes in the process of adaptation to Gaelic modal patterns, but these are not to be taken as the only cause of the unaccustomed listener’s confusion as he tries to link the printed tune with the Gaelic version. There is no clear break between the precentor’s chant and the beginning or end of the original musical text; the singing is very slow, possibly to convey the solemnity of the occasion even if the psalm is a joyful one; and passing notes and grace notes are introduced to decorate the basic melody – but not to the extent of obscuring it, and the precentor’s voice should keep the congregation together on the basic notes, which coincide with the beginnings of syllables.

I must admit, there’s something that makes me like Gaelic psalm singing such that I’ll refrain from making objective claims (but I do find it beautiful!), except a few:

  1. it expresses a mysterious, emotional solemnity;
  2. in the video, I was glad to see, the whole congregation seemed to be participating heartily;
  3. it seems pentatonic and so potentially compatible with the Chinese musical tradition and the nature of the Chinese language.

This is a treasure of the Scottish Presbyterian heritage, worth preserving not just for Scotland but indeed for the Church at large.

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