Cantus Christi: Psalm-Singing for the Masses

For my birthday, my darling wife bought me three presents: Cantus Christi, the accompanying CD set, and a 4-sermon series titled The Worship of the Saints. I’m going to review the first two here. The sermon series is definitely worth reviewing, but I’m still recovering from my shock. I’ll have to get to it later.

Cantus is a serious effort to recover psalm-singing in the church, as the proportion of the book devoted to the psalms demonstrates (196 out of 440 pages).

The single biggest challenge in psalm-singing is that while God gives us the words, He has not been pleased to preserve the original music. A saint who would sing psalms — as we are all commanded to do (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jam.5:13) — must somehow come up with the music by which to sing them. Happily, this does not mean we have to write all the music ourselves.

Over the centuries, many saints have encountered this same challenge, and have written or adapted music for the psalms. Accordingly, Cantus is also a serious attempt to mine the wealth of the Western Church’s musical tradition. The music for the psalms relies heavily on the Genevan Psalter and other early Reformation musical sources, and the hymn tunes go back as far as A.D. 800. Psalm tunes include metrical songs (hymns that ordinary folks can sing without much ado), chant (which will take a little more work), and something called “through-composed.” The “Introduction to Musical Style” defines the latter thus:

A through-composed Psalm is one in which the composer writes the music according to the demands of the text. It has the advantage of being musically interesting as well as textually accurate, setting out the actual Psalm text rather than a metrical version…The through-composed Psalm is the best for learning the Psalm text because the music aids in memorizing the words. The paradigm for this style is Thomas Tallis’s Psalm 95. It was composed to be sung by a choir, but because of its hymn-like texture, it is accessible to congregations with an adventurous spirit. To be sure, it takes more time to learn, but the effort is well worth it. Most of the Christ Church congregation were able to sing it from memory less than two years after it was introduced.

I’ve tried to follow Tallis’ Psalm 95 arrangement, and it may take me two years, too. I’m impressed by the concept, and I relish the idea of singing the actual words of the psalms instead of a metrical adaptation. Granted, once learned, the music will be an aid to memory. That said, Psalm 95 only has 11 verses, and anybody who puts in a decent effort with an intelligent strategy can memorize that much in a week. A memory method with a two-year learning curve for the same material is definitely taking the long way around.

Another noteworthy feature of Cantus is its positive delight in really, really long songs. The score for a single verse of “God Shall Arise and by His Might” takes up two full pages — and there are 12 verses. “I Will Sing My Maker’s Praises” takes up two pages and has six verses; “The God of Abraham Praise” has 12. The nine verses of “I Bind unto Myself Today” occupy an impressive four pages. Nor are these examples unique.

Given its unusual orientation in the world of Christian music, one would expect Cantus to deliver a number of wonderful, unfamiliar works, and it does not disappoint. “Why Do the Heathen Nations Vainly Rage” is an adaptation of Psalm 2 marrying the Genevan tune to words by Douglas Wilson. It made the perfect theme song for our (currently ongoing) apologetics seminar. With less than a week of practice (which I’ll discuss below), I was able to learn the song well enough to teach it, without accompaniment, to the seminar attendees.

“The Son of God Goes Forth to War” is a relatively recent hymn with a rich melody and a very convicting lyric. Here’s a sample from the second verse:

The martyr first, whose eagle eye
Could pierce beyond the grave;
Who saw his Master in the sky;
And called on Him to save.
Like Him, with pardon on his tongue,
In midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong!
Who follows in His train?

There are others; the truth is that as I write this I’ve only had the book for a week, and despite spending the vast majority of my life in hymn-singing churches, a lot of these songs are new to me.

Which is not to say that the old favorites are absent. “O, For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” puts in an appearance, as does a beautiful arrangement of William Cowper’s classic “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Likewise, as expected, “All Hail the Pow’r,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Lead on O King Eternal,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” and so on.

Of course, in a hymnal with this much uncommon material, there’s bound to be a trade-off. For every favorite that is here, three are missing. Some have almost certainly been omitted for cause. The man who wrote Black & Tan isn’t going to have “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “O Holy Night” in his church’s hymnal, nor should he. And it’s understandable that a hymnal consciously devoted to resurrecting a broad cross-section of the church’s musical heritage might pass over such relatively modern and special-purpose offerings as “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (although the same tune is present on page 116). Likewise, a hymnal that deliberately seeks out the chewiest, meatiest lyrics it can find, attached to the richest music possible, might well omit simple songs like “Send the Light.”

Other absences, however, are harder to explain. “It Is Well With My Soul” isn’t in here, nor — for all its musical wealth — is “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” “How Firm a Foundation,” “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” and “For the Beauty of the Earth” are also missing.

This is inevitable. A hymnal can only be so big, after all, and half of this one is quite properly taken up with psalms. That doesn’t leave all the space one could desire, and no single set of editorial choices will please everyone. No matter what happens, some ninny will call the editor the day after the hymnal comes off the presses and complain that his favorite was not included. It can’t be helped. All that said, I just can’t quite reconcile myself to a hymnal that doesn’t have “Amazing Grace” in it, and I don’t think I’ll be the only one who misses it.

Still, there’s a wealth of material here, and Cantus is worth the price just for the psalms, which will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find in one binding elsewhere. The music in Cantus can sustain a congregation, or a family worship time, for years, giving value beyond its $19 price tag many, many times over. I wish we’d had it for family devotions when I was growing up.

A word about the physical book: it’s a good-quality, hardbound book, like you’d expect a hymnal to be. It should stand up to quite a pounding. For the musicians among us, it’s also available in a spiral-bound “piano version.”

Canon Press also makes a CD set available as a companion to Cantus. It doesn’t include every song in the book, although it does include all the psalms in Cantus.

These are not CDs you’ll put on the stereo for background listening whilst cooking dinner; they are simple, four-part piano music designed specifically for helping you learn the songs. In keeping with this goal, they’ve crammed as much music onto as few discs as possible, and omitted the more popular tunes in Cantus on the grounds that you probably already know them, and if you don’t, you won’t have a hard time finding them somewhere. Most of the songs occupy two tracks: the first for the introduction and the second for two verses of the song (after which you’ll have to get your CD player to repeat the track for the rest of the verses). This sounds annoying, and it is, but It’s a rough-and-ready way to help people who can’t sight-sing learn the music — and it’s a lot of music — quickly.

The way the set is put together says a lot about the motivation behind it. They didn’t wait for another 10 years until they had the rest of the psalms assembled in Cantus, they put this into production with the respectable amount they had. They didn’t price it for maximum profit; at $15 for four CDs, it’s priced to move. These people are serious about restoring psalm-singing to the church, as far as their influence can reach. We owe them a very large debt of gratitude for making Cantus accessible to a wide audience that would never otherwise be able to enjoy it.

I include myself in that audience. Although I do have a certain amount of native musical talent, my formal training consists entirely of a year of piano about 10 years ago, when I was in college and instruction was cheap. I have managed to forget very nearly every last thing I ever learned; I can’t read even simple music anymore. With those qualifications in hand, I set out to teach myself “Why Do the Heathen Nations Vainly Rage” on Monday. I set for myself a simple regimen of singing it through twice per sitting, three times a day. Wednesday, I added a third time through per sitting, with the lyrics in front of me but without musical accompaniment, to test my ability to remember the tune. By Thursday, I had the song entirely memorized and could sing it a capella from memory without the book. Friday evening, I led a group in learning the song — not as confidently as I would have liked, I will admit. But it worked.

Now to learn Psalm 95…

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3 Responses to Cantus Christi: Psalm-Singing for the Masses

  1. Hello, I enjoyed your review of the Cantus. you mentioned that there are omissions, and I agree, I miss some of them! (especially It is Well with my Soul) However, I thought you’d be interested to know that the Current Cantus was intended to be volume one of six (I forget where I heard this…probably from David Beauchamp who leads the singing at Christ Church, and is also my brother-in-law).

    While project is slow in coming, Christ Church has already been adding hymns to it’s repertoire. The back of the church hymnals already have many new hymns pasted in. So, I’m hoping to see Vol. 2 before too too long!

    Also, I thought you might be interested in hearing another CREC church rendition of Ps. 2 from the Cantus:
    http://www.myspace.com/everlastingwordband

    very different style from Christ Church, but very interesting nonetheless.

    if you wanted to see some of the new hymns, you can download them on the Christ Church website (www.christkirk.com)

    Blessings,
    Daniel Foucachon

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Daniel,

    Thank you for reading. Although I was sure that Christ Church was continuing to add to the repertoire, I didn’t realize they were planning to go as far as six volumes. I hope they succeed; if volume one is any indication, that set will be a treasure for generations to come.

    REALLY liked your version of Ps.2. Good work; I hope there’s plenty more like it coming. Where can I buy/beg/steal a CD or at least some mp3 files?

    His forever,
    Tim

  3. Ryan says:

    Thank you for your info on the Cantus. I have a friend who owns one, and I loved flipping through it. Daniel, The Everlasting Word Band is actually from my church, and it’s PCA. http://www.everlastingwordband.com/
    The group Sons of Korah has some great Psalms that are nearly word-for-word from the Bible.
    Thanks!
    ~Ryan

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