Sunday, 6 February 2011

‘I am wiser than the aged’

I have spent what feels like much of the weekend as part of Lichfield Cathedral’s fund-raising ‘Psalmathon’ which involved the five choirs associated with the Cathedral singing all 150 psalms between Friday and Saturday evenings.

Apart from confirming that any event with the suffix ‘-athon’ is nothing but exhausting, it has introduced me to something new in a familiar setting. Even as a cathedral musician for the past 26 years, I only know about half of the book of psalms: the psalms assigned to each day’s evening worship are old friends, but the morning psalms are the newcomer that everyone regards warily. Discovering the unfamiliar in a familiar context has, for the second time in the past year, caused me to reflect on the impact of psalms on my life.

As a boy chorister, the daily round of psalm singing was part of the job and the strange language and ideas were simply accepted. While the gamut of emotions and events portrayed in the psalms is difficult for a pre-teen to grasp, details did stick out: who were Oreb, Zeb, Zeba and Salmana that princes should aspire to be like? What did God do to the Madianites, Sisera and Jabin at the brook of Kison? Why did the Philistines join Gebal, Ammon, Amalek and Assur at Tyre to help the children of Lot? And all these are just from psalm 83. Many of the names of the people and places are fantastical and would not sound out of place in the worlds of JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling; indeed, the same psalm also includes the Edomites, Ismaelites, Moabites and Hagarenes.
As well as providing a rich seam of people and places there is also the inevitable poetry of the psalms. As an adult this is more apparent, but there are images I remember from childhood readings and psalm 55 is one of my clearest memories:
The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart:
His words were smoother than oil, and yet be they very swords. 
Even as a youngster, the dichotomy between what one says and does was familiar to me and the simple metaphors make a clear image. Although I can now identify and comment on the poetic devices in the texts, I was certainly aware of some of the meanings and imagery when I was younger.

Having sung psalms on a daily basis, I have never shirked away from attempting to read English texts. My students shy away from Shakespeare because the language is ‘difficult’ – some even object to the ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and words ending in ‘-eth’ – but, having been brought up with the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, these have always sat comfortably with me.

There is an absolute maximum of seven hundred child choristers in England in any academic year. Through their singing of the psalms they are – unwittingly, like me – having worlds opened up to them to which many children just do not have access. The regular repetition of poetry, some dating back three thousand years, must influence the linguistic development (and possibly even subconscious ability to appreciate poetry) positively and the psalms could, perhaps, in their own small way be admired as a rare, but precious, gem in the crown of children’s literature.


  1. Great post! Don't know about psalms but I was in a choir for 12 years and I learned a few inappropriate sentences in other languages. 'Komm Süsser Tod' (Come Sweet Death) for instance - very tasteful song for a bunch of 11-year-olds. Tons of Latin as well, which must be useful in some way too.
    But surely there are more than 700 choristers a year? how did you get to that number?

  2. It was a (very) rough calculation based on the number of British cathedrals (as they are the places where psalms are sung on a daily rather than weekly basis) and an approximation of the number of choristers (including boys and girls) that make up such choirs. If anything, I fear it may be an over-estimation for cathedral choristers.