The St. Noël Chabanel Responsorial Psalm Project

The St. Noël Chabanel Responsorial Psalm Project exists as a remedy for the problematic musical settings that often destroy a prayerful mood at Mass.

“The Chabanel Psalms are not only great music; they use a revolutionary form of distribution, both in terms of zero price and universal availability. In fact, the day the site went live, I knew I was looking at the future of sacred music.”
— Jeffrey Tucker, managing editor for Sacred Music

I have had priests come to me in the past and say, “This piece we sing at Mass feels wrong to me, but I can’t describe why.” This always calls to mind a statement by the great Franz Liszt, who said, “It is easy to have musical opinions, but difficult to find musical reasons for those opinions.” In any case, there are indeed musical reasons why certain styles of music are not appropriate at Mass, and these usually deal with rhythmic syncopation and tonality. The Church has been very clear in her legislation about the type of music appropriate for the Holy Mass. Unfortunately, many major publishers have chosen to promote liturgical music composed in a secular styleforbidden by the Church.

Rather than “curse the darkness,” I would like to make HPR readers aware of a free resource that goes a long way towards helping in this area.

The St. Noël Chabanel Responsorial Psalm Project, found at www.chabanelpsalms.org, exists as a remedy for the problematic and sometimes malignant musical settings that so often destroy the prayerful atmosphere the Church requires for her public worship. It is part of the fruit of the non-profit organization Corpus Christi Watershed, an apostolate and institute dedicated to helping renew the arts and creative media in the Church. As creative director for liturgical initiatives at Watershed, I have had the joy and privilege of being able to compose works like the Chabanel Psalms as part of my calling as a musician, while directing the project itself and working with other Church musicians to further this creative endeavor.

This website clearly lays out all three liturgical years, and for each Sunday and feast day provides numerous musical settings of the Responsorial Psalm in English. The different versions, sometimes as many as twelve per Psalm, were contributed by highly skilled Church musicians working in parishes all over the world. Right next to each score are audio mp3 files, so that cantors can visit the site and practice on their own time. Graphics are provided that easily can be put in bulletins, to help congregations sing the refrain. The composers who contribute to this site provide every possible type of score helpful to musicians: simple Psalms, complex Psalms, Psalms notated in modern notation, Psalms notated in Gregorian notation, Psalms sung a capella, Psalms with organ accompaniment, polyphonic Psalms, and Psalms sung in harmony.

Although the musical structure of each composition springs from Gregorian chant and the sacred music of the past, these are all contemporarysettings composed within the last few years. The compositions on this site meet the Church’s directives, and never alter the texts.

Everything on this website (vocalist scores, organist scores, transposed scores, alternate versions, audio mp3 examples, etc.) is provided for instant download, completely free of charge.

Rationale

Part of being a good musician involves knowing which music “works” in a given circumstance. That is to say, music is always composed with certain performance venues in mind, and it is an abuse to try to perform music in the wrong venue. For instance, as much as I like Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I would not recommend that they be performed in the Metropolitan Opera House (too large a space) or at a football game (wrong atmosphere). As much as I like Gregorian chant, I would not recommend that it be performed at a wedding reception (you cannot dance to it) or a high school talent show (wrong venue). As much as I love Allegri’s Miserere, I would not recommend that it be performed in a small, carpeted church or around the camp fire. I hope my point has been made: one must choose music according to venue and circumstance. The Chabanel Psalms make this very easy for music directors, because numerous options are given for each Sunday.

My contributions to the site have each verse clearly written out with one note for each syllable. The reason for this is that I find it very difficult to read music that has multiple verses “stacked up” on top of each other. Our Catholic musicians are usually volunteers, and may not have time to practice sufficiently before Mass, so this method of versification makes it very easy to read at sight. As Vladimir Horowitz once said, “Music is already hard: why make it harder? Better to make it easier.”

I also compose numerous harmonizations of the refrain (each clearly labeled with a big letter of the alphabet) often providing as many as ten different harmonizations, giving as much variety as possible. The music director must decide which he will employ based on (a) his skill at reading music; (b) the particular acoustic; (c) the particular organ; (d) his harmonic and tonal preferences; (e) the skill level of the choir/cantor; (f) whether the choir chooses to sing the refrain in harmony.

Another reason for the multiple harmonizations is that the refrain is heard many times during the course of the Psalm. To me, it does not seem artistic to play the same harmonization each and every time. For instance, one harmonization may be played as an introduction, a sparser one when the cantor initially intones the refrain, and then a fuller one when the congregation repeats it.

Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II have both stressed that sacred music is to be rooted in the sacred works of the past. In particular, my Psalm compositions follow closely the model of a magnificent project called the Nova Organi Harmonia (NOH). This three-thousand-page collection of Gregorian chant accompaniments was composed by several famous Catholic musicians (including Flor Peeters) who taught at the Lemmens Institute in Belgium under the leadership of Canon Jules Van Nuffel. Watershed has gone to great expense to make the NOH (and many other incredibly rare liturgical works) available for free and instant download, and continues to add hundreds of pages each week.

Those who visit our site and peruse the NOH will see that even the typesetting of the Chabanel Psalms follows their model. According to a student of Peeters, one reason the professors undertook that massive work was to keep busy during the Second World War, so as not to be drafted. As part of these labors, they based their endeavors on a previous work, created by professors of the same Belgian college about thirty years earlier.

Walking basslines, pedal tones found in all voices, smooth chord changes, colorful seventh chords, free dissonances, completely modal tonality, etc., are all found in our Psalm settings and were highly valued by the creators of the NOH, as Nuffel explains in a treatise provided on the Chabanel site. None of these beautiful techniques have gone out of fashion or become less desirable to composers, even in the year 2010. I owe all the “tricks” I use in varying the harmonizations to the creators of the NOH, and this enabled me to provide so many optional harmonizations (some are sparse, some thick, some dissonant, some simple, some complex, some use fast harmonic rhythm, in some basslines walk up, in others they walk down, etc.).

For all Psalm settings, I format the vocalist’s score to fit on one and only one page, for ease in printing and photocopying. The typesetting is very clear, because I feel that our volunteer cantors/choirs work hard enough and should be spared the frustration of poor printing.

Guest composers

The Chabanel site is highly blessed to include hundreds of contributions from some of the most talented Church composers at work today. I am convinced that the generosity of these composers is what has brought the tremendous success we have enjoyed since the project was launched in August 2007.

Thanks to our guest composers, on any given Sunday or feast day, one is presented with an amazing variety of choices: numerous settings with organ, a cappella settings, settings in chant notation, settings in modern notation, and settings that employ polyphony. Again, the idea here is to offer every possible type of setting a music director could use.

It has reached a point where our list of Chabanel guest composers has become a “Who’s Who” among Church musicians. The reader owes it to himself to visit the site and view the hundreds of scores these guest composers have so generously made available for free.

Letters received

We have received many encouraging letters from every part of the world, thanking Watershed for making the Chabanel Psalms available. I would like to share a few excerpts from the numerous letters we have received.

West Hollywood, California:

“Just wanted to let you know that we’ve successfully used the congregational booklet and had it mended into the missalettes that we use at St. Victor’s. It started with us using the Chabanel Psalms at the 10:30 Mass that I participate in and now has seeped to the other Masses on Saturday evening and the other two Masses on Sunday. Again, I can’t say enough about how wonderful your ministry is. To see (scores), listen (mp3s) and then practice (and practice more in my case) has given me great confidence prior to proclaiming the responsorial psalm. It has become a prayerful experience throughout the week.”

San Francisco, California:

“I just thought I would let you know how great your responsorial Psalms are. This summer I have been volunteering for the music program at my parish. I have slowly been introducing Gregorian chant into the parish. Although they do not know them well, at this point the parish is singing most of the ordinary chants (except for the Credo) and I have been singing from the Liber Cantualis for the Offertory and Communion, and from the Anglican Use for the Introit. We’ve been using good hymns. I was having trouble, however, because I had only one book to choose from for the Responsorial Psalms and Alleluias, and they were often rather odd. I managed to write the music for the traditional Alleluia chant along with the organ accompaniment, and a psalm tone for that, but I had most difficulty with the Responsorial Psalms. This website is truly God-send for my parish! This is exactly what our Church needs right now. May God continue to bless you.”

Newton, New Jersey:

“I am entering the Pre-Theologate program at the Franciscan University of Steubenville this fall. I am very interested in the ‘Restoration of the Sacred’ to the Liturgy, and I plan on becoming proficient in Gregorian chant for use as a priest. I was thrilled to discover the Chabanel Psalm Project, and I would like to thank you for your selfless work for the good of the Church and her liturgy. I hope and pray that priests and liturgical musicians will take advantage of this great resource and give Gregorian chant ‘pride of place’ in the liturgy.”

My prayer is that many people will continue to visit the site, taking advantage of the many free resources available, including the two thousand scores already posted and the new ones added each day. The reader is also encouraged to visit the parent site www.lalemantpolyphonic.org, which makes it easy to visit all the sites that have been mentioned in this article.

Just as the Jesuit Martyrs of North America (St. Isaac Jogues, St. Noël Chabanel, St. Charles Garnier, etc.) sometimes worked together and at other times independently, our various liturgical sites, each dedicated to a different martyr, can be used independently or in tandem. For example, the site dedicated to St. Isaac Jogues (www.jogueschant.org) contains thousands of Gregorian chant scores and practice mp3s, all available for free and instant download. Accompaniments and treatises for these same Gregorian chants can be found at the St. Jean de Lalande Library (www.lalandelibrary.org), and so forth.

May these martyrs, who spent their lives freely for the conversion of souls of North America and underwent unspeakable sacrifices in doing so, continue to inspire our projects and intercede for us, as we freely offer these thousands of Catholic scores and audio files as a gift to the universal Church.

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avatar About Jeff Ostrowski

Mr. Jeff Ostrowski is creative director for liturgical initiatives at Corpus Christi Watershed and directs the Corpus Christi Cathedral Schola Cantorum. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004) and has pursued studies in musicology and education at the graduate level. He has been published in Sacred Music and Adoremus and has produced internationally distributed CDs, and his high school choir students have won medals at state competitions. Jeff and his wife Cynthia reside in Texas.

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