COMMON TO THE LITURGIES, HISTORIES, AND THE SPIRIT OF JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY, the Book of Psalms is one of the most widely familiar and most frequently quoted books of the Hebrew Bible. As literature, the Psalms are also basic to Western culture. In terms of notated music alone, their continuum as an inspiration for musical interpretations and expressions stretches back in time for more than ten centuries; and their unnotated traditions of musical rendition predate Christianity, extending to Jewish antiquity and the Temple era.
The Psalms have been cited as manifestations of a form of popular theology, in the most positive sense of that perception. This is because they encompass a broad spectrum of human experience vis-à-vis God—rooted in the special relationship provided by the framework of the biblical covenants—while avoiding the level of abstract or philosophical theology that would be limited to scholarly hierarchies.
The Psalms have been viewed by theologians as expressions of man’s thirst for moral, ethical, and spiritual grounding and his search for a guiding faith—all of which amounts essentially, in theological terms, to man’s pursuit of God. “In the Torah and the [books of the] Prophets,” wrote biblical scholar Nahum Sarna in his trenchant study of representative Psalms, aptly titled Songs of the Heart,
God reaches out to man. The initiative is His. The message is His. He communicates, we receive.... In the Psalms, human beings reach out to God. The initiative is human. The language is human. We make an effort to communicate. He receives.... The human soul extends itself beyond its confining, sheltering, impermanent house of clay. It gropes for an experience of the divine Presence.
Unique among liturgies in their singular blend of majestic grandeur, lofty sentiments, and poignant simplicity, the Psalms embrace virtually every basic human emotion and mood, always in the context of faith. Their subject matter may be classified according to several basic poetic typologies, including hymns of praise and thanksgiving; elegies; pilgrim songs; meditations; paeans to God in history; celebrations of God’s glory and greatness in nature; and poems of moral-ethical instruction.
The Psalms pulsate with reflections of life: its tribulations, its moments of elation, the search for consolation in times of distress, the natural urge to offer gratitude, the quest for justice (including the natural if base human inclination for retribution), the hunt for a path to contentment, the struggle to maintain faith in the face of diversity, the tendency toward doubt when practitioners of evil seem immune to defeat or justice, the spiritual struggles of transgressors to find their way, the hunger for virtuousness, and the pursuit of triumph over despair. Thus, despite their Judaic origin and solid Judeo-Christian association, the Psalms need not be restricted to any single people, religious group, or era. Their ageless attraction abides in their universal sentiment and their universally applicable teachings. In that sense, their resonance transcends both time and geographical space.
Notwithstanding the secondary applicability of the term to certain apocryphal religious poems, to some non-Hebrew postbiblical poetic texts of the early Church, and possibly to some embedded hymns or songs in other Hebrew biblical books (e.g., shirat hayam [Song of the Sea], Ex. 15:1–18, or shir moshe [Song of Moses], Deut. 32—and despite its legitimate, broader generic usage as a typological label for poetic expression unrelated to religious literature—it must be acknowledged that the word psalm, or psalms, now invariably calls to mind the biblical Book of Psalms, or the Psalter. This is the opening book (since earliest printed Bibles) of k’tuvim (Hagiographa, or sacred writings)—the third of the three sections of the tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible.
The English designation psalm derives from its cognate in the Latin Vulgate: Liber Psalmorum, or Psalmi. The Latin singular psalmus in turn came from the Greek psalmos, which means a song or song text specifically sung to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument—and perhaps, by later extension, to instrumental accompaniment in general. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint in Alexandria selected the word psalmos to render the Hebrew mizmor. That word, mizmor, is reserved in the Bible exclusively for this self-contained book within k’tuvim, where it appears in the title or caption of fifty-seven Psalms—but never in the body of those texts. Later, mizmor came more broadly to represent liturgical singing accompanied by instrumental musicians.
Questions have been raised, however, concerning the precision of the use of psalmus to correspond to the Hebrew mizmor. It has been suggested that the Greek-Jewish translators in Alexandria might not have known the precise meaning of the Hebrew word, whose definition, along with other technical terms in the Bible, might long previously have been lost. Nonetheless, psalmos, and then psalmus, became universally accepted, as did the English equivalent, psalm.
The Hebrew name for the Psalter, and for the Psalms as a group, was accepted in rabbinic and subsequent literature as sefer t’hillim—lit., book of praises, or book of songs of praise—even though only one Psalm (145) contains the word praise (t’hilla) in its superscription. Sefer t’hillim is often contracted to tillim, a practice dating to talmudic times. And although a number of individual Psalms would not fall into that category and do not even express praise, the theme nonetheless permeates the Psalms in the aggregate—directly or indirectly, on multiple levels, and in various manifestations of unconditional, objective praise of God. Also, the expression halleluya, which is ubiquitously associated with the Psalms, appears nowhere else in the Bible.
Although the total number of Psalms differs according to variant traditions, divergent or conflicting manuscripts, and alternative systems (in which, for example, what we now accept as two separate Psalms might originally have been a single text), the Psalter as it has come down to us in this present canonized form of the Masoretic text contains 150 Psalms—the number now universally recognized. These are believed to be an amalgam of earlier distinct collections, for example:
There are also individual Psalms attributed by tradition to, or associated with, other specific biblical personalities. Two Psalms bear Solomon’s name, one is linked to Moses and one each to Heman and Etan, who are identified in Chronicles as appointed by David to leadership roles in the vocal and instrumental aspects of the Temple ritual. And there are forty-nine so-called orphan Psalms, which are accepted as anonymous. These are all in addition to the seventy-three Psalms more directly tethered by tradition to Davidic origin or involvement.
The Psalter is divided into five sections, or books. Those divisions are not necessarily designated by separate sectional headings or subtitles in the original Hebrew. Each of the first four books is concluded with a formulaic doxology (i.e., an incipit common to all four doxologies). The final verse of Psalm 89, for example, which concludes Book III, reads barukh adonai l’olam amen v’amen (Worshipped and praised is God unto eternity, amen, and amen). The last book has no such concluding doxology, but concludes with Psalm 150, with its catalogue of musical instruments to be used in praise of God, which is widely regarded as a doxology for the entire Book of Psalms.
It has been proposed that the fivefold division, to which the Midrash alludes in its statement that “Moses gave Israel five books of the Torah, and David gave Israel five books of the Psalms” (Mid. T’hillim), corresponds by design to the Pentateuch—the Five Books of Moses. Another parallel between the distinct contributions of Moses and David may be drawn from their juxtaposed albeit differentiated origin as mentioned in II Chronicles (8:13–14 and 23:18), where Moses’ (the Torah’s) provision of the sacrificial scheme is correlated with David’s institution of liturgical rites in the Temple to accompany it.
The prevailing view adopted by much 19th-century scientific biblical scholarship assigned the Psalms to a period as late in the history of the religion of ancient Israel as the Maccabean-Hasmonaean era (2nd century B.C.E.), postdating the time of David and the Prophets by many centuries. That stance has been virtually rejected and reversed by 20th-century scholars. Based on refocused considerations of evidence in the Septuagint, on linguistic studies that reveal the absence of Hellenistic poetic-literary or theological influence, and on discoveries and comparative analyses of other ancient Near Eastern poetic literatures that predate ancient Israel altogether, scholars now almost universally allow that the canonization of the Psalms as an integral whole must have occurred well in advance of the 2nd century B.C.E., by which time their importance and popularity must have been long established. In this assessment, then, the composition of the Psalms predates substantially the Second Temple era.
Attribution of the Psalms as a corpus to David is a long-standing adoption in popular tradition. Hence, the frequently heard sobriquet for the entire contents of the Psalter—“Psalms of David”—and the ubiquitous image of “David the Psalmist,” notwithstanding the aforementioned groups of Psalms that are accepted as the work of others, and despite the fact that actual authorship even of the so-called Davidic Psalms is expressly credited to David nowhere in the Bible. Seventy-three Psalms carry the designation l’david in their superscriptions, and there is the acknowledged possibility of David’s hand in the composition of at least some of them. But that designation l’david does not in itself provide any certainty about his authorship, since its precise meaning is not entirely clear. Nor does that designation necessarily have the same connotation in every Psalm where it appears. Various proposals put forth with respect to these particular Psalms include a tradition of Davidic authorship, a dedication to David, possible correlations between the contents of certain Psalms and events in David’s life, a Psalm as sung or performed by or for David, and a Psalm text and/or musical rendition from the repertoire of one of the guilds of Temple singers that David is said, in post-Exilic biblical literature, to have instituted.
Nonetheless, a popular interpretation of the designation l’david as reflective of actual Davidic authorship of Books I and II (later extended to the remaining seventy-seven Psalms in Books II–V) became rooted early in the history of the Psalter’s compilation and canonization. The colophon to Book II, which follows the doxology at the end of Psalm 72, announces that “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” It is worth emphasizing that even that statement does not confirm authorship. Moreover, in a departure from a talmudic interpretation, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, suggested that the colophon might apply only to Psalm 72, not to the first seventy-two Psalms as a unit. He proposed that the Psalms are not presented in the Psalter in any chronological order, and that Psalm 72 was composed by David as a prayer on behalf of Solomon when he appointed Solomon as his successor—becoming David’s final Psalm.
A talmudic passage suggests David as a quasi-editor and compiler of the Psalter who culled from various sources, as well as the author of some of its contents: “David wrote the Book of Psalms, including in it the work of the elders, namely Adam, Malchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and three sons of Korah” (B.B. 14b). And another talmudic reference alludes to Davidic involvement in the expressions of praise for God: “All the praises which are stated in the Book of Psalms, David uttered each one of them” (Pes. 117a). Neither statement actually asserts original Davidic authorship. Moreover, an outdated assumption—that the Book of Psalms, regardless of authorship, was completed during David’s reign—was disputed as early as the Middle Ages by such major commentators as Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Kimchi. For example, the origin of several Psalms was connected to the Babylonian Captivity, which occurred long after David’s reign. In any case, it is impossible to ascertain the identity of whoever made the ultimate selection for the compilation, nor more precisely when it was accomplished. It is considered likely that much of the compiling, selection, and editing was done in the time of the scribes who succeeded Ezra and Nehemiah (viz., 4th century B.C.E.).
The traditional association of David with the Psalms and the manner of their musical rendition sits on solid biblical foundations. These include his youthful reputation as an accomplished player of the kinor (a stringed instrument, presumably plucked), his role in inventing or devising musical instruments and in composing or singing lamentations, his distinction as a “sweet singer of Israel,” and—perhaps most significant in broader historical terms—the part he played in establishing Jerusalem (and, with it, the Temple and its rituals) as the national and spiritual center of Israel and of the Jewish people—ir david, the City of David.
To all intents and purposes, the Psalms—as well as biblical Hebrew in general—may be viewed as predating the introduction of metrical Hebrew poetry to Judaic literature. Yet although they cannot be said to embrace meter in the classical or contemporary sense, the subject has been debated for centuries, beginning before the age of modern biblical scholarship. Nor has this issue been free of its share of charlatans. In the 17th century, one Marcus Meibomius claimed that the secrets of biblical Hebrew meter had been “revealed” to him, and he offered to share them if six thousand people presubscribed to copies of his work at a cost of five pounds sterling each. But he was unable to persuade a sufficient number of potential subscribers, and he died without sharing his revelations. John Jebb remarked in 1820 that “posterity may contentedly endure the deprivation.”
In the 19th century, various serious theories emerged—some of them in direct conflict with one another, and some along similar lines as others—which concerned systems of scansions based on enumerations of syllables. It was thought that these scansions might yield a primitive form of meter. These studies stood in contrast to earlier theories based on syllabic stresses and word units. But all such theories have been fraught with reliance on hopelessly hypothetical reconstructions. Efforts at identifying a precise system even of primitive meter in the Psalms are hampered by a lack of critical information. The determined vocalization or vowel deployment in the Masoretic text, upon which we rely, may not in fact always coincide with the actual vocalization and exact pronunciation of the biblical Hebrew poetry in its original state—i.e., at the time of its composition and as represented by the consonant texts.
Whether the Psalms contain any form of meter, and whether their structure can be viewed as a precursor to meter in much later Hebrew poetry, they are nonetheless poetry—in contrast to the clearly prose texts in most of the Bible. And they exhibit poetic structural features, the most significant of which is probably that of internal parallelism—a characteristic that might reflect their composition with the intention of being sung. This parallel structure appears in several forms throughout the Psalms:
This system of pairs of balanced half-verses has been shown to resemble other ancient Near Eastern poetry among Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Egyptian literatures. Although Psalm verses usually comprise two equal or roughly equal parts, some have three or more divisions. The verses are normally grouped in strophes of equal or nearly equal length.
In effect, the Psalter served as the Temple music manual, songbook, and prayerbook. In addition to the discussion in talmudic, Midrashic, and medieval exegetical literature, modern Judaic as well as objective musicological scholarship confirms that Levitical choral singing of the Psalms to instrumental accompaniment occurred along with the sacrificial ceremonies in the ancient Temple. The musical renditions were complementary to that cult, not part of it; the Psalms contain no information about, and no references to, sacrificial procedures, but they appear to have formed the centerpiece of the aesthetic-spiritual dimension. Their messages of personal experience and human emotions were not necessarily negated by their performance by de facto professional musicians—the Levites—nor by their association with the formalized, aristocratic priestly rituals. To the contrary, Temple psalmody may have counterbalanced the more mysterious, anagogical, and symbolic sacrificial system—almost as a tangible reflection of popular expression versus the ultimate patrician manifestation of Israel’s religious life at those stages.
Late biblical books, together with some Psalm superscriptions as well as other ancient sources from the region (the 17th-century B.C.E. Annals of Sennacherib, for example), offer some insights into musical matters pertaining to the First Temple, in which choral psalmody can be demonstrated to have played a prominent part. Naturally, thanks to talmudic and other postbiblical descriptions and references, we are in a position to piece together much more about the musical format and practice in the Second Temple, which was inherited from musical models in the First Temple when the service was reconstituted after a forced hiatus of seventy years. Some of these sources offer suggestions about the size, makeup, and training of the Temple choirs, as well as about their performance, although there is disagreement among the rabbis in the Talmud on various related matters (how Hallel was performed, for example). There is ample evidence of antiphonal (two choirs alternating) and responsorial engagement (soloist alternating with choir), which is easily reflective of the parallel structure of the Psalms.
Some superscriptions or headings may contain long-forgotten or now obscure instructions and other information pertaining to the musical performance or assigned occasions for their respective Psalms, although interpretation of these superscriptions remains a contested issue among both biblical and musical scholars. Even the simplest purportedly descriptive headings can generate dispute. There is disagreement, for example, concerning the superscriptive lam’natze’ah—whether it should be construed essentially as “to the choirmaster” or “to the conductor,” or whether instead it might have referred to a particular song type, to be arranged for those Psalms to which the term is attached.
Other superscriptions appear to refer to particular instruments, of which we can know at most their generic family types or the manner in which they should sound or be played (n’ginot, a string instrument, for example). And, apart from instrumental citations, there are other isolated terms in the body of some Psalms that are believed to be musical indications—higgayon sela (Psalms 9:17), for example, which some authorities suggest is a direction for a solemn, meditative instrumental interlude, while others believe it to be a call for a “murmuring sound” on the kinor. Higgayon, in Psalms 92:4, however, is often translated simply as a “solemn sound.” Although various logical and philologically as well as archaeologically grounded propositions have been offered with respect to these matters, few of the terms or references involved can be decoded with absolute precision or certainty. Some of the technical terms might have become obsolete by the time of the Second Temple.
Among the most puzzling superscriptions are those that appear either to encase some cryptic metaphor or—as some scholars maintain—to identify some specific known tune or chant to which the attached Psalm should be sung or adapted. Examples include ayelet hashaḥar (lit., “the hind of the dawn,” but often left untranslated) in Psalm 22, and al yonat elem r’ḥokim at the head of Psalm 56, which translates as “according to the silent dove of those who are distant” (and which the Targum—the Aramaic translation and version of the Bible— interprets as a metaphoric allusion to the religious faithfulness of Israel even when its people are far away from their own cities). Such superscriptions might even have included text incipits of secular songs for use as contrafacts. That such preexisting musical formats and tune identities were thus indicated in some superscriptions is certainly within the realm of reasonable possibility. That position is reinforced by the knowledge that similar practices existed elsewhere in the ancient world. Still, although it is also known that medieval Hebrew poets often assigned or used recognized tunes for their poems, and although stipulating specific known tunes for song texts has been widely perpetuated in many cultures up through the modern era, there is nothing approaching universal scholarly consensus on this issue with respect to the Psalms.
Students and scholars of psalmody have, through painstaking comparative considerations and examinations, provided much information about the probable nature, formats, components, and features of the musical rendition of the Psalms in the Temple. This includes matters of range, melismatic versus syllabic articulation, predominance of particular tones (reciting tone, finalis, etc.), embellishment, and even aspects of overall ambience. But all of this amounts only to verbal description of the various parameters. It must be emphasized that, especially in the absence of precise musical notation (which, even in much later periods, does not necessarily provide sufficient data for reliable reconstructions anyway), these factors remain more academic and theoretical than artistic or aesthetic.
The same limitations apply to reasonable conjectures based on evidence contained in aspects of psalmody and other chant procedures of the early Church. Some of these elements may have been borrowed and transferred from Judaic traditions and handed down to us as Church music practices evolved.
Notwithstanding the hoopla surrounding musical practice in the ancient Near East as gleaned from archaeological finds (Ugaritic discoveries, for example, concerning a supposed Hurrian cult song predating the Psalms, and its attempted restoration), any performable reconstruction of Temple psalmody with pretensions to aural authenticity would be a naïvely romantic exercise in futility. Even if we can approximate the rhythmic parameters by assuming that they correspond logogenically to the flow of the words, we cannot ascertain the precise modalities, tones, or ordering and sequencing of those tones in terms of melodic substance. Nor can we reflect the vocal or instrumental timbres. And if, indeed, some of the superscriptions do refer to known melodies or chants of the day, we have only their names. We certainly could not reproduce the melodies themselves.
Psalms constitute a principal foundation stone of Hebrew liturgy as it developed during the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple. Entire Psalms—as well as partial quotations, references, paraphrases, and influences—permeate the traditional prayerbook, in which, whatever liturgical rite is embraced, no other biblical book is so directly, richly, and consistently represented. Singer’s Prayer Book, for example, the Authorized Daily Prayer Book, of the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Orthodox), contains an index of seventy-three Psalms among the various services. And in any typical complete prayerbook there are no fewer than 250 Psalm verses reflected or incorporated in the prayers. Reform prayerbooks, too, are filled with Psalms.
Inclusion of Psalms in the liturgy has been interpreted in part as a resonance of popular identification and involvement—perhaps even demand. A talmudic reference to the recitation of the “daily Psalm” within services states that “the people have adopted the custom of including it” (Sof. 18:1). The eventual pervasiveness of the Psalms within the statutory or legally required prayers as integral components occurred gradually and incrementally—a process that occupied many centuries. Over time, the surrounding non-obligatory liturgy accumulated individual Psalms as well. There is now no nonstatutory or “special” service that does not include at least one Psalm.
Psalm recitation is not confined to mandatory services. There are surviving customs of reciting the entire Psalter on various occasions, especially as acts of piety by fervently religious Jews. Ḥevrot t’hillim—societies of Psalm reciters have been part of the religious life of many communities, and in contemporary Jerusalem, such a society comprises two distinct groups that divide between them the recitation of the entire Book of Psalms daily at the Western Wall.
Many echoes of psalmody and retentions of psalmodic stylistic features are found among various non-Ashkenazi traditions, especially those with roots in eastern Mediterranean, Near Eastern, and other communities of the so-called Jewish Orient. However, in many of these traditions, Psalm renditions long ago became artificially metrical, often according to specific syllabic patterns. In some cases this was a result of adaptation to metrical tunes.
The composite extant repertoire of Ashkenazi synagogue music, on the other hand, reflects very little in the way of psalmody, even in compositions for Psalm texts. For the most part, these have been informed by the same stylistic forces that have attended cantorial and choral writing for other texts. A handful of 20th-century Psalm settings, most for nonorthodox synagogues, have been based loosely on assumed psalmodic factors and ambience—for example Heinrich Schalit’s setting of Psalm 23. But these are exceptions. In more recent years, some synagogue composers have become intrigued by aesthetic portrayals of antiquity, and they have exhibited a renewed interest in illustrating the spirit as well as some of the assumed parameters of psalmody in their settings.
The Psalms provided an obvious wellspring of liturgical material for the early Church, dating from the time when it was still perceived as a Jewish sect, although Psalm usage eventually differed between the Eastern and Western rites. In the Church’s initial stages of development, Psalms were adopted for formal worship, and they are believed to have predominated the format in the earliest services. Apart from a few fragmentary bits of earlier evidence, musical notation applicable to Western Church psalmody survives only beginning with the 9th century, as reflected in the earliest Frankish chant books.
In the Roman, or Western, Church, the survival of the tradition of unabridged Psalm singing is most conspicuous in the Office of Vespers (five Psalms); complete Psalms became part of other Offices as well, and of various ceremonies and processions. But in the course of the development of the Mass and other parts of Christian liturgy, Psalms became abbreviated or quoted (sometimes just a single verse). Language, too, was a contributing factor in the divergence of Hebrew and Christian psalmody, since the Church adapted inherited practices to the Latin translation.
In the various Protestant movements, Psalm settings followed the direction in art music development in which the vestiges of psalmody and other chant traditions were largely abandoned. Many composers for the Roman Catholic Church, however, continued for a long time to use aspects of psalmody as bases for their works.
The Protestant Reformation also led to an emphasis on Psalm singing in the vernacular (German, English, and other languages); and to foster congregational or communal singing, metrical versions were created, which often only loosely approximated the original Hebrew. These used strophic melodies that were more like hymn tunes with simple chordal harmonizations. A similar fashion also flourished in 19th- and early-20th-century Reform Jewish worship, both in Germany and in the United States.
With the advent and flowering of polyphony in Europe, artistic Psalm composition proliferated from the 15th century on and became an important feature of the Roman Catholic Church—in the main following earlier artistic treatment of other parts of its liturgy. Major composers outside its fold, such as Bach, also addressed Psalms as sacred music from artistic perspectives, as in his motets. The history of Psalm composition in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries is intertwined in general with, and in some ways tethered to, the paths of motet and anthem genres during those periods. And English anthems of the time display an abundant reliance on Psalm texts and paraphrases.
Throughout the modern era and into the 21st century, in both functional sacred and secular concert contexts, composers of virtually every stripe and orientation have engaged the Psalms in expressions ranging from large-scale works for chorus, full symphony orchestra, and soloists to a cappella choral pieces, and from vocal and instrumental chamber music to solo songs and even—albeit less frequently to purely instrumental interpretations, such as solo organ preludes and sonatas, or Krzysztof Penderecki’s Psalmus (1961), an electronic work. There is probably no stylistic approach, no technical procedure, no composition treatment, no melodic, harmonic, or contrapuntal language in short, no aspect of Western musical development from which the Psalms have escaped.
The unrelenting appeal of the Psalms for composers in the mainstream as well as in the avant-garde of Western music in every generation lies in their particular religious spirit and in their transcendent humanistic content. Composers are continually challenged anew by the Psalms’ inherent invitation to explore new and even untried expressive possibilities. Those composers with deeply held relaigious convictions, Judaic or Christian, and those outside religious life alike have confronted the Psalms from strictly Judaic, Christian, spiritually Judeo-Christian, or purely Western literary and cultural perspectives. Some Psalm compositions can be neatly and even exclusively deposited into one or another of those classifications. Others defy categorization and communicate on intersecting planes. Thus, the Psalms may be understood not only as an ecumenical bridge between the two religious traditions—which is no new observation—but, in addition to their undiminished role in music for worship, as an artistic bridge between sacred and secular music in the evolving and expanding Western canon.
This essay originally appeared in the liner notes to the CD, Psalms and Supplications.
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