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The Cantor and the Psalms: Humanity “at full stretch”

Posted by Nathan Costa on

The office of cantor began in early Christian communities following the Jewish practice of a hazan (cantor or music leader) chanting prayers in the temple. As singing psalms became daily prayer for monastics by the third century, the role of the cantor leading singing in liturgy also became more established. The cantor began to lead newly forming choirs (scholae cantorum, or “schools of singers/cantors”) as a “precentor,” one who intones a psalm or chant before the choir begins. In time, the cantor became a full-fledged choir director, composer, and administrator: J. S. Bach’s official job in 1723 in Leipzig, Germany—teaching and providing music for four churches and a school—was as Cantor of the St. Thomas School at St. Thomas Church, a title many Lutheran churches to this day retain for their music director.

In more recent years, however, many churches have reinvigorated the ministry of cantors in the early church model primarily as singers of psalms. Psalms are originally sung prayer in the Jewish tradition and often illustrate an emotional conversation with God, depicting what my teacher Don Saliers calls “humanity at full stretch,” from praise to lament, despair to hope. “Responsorial or antiphonal psalmody” - in which the cantor sings continuous verses while the people respond with a repeated, unchanged verse (or antiphon)—highlights both the dialogic and the meditative, personal nature of psalm-prayer. Rather than simply read through a psalm from beginning to end, we are invited to meditate on and return to our repeated phrase as the cantor moves through the verses of the psalm. In this way we hear the conversational prayer and are reminded of our part in giving voice to that emotion, no matter what we personally feel at the time.

Psalms are Scripture, and so, like the other readings, are sung from the ambo, a medieval Greek word for “rim,” describing the often elevated and ceremonial place, again from Jewish practice, where the rabbi read Scripture to the people. Cantors sing the psalm from our ambo to recognize it as Scripture and also to highlight in a fully visible and embodied way the dialogic nature of the psalms, the back-and-forth verses of cantor and assembly.

Cantors also proclaim litanies, a series of prayers, as we heard at the invocation of the Holy Spirit at Rev. Mary Lynn’s ordination and will hear on All Saints’ Day in the Litany of Saints. By gesture and facial expression, cantors both demonstrate and lead the gathered people in song, coaxing a collective voice from the assembly and inviting them more deeply into prayer and sung responses. The office of cantor is not just for professional musicians but is a ministry for anyone with a strong, clear voice and a willingness to be trained in leading song and to be formed by sung prayer.

Might you be called to the ministry of a cantor? How well do you know the psalms? How do responsorial psalms invite you to meditate on a particular phrase? How do the psalms embody for you the fullness of human life and emotional stretch?

Vincent Patterson, “The Cantor: From Soloist to Songleader” in Pastoral Music Magazine, Vol. 2:4 (Apr-May 1978), 23-25.
Don E. Saliers, et al. Liturgy and the Moral Self: Humanity at Full Stretch before God: Essays in Honor of Don E. Saliers. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998).

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