Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

The chant marks in the psalms

Posted by universalis on 11 August 2021

From time to time people ask about the stars * and daggers which appear in the psalms and canticles. They always appear in the Latin, and in the English you can turn them on and off.

The stars and daggers are marks to guide the chanting of the psalms and canticles. Especially when you are own, you don’t need to worry about conforming to them, but they can be a helpful guide.

The fool has said in his heart *
’There is no God above.’

is one example.

O that Israel’s salvation might come from Sion! 
  When God delivers his people from bondage,*
  then Jacob will be glad and Israel rejoice.

is another.

The basic unit

The basic unit of most psalms is made up of two halves: “The fool has said in his heart ………. ’There is no God above’”. If you say this slowly and clearly (whether out loud or under your breath), you will find that you naturally go up a little in pitch before the pause between the halves, and down a little in pitch to mark the completion of the second half. In fact, if you watch yourself closely, you will find yourself doing the same thing when you are talking to a friend in a noisy place. Sentences naturally go down a little at the end, and consequently if you want to insert a pause for clarity, you refuse to go down just before it, you even go up a little, thus saying to your friend “Although I have fallen silent for a moment I still have control of the conversation and you can’t jump in here”.
 
So that is what the asterisk does: it indicates a non-final pause, and in most systems of chanting or even speaking, that means ending on a slight up note just before the asterisk. 
 
The fool has said in his heart *[pause, but on an up note so you are not relinquishing control]
’There is no God above.’ [a down note here to indicate completion].
 

The three-line unit

From time to time, the basic unit is three lines, not two. Sometimes a whole psalm is structured like this, but in the psalm in this particular example – 52(53) – there is only one stanza of that kind. The way to think of it in that case is that you have the same two-half pattern:
 
When God delivers his people from bondage, *[pause, but on an up note so you are not relinquishing control]
  then Jacob will be glad and Israel rejoice. [a down note here to indicate completion].
 
but with an extra line stuck to the front:
 
O that Israel’s salvation might come from Sion! [pause, but refusing to go up at the end, so that we are still in the first half]
  When God delivers his people from bondage, *[pause, but on an up note so you are not relinquishing control: this ends the first half and starts the second]
  then Jacob will be glad and Israel rejoice. [a down note here to indicate completion of the second half and the whole unit].
 
The sense in the first line is of a pitch that ought to be going up to say “end of first half, beginning of second” but doesn’t – and its not doing it is itself a signal that there is more of the first half to come.
 
——
 
There are different systems of plainchant and they all handle these patterns in their own way. But if you get the sense of the divisions which are indicated by the stars and daggers, that will guide you to understanding the patterns better.

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