Take up the song

The current Precentor of the General Assembly, the Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith, tells us about what this role involves. To start you can watch him in action last year as he leads the assembly in Psalm 24, “Ye gates, lift up your heads on high”.

One of the memories first-time 'commissioners' to the General Assembly carry away with them is the almost overpowering thrill of the Assembly in full voice singing, quite unaccompanied, the psalms and paraphrases at opening worship each day. While it is true that for the last ten years or so hymns with the organ have varied the diet – fully a century after the official blessing of hymns for use in the parishes! – singing with a precentor has given the Assembly at worship its characteristic sound.

The precentor (cantor in other traditions) in earlier centuries was known as the 'uptaker' of the psalm. Both words explicate the precentor's role, to 'take up' or start the psalm, the one who (as derived from the Latin) 'sings first'. The precentor does not lead the Assembly's song as much as cues it - lights the blue touch paper and retires, one might say. The Assembly needs very little bidding to sing, and to sing with freedom, in tune, and in concert.

That said, the Assembly can have a will of its own! It is only recently that the melodies have been printed in the daily papers, following the precedent of the very first Reformation psalters where psalms had their 'proper' (i.e.peculiar to them) tunes printed alongside. But even now, the first notes of one tune can fatally suggest another. For the precentor, doh-me-fah-soh-doh may signal Caithness but for the Assembly some morning how could it be other than French! We wait with trepidation for Friday morning this year when the Moderator has chosen Orlington to Psalm 23, a wonderful tune whose four opening notes are identical with Wiltshire, also a favourite with that psalm!

The Assembly year by year proves that music is alive and well in the Church, that modern society's lost art of singing together is preserved in our congregations, and also that people are more adventurous than often alleged. This is proven in the first goal of those who plan the Assembly's music each year – to air items which are not yet much sung in the parishes and to give people new repertoire to take away, having seen that it is appealing and possible.

The second lesson to be learned from the Assembly's song is that it can matter how you are placed in relation to each other. We get encouragement from each other's voices, and proximity makes this possible. People go back to our churches more conscious of the 'environment' out of which the best music is made, and that people scattered throughout a building cannot sufficiently support the song.

The third lesson is that, while it is hugely enhancing to be undergirded by a good organ well played, we should not assume that without this we are lost. The Assembly's Reformed practice (prefigured in the plainchant of the medieval church as well as in the folk music of this nation) demonstrates both the possibility and the excitement of unaccompanied singing – and if you say, we have no-one who can be our precentor, then look among your community where there may be people like the ceilidh's fear an tighe, the teacher, and many others forbye who have to make themselves heard in public and who also can hold a tune.

Indeed, the precentor of old was also found among such persons, the dominie perhaps, although there were bleaker periods in our history where it was said that the qualification for precentor was 'poverty and a loud voice for reading the line'. Many stories have accrued round the figure of the precentor, like the time when a somewhat underequipped practitioner slipped by mistake from the psalm tune to the melody of a popular ballad tune (the ‘common metre’ of the psalm was originally derived from the metre of the ballad). Thus one congregation found they were singing Psalm 107 to Sir Patrick Spens. At least both are about going to sea!