29 Nov 2011

The decline of psalm-singing: the rosary

We are given to understand that many religions have something akin to prayer beads to assist the devout in saying their prayers. The rosary is one such aid used especially by Roman Catholics. However, it seems that the prayers accompanying the rosary long ago supplanted the Psalms for the use of illiterate people who had no access to the latter. Here is the story, according to this website:


The Rosary is actually believed to have developed as a result of the monasteries, because in the monasteries the monks would pray the Psalms, 150 altogether. However, many monks as well as townspeople were unable to read, but wanted to be in solidarity in prayer with the monks, and so developed a means of praying 150 “Our Fathers” which later, given the rise in devotion to Mary, added the “Hail Mary” as well. This is why sometimes the Rosary is called “Mary’s Psalter.” However, what would happen is given the amount [sic] of prayers, it would be hard to keep track, so they developed a sort of abacus in order to keep count, originally it was stones but later developed into beads on a string.

This is confirmed elsewhere. Finally, here is the account given in the Catholic Encyclopedia (with sources deleted for ease of reading):

But there were other prayers to be counted more nearly connected with the Rosary than Kyrie eleisons. At an early date among the monastic orders the practice had established itself not only of offering Masses, but of saying vocal prayers as a suffrage for their deceased brethren. For this purpose the private recitation of the 150 psalms, or of 50 psalms, the third part, was constantly enjoined. Already in A.D. 800 we learn from the compact between St. Gall and Reichenau that for each deceased brother all the priests should say one Mass and also fifty psalms. A charter in Kemble prescribes that each monk is to sing two fifties (twa fiftig) for the souls of certain benefactors, while each priest is to sing two Masses and each deacon to read two Passions. But as time went on, and the conversi, or lay brothers, most of them quite illiterate, became distinct from the choir monks, it was felt that they also should be required to substitute some simple form of prayer in place of the psalms to which their more educated brethren were bound by rule. Thus we read in the "Ancient Customs of Cluny", collected by Udalrio in 1096, that when the death of any brother at a distance was announced, every priest was to offer Mass, and every non-priest was either to say fifty psalms or to repeat fifty times the Paternoster. Similarly among the Knights Templar, whose rule dates from about 1128, the knights who could not attend choir were required to say the Lord's Prayer 57 times in all and on the death of any of the brethren they had to say the Pater Noster a hundred times a day for a week.

I am unaware of any Reformed Christians using a rosary, and certainly no Reformed church endorses the practice. However, I have come across two efforts to reconnect the rosary with its origins in the Psalms and other scriptures: Pray the Rosary with the Psalms and The Daily Prayer Rosary.

28 Nov 2011

Getting used to new texts

I will not cross-post it here, because it is not entirely on-topic, but I will link to this short piece for those with a more general interest in liturgical matters: 'And with your spirit'. However, for our purposes here it is relevant to recall that Roman Catholic parishes are becoming accustomed, not only to new liturgical texts for the mass, but also to a revised Grail Psalter, which the Vatican recently mandated for English-speaking churches already used to the 1963 edition. As with the ordinary of the mass, many composers have written settings for the '63 Grail Psalms. Producing a new sung Grail Psalter will likely take some time. Why the changes? Here is a good explanation that applies in some respects to both the mass and the psalter:

When the Grail Psalms were first translated in the 1950s and early 1960s, the desire to retain strict rhythmic patterns similar to those found in their original Hebrew setting was a primary principle for the translators. In attempting to adhere to these rhythmic patterns, they would often abbreviate or paraphrase a text in preference to a more literal translation. By doing so, some instances of the rich biblical imagery of the Psalter were lost. Furthermore, in later decades, significant progress was made in the understanding of Hebrew rhetoric and how to incorporate the Hebraic style in English translation. Finally, there also arose a desire to return to a more elevated sacred language, in contrast to the informal and colloquial approach of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although my primary interest on this site is metrical psalmody, it must be admitted that the problems with the 1963 Grail Psalter apply in large measure to metrical psalms as well. This is not an argument against their use, but I do wonder whether Reformed churches ought not to consider ways of singing the psalms that do not necessitate altering, and in some cases abbreviating, the texts.

24 Nov 2011

Praising God in the langue d'oc

During the 16th century one of the areas of strength for the Reformation was the south of France. Here a distinctive romance language was (and is) spoken, known variously as the langue d'oc and Occitan. Here is Psalm 150 sung in the Occitan language. The Genevan melody is slightly altered in the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 8th lines. The portraits at .30 and 2.30 are of Marguerite d'Angoulême and her grandson, King Henri IV, respectively, both of whom played key roles in the religious struggles in France.

The psalms for guitar

The guitar is one of my favourite instruments, and Marcelo de la Puebla is a great guitarist, as evidenced in the following performances of Psalms 92, 68, 128, 77, 47, 137 and 150. The arrangements are by Adrien le Roy.

21 Nov 2011

Book of Praise, part 2: more on the Canadian Reformed psalter

Unlike, say, the Free Reformed Churches and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, the Canadian Reformed (CanRef) do not sing only the Psalms, though these have clear priority. There is a smaller section of their new Book of Praise (BOP) devoted to eighty-five hymns, but even these lean heavily towards biblical canticles found elsewhere in scripture, such as the Decalogue (hymn 11), the Song of Moses from Deuteronomy (hymn 12) and the Song of Mary, also known as the Magnificat (hymn 17). There are two versions of the Apostles' Creed, one metrical (hymn 2) and the other nonmetrical (hymn 1). The tunes tend to come from the Genevan and German chorale traditions, though not exclusively so.

Then come the three ecumenical creeds, the Three Forms of Unity (i.e., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of the Synod of Dort), the liturgical forms (or rites) for various occasions, prayers, the church order and forms of subscription. This volume is, in short, a book for ordering the entire worship life of an ecclesial body rooted in a particular Reformed confessional tradition. This makes it indispensable for its members for whom it was produced, but it also limits its usefulness beyond its boundaries, which is regrettable given that much therein deserves to be more widely known and appreciated. More on this in a moment.

The Bible translation used is the 1984 edition of the New International Version, which is a change from the Revised Standard Version used in the 1984 BOP. However, the NIV 1984 has now been updated and a new edition has just been published, the NIV 2011 (Click here to read my preliminary assessment of this new edition). Whether the CanRef Churches will adopt the update or switch to another translation remains to be seen. In any event, their Authorized Provisional Version was outdated at virtually the moment it was published. My guess is that the authorized final version will use yet another translation – possibly the English Standard Version, which is favoured in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Presbyterian Church in America.

Now to the Psalms themselves. As I indicated in my first post, the texts generally flow smoothly – more smoothly than those in the previous edition. However, the major difficulty with these versifications, as I see it, is that they stick rather too closely to the rhyming schemes of the original French texts, which, oddly enough, do not always fit well with the tunes. This often leaves the stressed long notes coinciding with unstressed syllables or even short words like the and to. This is not peculiar to the BOP, but is characteristic of every translation of the Psalms of which I am aware, including Lobwasser's German, Strejc's Czech, Molnár's Hungarian and the 1773 Dutch psalters. Moreover, masculine (stressed) and feminine (unstressed) endings in the text do not always match the masculine and feminine endings in each line of the music. Together these make for somewhat awkward singing and may in part explain why the Genevan melodies did not catch on in English-language psalters.

One example should suffice. Consider Psalm 13, first in French:

Jusques à quand as estably
Seigneur, de me mettre en oubly?
Est ce à jamais? pour combien d'aage
Destourneras tu ton visage
De moy, las, d'angoisse remply?

Try singing it to this tune. The word oubly (note the archaic spelling) should be accented on the second syllable, but the music makes for a stress on the first. The same can be said of remply. (Note that the second syllable of visage contains a melisma, or two notes on a single syllable, a relative rarity in the Genevan Psalter. In their efforts to make the Psalms singable by ordinary congregations, the composers of the psalter's tunes deliberately tried to avoid melismata where they could.) Here now is the BOP's most recent English version:

How long will you forget me, LORD?
How long must sorrow be endured?
You hide your face while here I languish.
Foes with their taunts increase my anguish.
Will I forever be ignored?

If you try singing it to the tune above, you will notice that the music for sorrow places the stress on the second syllable, while that for endured emphasizes the first – precisely the opposite of what they should be. Similarly, the music associated with ignored stresses the first rather than the second syllable. (The melisma comes on the first syllable of anguish.) Such incongruities are found throughout the psalms. Again this is not peculiar to the BOP; it is found in all the translations of which I am personally aware. Here the CanRef Churches might have hewed less closely to some of the specifics of their own tradition for the sake of singability and, I would argue, for the long-term durability of their larger tradition of sung psalmody.

I offer here my own translation of the same Psalm:

How long, O LORD, must I endure?
Will you forget me for ever?
Shall I look on your visage never?
How long shall my soul constant pain endure,
and my poor heart be in sorrow?

Note that I have altered the traditional rhyme scheme from AABBA to ABBAC, the latter of which better fits the stresses in the tune. I have also eliminated the unnecessary melisma in the fourth line. The final line does not rhyme with any of the others, but this, in my view, has no bearing on its singability and in fact may enhance it.

Will the CanRef Churches continue to sing the Genevan Psalms in future decades? I hope and pray that they will, however the historic tendency for hymns to replace psalms in the liturgy is well attested. My understanding is that the Dutch counterparts to the CanRef Churches have begun to use supplementary books with praise choruses in worship. One hopes this does not indicate a decline in psalm-singing. My prayer is that this new Book of Praise will help to maintain and invigorate the Genevan tradition for future generations in the one English-speaking denomination whose worship it has shaped. In the meantime I will continue my own efforts here in hope of disseminating the Genevan tradition more widely elsewhere.

Hollywood takes on the Genevan psalms

In 1952 Miklós Rózsa, one of Hollywood's great film composers, borrowed the Genevan Psalter's tune for Psalms 36 and 68 in scoring Plymouth Adventure, the story of the Pilgrims' migration to North America in 1620.



Here is the text sung by the chorus:

Confess Jehovah thankfully,
For He is good, for His mercie
Continueth for ever.
To God of gods confess doo ye,
Because His bountiful-mercee
Continueth for ever.
Unto the Lord of lords confesse
Because His merciful kindnes
Continueth for ever.
To Him that dooth Himself onely,
Things wondrous great, for His Mercy
Continueth for ever.

The film's creators obviously did their homework, for this text comes from Henry Ainsworth's Psalter of 1612, which the Pilgrims brought with them from the Netherlands. This versification is of Psalm 136, which Ainsworth's Psalter assigns to this tune. I've not seen this film myself, but a friend told me that it aired last evening on television.

20 Nov 2011

Singing the Psalms at AUB

Singing Psalm 42 en français at the American University of Beirut:

19 Nov 2011

Calvin in the Golden Age


I have recently acquired another recording featuring the Genevan Psalms: Calvijn in the Gouden Eeuw: Calvinist Music from France and the Netherlands. A number of psalms are here beautifully performed by the Camerata Trajectina, an early music ensemble based in Utrecht, Netherlands. This recording was produced in 2009, the Calvin quincentenary year. Among the Psalms performed are 100, 2, 91, 8, 9, 5, and several more, according to arrangements by Goudimel, Sweelinck, Claude Le Jeune and others. These are sung in Dutch and French. Tellingly, the Dutch versions use the 16th-century versifications of Pieter Datheen rather than the "traditional" 1773 version used in most Dutch churches into the mid-20th century, undoubtedly because the latter are judged to be too "late" for an ensemble specializing in music before 1600. The recording ends with Psalm 103 played on the carillon. I would love to be in a town square while this was being played from a church's bell tower. This is definitely worth purchasing and listening to.

18 Nov 2011

Lengyel's psalms, continued

Psalm 23:



Psalm 42:



Psalm 90:

16 Nov 2011

More psalms from Judit Lengyel

I find myself quite taken with Lengyel's beautiful, unadorned renditions of the psalms. Here is Psalm 31:



And Psalm 130:



And finally Psalm 150, which we get to see her sing:

Our Father

I have now posted a simple unrhymed versification of the Lord's Prayer set to the tune, VATER UNSER, with which it is historically associated. The tune is often ascribed to Martin Luther and originates in Valentin Schumann's Geistliche Lieder of 1539. Luther's German text (translated into English here) assigns one stanza to each petition, making for a total of nine stanzas, and follows the logic of Luther's explanation of the prayer in his catechism.

13 Nov 2011

Psalms from Hungary

I have abandoned the effort to include every rendition I can find of the Genevan Psalms on my video pages. As the content of youtube expands, so also do the numbers of videos devoted to the Genevan Psalms, and it is proving impossible to keep up. However, I will be calling attention on this blog to notable performances, of which I include three below. Judit Lengyel sings, while Tibor Tóth accompanies.

Psalm 38:



Psalm 51:



Psalm 54:

12 Nov 2011

A review: the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, 1

Although I have had this collection in my possession for some months, I am only now getting round to reviewing it. Now that I have completed a first draft of my manuscript on authority, office and the image of God, I will offer my own thoughts on the new edition of the Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

The Canadian Reformed Churches originate in a tragic 1944 schism within the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, which post-war Dutch immigrants brought with them to Canada and the US. As far as I can determine, this small denomination is the only English-speaking church to sing the Genevan Psalter in its entirety. The Canadian Reformed could have followed the lead of the Christian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches and adopted the 1912 Psalter, with its regular metres and familiar hymn tunes, but they deliberately chose to stick with the Genevan tunes.

This led to the production of the Book of Praise, a title shared, incidentally, with the psalter and hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Its subtitle, "Anglo-Genevan Psalter," will likely confuse the historian of metrical psalmody, who will expect in vain to find therein the collection produced by the Marian exiles from England in 1561. But a google search will quickly set her straight.

This new collection is described as the "Authorized Provisional Version," suggesting that it still requires final synodical approval following a period of trial use in the congregations. The copy I have has a black flexible binding that is somewhat sturdier than paper. Its size is 8½" x 5½" x 1 1/8", making it bigger than its 1984 predecessor, which measured only 6½" x 4½" x 7/8". This makes for a larger, easier-to-read font. Unusual for liturgical books in the English-speaking world, it contains only the melodies, with a treble clef on the first staff only, replicating the visual layout of the old Dutch psalters and borrowed from the Dutch Liedboek voor de Kerken.

A major difference between the two editions is that the 2010 BOP abandons the liturgical use of the old second-person-singular pronouns (thou, thee, thine, &c.) in reference to God, nearly two generations after most other English-speaking Christians had done so. That the 1984 held onto this usage undoubtedly reflects the influence of the Revised Standard Version, which remained the denomination's preferred Bible translation until it was replaced two decades ago by the New Revised Standard Version. (The RSV's mixed use of contemporary and 17th-century pronouns was never consistent and made for some bizarre readings. But that's another subject.)

In virtually every way the 2010 BOP is superior to the 1984 edition. Compare the following first stanzas of Psalm 25. First the 1984:

Unto Thee, O LORD, my Saviour,
I lift up my waiting soul.
O my God, in Thee I trusted;
Let no shame now o'er me roll.
On my enemies be shame,
Oft without a cause transgressing;
But all those who trust Thy Name
Honour with abundant blessing.

Now the 2010:

LORD, for you my soul is longing;
O my God, in you I trust.
Do not let my foes disgrace me;
stop the taunts of the unjust.
All whose hope is in your name
you will honour with your blessing;
traitors will be put to shame --
those without excuse transgressing.

The first version was written by Samuel G. Brondsema in 1931, while the revised version is by William Helder. The latter is more straightforward, flows more easily from the lips, and reads better as well, insofar as it removes the unnecessary upper-case letters that visually break up a sentence (although the meaning of the final line is somewhat ambiguous). More of the psalm is expressed in the first stanza of the 2010 version than in the 1984, though the total number of stanzas in each is the same at 10.

In some cases Helder has improved on his own previous versifications, as seen in the somewhat stilted opening of Psalm 1 from 1984:

How blessed is the man whose walk is not
In evil counsel which the wicked plot . . .

Compare this to the 2010 version, which reads much more smoothly and naturally:

How blest is he who shuns the path of sin,
who spurns the counsel of unrighteous men . . .

Another addition to the 2010 BOP is the incorporation of the superscripts above each Psalm, e.g., "Of David. A maskil" for Psalm 32. Most liturgical psalters omit the superscripts, apparently assuming that they are unnecessary for worshippers, who would not be reciting or singing them in any case. (At least one Bible translation, the New English Bible, left them out altogether, although its successor, the Revised English Bible, put them back in.) The editors of the BOP perhaps judged that, if the superscriptions are part of the inspired text, they should be included in even a metrical psalter. But in the absence of explicit mention in the introduction, one is left to speculate on this.

More to come on the BOP. Stay tuned.

Champeaux recordings of the Psalms

I would love to obtain these recordings, but I don't know whether they are available in North America.



11 Nov 2011

Psalm 24

I trust I am not the only person to find this sturdy rendition of Psalm 24 especially inspiring. Confessing that the earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof seems like a good way to close out a week.

♪ La Terre au Seigneur appartient ♪ MT
from joe-topc on Vimeo.

1 Nov 2011

Introduction revised

I have just posted a revised and expanded introductory essay which replaces the one I wrote ten years ago for this site. The current version is an adaptation of the paper I delivered at Princeton in April and reflects more recent research. Although I do not have a formal research assistant for this ongoing project, my friend Lucas Freire has helped me immeasurably by uncovering a number of metrical psalters of which I was previously unaware. For both of us metrical psalmody is something more than an avocation. Obrigado, Lucas! Deus te abençoe.