31 Dec 2010

Year-end updates

  • For Christmas this year my beloved wife gave me an old copy of the Lobwasser Psalter, a sturdy little volume that has weathered the centuries remarkably well. The Lobwasser Psalter was a German-language translation of the Genevan Psalms set to verse in 1573 by Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585), a Lutheran teaching law at Königsberg in East Prussia. His translation was based on the French text he had heard the Huguenots singing during his stay in France. Lobwasser intended his Psalter primarily for private rather than liturgical use. This edition was published in Zürich in 1770, by which time it evidently was being used in public worship after all.

    Lobwasser Psalter


  • I have now scanned and posted the Czech-language psalter I purchased in Prague at age 21, titled Malý Kancionál (Little Hymnal) and published in Kutná Hora in 1900, when Bohemia and Moravia were still part of the Habsburg empire. The Czech translation was made by Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599), a minister of the Unity of the Brethren (Unitas Fratrum) from Zábřeh in Moravia. Strejc studied in Tübingen and Königsberg and came into contact with the Lobwasser Psalter, which impressed him so favourably that he decided to model his own Czech version on it, an undertaking he completed in 1587. Strejc is probably best known for his German-language hymn text, Mit Freuden Zart, familiar in English as Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above, the tune to which comes from the Bohemian Brethren's Kirchengesänge (1566) and bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Genevan Psalm 138.

    My thus far preliminary research has raised some intriguing questions worth further exploration. First, might Strejc have met Lobwasser personally in Königsberg and thereby come under his more direct influence?

    Second, given that the Kirchengesänge were produced by the same group of which Strejc was a minister, might this be evidence of a connection between the tunes for Psalm 138 and Mit Freuden Zart? To be sure, Strejc's versification of that Psalm came later, but might the Unity of the Brethren have become aware of the Genevan tunes earlier, and might it have been through Strejc? Tellingly, the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) ascribes the tune directly to the "Trente quatre pseaumes de David, Geneva, 1551." These two possibilities are probably mutually exclusive.

    Third, if Lobwasser based his translations on the French text of Marot and Bèze (for which he was criticized by his Lutheran colleagues), and if Strejc based his translations on Lobwasser's German text, how true are Strejc's texts to the Hebrew? Only someone conversant in all four languages would be able to answer this question.

    Czech Psalter

    Czech Psalter

    By the way, the city of Königsberg has been called Kaliningrad since 1945 and has been part of the Russian Federation. At some point there was talk of changing the name (Kalinin was a Stalin-era Soviet functionary) to honour its most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant. I would like to suggest as an alternative that it be renamed for either Lobwasser or Strejc. Or even both: Lobwasserstrejcgrad!

  • Those interested in becoming better acquainted with congregational psalm-singing in the Netherlands would do well to check out Ijsselm's Channel on youtube (short for Ijsselmeer perhaps?). Here one finds a number of recently-posted Genevan Psalms sung in the traditional 19th-century Dutch fashion characterized by four distinctive features: (1) they are sung at a slow pace; (2) they are often sung in isometric rhythm (i.e., every note having equal value), as opposed to the more syncopated rhythms of the original tunes; (3) the organist plays the initial note for a few seconds before the congregation joins in, leaving the impression that the congregation is lagging behind; and (4) the arrangements used suppress the modal flavour of the original tunes. I will probably not be posting these on my video pages, but I will post one below as an example:

    I might point out that, amongst the Dutch Canadians I know personally, many dislike intensely this style of singing and their churches have thus altogether abandoned the Genevan Psalms for more contemporary fare. I find this tragic, and my own efforts over the past quarter century are intended to recover the Genevan tradition and to make it more singable for younger generations of Christians in a variety of traditions.
  • 28 Dec 2010

    Huckaby on the psalms

    Chuck Huckaby has expanded his earlier post on the Genevan Psalms for The Worldview Church: Reviving Personal Devotion through use of the Genevan Psalms. In the course of this article he is kind enough to mention my own work in this area.

    19 Dec 2010

    The Psalm Project

    I have recently been made aware of The Psalm Project, a group of young Christian musicians in the Netherlands who are rendering the Genevan Psalms in contemporary form. Here is a medley of their efforts below, which are quite compelling:

    Here are Psalms 86, 119 (partial, obviously) and 139:

    Quite honestly, I do not recommend the microphoned performance style for liturgical use, as it calls too much attention to the singers, whose voices unduly dominate rather than support those of the congregation. Nevertheless, taken as performance music, these pieces are quite nice and worth listening to.

    Update: How would The Psalm Project render the imprecatory psalms such as the closing verses of Psalm 137? Are their contemporary versions of the Psalms capable of accounting for the quite varying spiritual and emotional range of the collection? I will be interested to follow their efforts to see how, or whether, they will treat these.

    14 Dec 2010

    Salmo 2

    The following Portuguese-language version of Psalm 2 is set to the Genevan tune and begins the same as this CBS rendition, but from there the two texts part ways.

    13 Dec 2010

    Afrikaans Psalter link

    With the gracious permission of Josef du Toit, I have now posted the Afrikaans-Geneefse Psalmboek on our server with a link from the links page. Heart-felt thanks to Mr. du Toit.

    10 Dec 2010

    The Psalms in Brazilian Portuguese

    A Brazilian acquaintance, Guilherme de Carvalho, has drawn my attention to a Portuguese-language article by Lucas G. Freire, titled A igreja deveria cantar mais os salmos, translated into English as The church should sing psalms more. Freire is a member of the Brazilian Committee on Psalmody (Comissão Brasileira de Salmodia, or CBS), which is undertaking to versify all 150 Psalms in the Portuguese language. The fruit of these efforts can be found at Saltério Reformado. Those versifications with Freire's name at the bottom are first drafts. Those attributed to CBS are final drafts. The intention is to have 150 Psalms set to the Genevan tunes and 150 Psalms set to more familiar hymn tunes. The collection should come out sometime next year. We wish Freire and the entire committee God's guidance and blessings as they undertake this important work for his glory.

    7 Dec 2010

    Psalter resources

    Chuck Huckaby, pastor of St. Andrews Church, Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, recommends a number of resources related to the Genevan Psalter, including the forthcoming new Canadian Reformed psalter: Updated Anglo Genevan Psalter Unveiled. Although this collection is known as both the Book of Praise, a title used since at least 1897 for the Presbyterian Church in Canada's psalter and hymnal, and Anglo-Genevan Psalter, a title given to the collection published in 1556 in Geneva by English clergy exiled during the reign of Queen Mary, no one is likely to confuse the new psalter with either of these earlier works. A preview can be found here.

    2 Dec 2010

    The Psalms in Afrikaans

    The Afrikaners of South Africa have their origins in a trading post established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope. The original Dutch settlers were joined by subsequent migrations from France and Germany, as seen in the surnames of many Afrikaners. For centuries the Reformed Christians who constituted the majority of Afrikaners read from the Dutch Statenvertaling Bible and sang the Genevan Psalms in Dutch. However, in the early 20th century the poet Jakob Daniël du Toit, better known by his latinized pen name Totius (photograph at right), versified the Psalms in Afrikaans, the Dutch-descended language used in everyday speech. His collection, commissioned and supervised by the Dutch Reformed Churches, was published in 1936, thereby providing this liturgical resource in Afrikaans for the first time.

    I have just received a copy of the most recent Afrikaans-language metrical psalter from one Josef du Toit (no relation), who has himself done work on revising Totius' original versifications. I look forward to exploring it more thoroughly in the near future. In the meantime, here is a Reformed congregation in Franschhoek, Western Cape, South Africa, singing Psalm 81:

    24 Nov 2010

    Not so exclusive psalmody

    Like the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, the Free Church of Scotland has historically allowed only unaccompanied singing of Psalms in the liturgy. However, its synodical assembly has now decided, by a narrow majority, to permit extrabiblical hymns and instruments in worship for those congregations desiring it. Given that the assembly was divided on the issue, many are unhappy with the decision — with one minister considering leaving the "Wee Free" for another Reformed denomination — thereby incurring the scorn of at least one member of the press. The Free Church's statement can be found here.

    Incidentally, I have just been lent a copy of the RPCNA's new Book of Psalms for Worship, which replaces the Book of Psalms for Singing. I have not yet had a chance to look at it carefully, but at first glance I see that it is strictly limited to the 150 canonical Psalms, excluding other biblical material, such as the Decalogue, the Song of Hannah and the three Lukan canticles.

    17 Nov 2010

    November update

  • Andrew Donaldson mentioned my introductory essay in the web version of The Presbyterian Record: You’ve Got to Listen to This.

  • I have added the Chabanel Psalms to the links page. The Corpus Christi Watershed, which is behind this project, has its own youtube site that is worth exploring.

  • Also on the links page is a link to the 1912 Psalter as used by the Free Reformed Churches of North America. The 1912 Psalter was the basis for the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal, as well as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's Trinity Hymnal, whose 1961 edition I grew up with. The Free Reformed Churches may be the only denomination still singing from the complete 1912 Psalter.
  • 15 Nov 2010

    Singing the Psalms: Chabanel Psalter

    First there was Wikipedia, the global collaborative encyclopedia of virtually everything worth knowing — and, admittedly, a lot we'd be better off not knowing. Then there was open-source software — free, downloadable software that is also part of a collaborative effort. Now we have the Chabanel Psalms, which might be described as an open-source liturgical psalter.
    The St. Noel Chabanel Responsorial Psalm Project, found at www.chabanelpsalms.org, exists as a remedy for the problematic and sometimes malignant musical settings that so often destroy the prayerful atmosphere the Church requires for her public worship. It is part of the fruit of the nonprofit organization Corpus Christi Watershed, an apostolate and institute dedicated to helping renew the arts and creative media in the Church. . . .

    This website clearly lays out all three liturgical years, and for each Sunday and feast day provides numerous musical settings of the Responsorial Psalm in English. The different versions, sometimes as many as twelve per Psalm, were contributed by highly skilled Church musicians working in parishes all over the world. . . .

    Everything on this website (vocalist scores, organist scores, transposed scores, alternate versions, audio mp3 examples, etc.) is provided for instant download, completely free of charge.

    Although the Chabanel Psalms are composed with the liturgical standards of the Roman Catholic Church in mind, there is in principle no reason why the Reformed churches could not make good use of them. After all, we have our own share of "malignant" musical settings crying out for better-quality replacements. Furthermore, there is no canon requiring us to sing only metred psalms. Chanting the psalms would certainly suffice and might even have an advantage in that it requires no alteration of the texts. It's worth a try. Here are four examples below:

    Psalm 130:

    Psalm 122:

    Psalm 112:

    Psalm 16:

    9 Nov 2010

    Random act of worship

    Although the words to Handel's Hallelujah Chorus come from the Revelation and not from the Psalms, I just had to post this uplifting video, which has moved a number of people I know to tears. As we draw nearer to Advent, it is good to be reminded musically of the hope we have in Christ, who will come again to bring his kingdom to fruition.

    1 Nov 2010

    Exclusive psalmody, encore une fois

    One of my Redeemer protégés, Michael Zwiep, has written a post on his Nadere Reformatie blog, Essay: Psalmody Through the Ages, defending the exclusive use of Psalms in the liturgies of the Reformed churches. His own Free Reformed Churches of North America, practise what Zwiep preaches, although they sing largely from the 1912 Psalter rather than from the Genevan Psalter.

    Singing the Psalms at Redeemer

    On Tuesday evening, 5 April 2011, I will be presenting a lecture on Singing the Psalms at Redeemer University College. This is from the announcement on Redeemer's website:

    Dr. David Koyzis will explore the tradition of singing the psalms set to poetic metres as found especially in the 16th-century Genevan Psalter when this tradition was initiated by John Calvin. In particular he will discuss his own 25-year project of writing fresh poetic versions of the psalms and arranging their proper Genevan melodies. Be prepared not only to learn but to sing!

    Dr. David T. Koyzis is Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College and is an amateur poet and musician. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003) and is currently writing a book on authority and the image of God.

    You are cordially invited to attend. Bring your voices along!

    31 Oct 2010

    Psalm 46 and Reformation

    Today our church, Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, observed the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation with a special worship service. Our minister, Dr. Clyde Ervine, preached on Ezekiel 34:1-13a and Romans 10:6-17. The choir sang this wonderful version of Psalm 46 set to the Anglican chant version of Ein' Feste Burg:

    Two psalms, 27 and 103, were sung from the Scottish Psalter of 1650, whose version of Psalm 46 follows below:

    Praise God for John Calvin, John Knox and other Reformers, who worked so tirelessly and fearlessly for the sake of the gospel.

    7 Sept 2010

    Exclusive psalmody

    I have added another link to my website: the Rev. Mark Koller's Exclusive Psalmody. There is, of course, an old tradition within some branches of the larger Reformed family that has congregations singing only metred psalms in worship. Although it has never been the majority position, even in such conservative denominations as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, proponents can nevertheless accurately point to a tragic history that has seen "uninspired" (i.e., not directly from scripture) hymnody squeeze out the psalms over the centuries. I myself would not go quite as far as to advocate singing only psalmody, though I definitely believe that the biblical Psalms in some form should constitute the heart of the church's sung liturgy.

    5 Sept 2010

    Salterio de Ginebra

    The Genevan Psalter is now available in its entirety in the Spanish language from Faro de Gracia. Here is the description from R. Scott Clark's Heidelblog:
    Salterio de Ginebra
    It contains the 150 Biblical Psalms, complete and entire, and versified to be sung with the Genevan Psalter tunes. It contains a translation of John Calvin’s preface, and the introductions to each Psalm which appeared in the original French psalter. The guiding principle of the work has been to remain as close as possible to the Biblical text of the Spanish Reina-Valera translations of 1909 and 1960, in such a way that the Biblical text will be completely recognizable to everyone, in spite of the formal requirements of the versification.

    This project has taken us seven years of constant work and revision. We do not conceal the satisfaction it gives us to see it now published, above all because the goal is nothing other than the public worship of the Lord by His church. We hope, then, that with it historic protestant worship can be recovered in the Spanish-speaking evangelical churches, an issue of immense importance in our day.

    I've not yet seen a copy, so I cannot say whether there is a relationship between this new publication and the Spanish-language psalter found here. I will let readers know when I do.

    4 Jul 2010

    Psalm-singing at Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho

    I know little of the community of Christians worshipping at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, except that they are part of a larger body called the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, which are not well known outside of their own circles. They are liturgically distinctive in that they seem to have developed their own way of singing the biblical psalms, as evidenced below. The result is not quite chant, but it's not quite metrical either, and no attempt has been made to set these psalms to verse. Nevertheless, they are definitely rhythmic with a drum keeping the beat. Whether the congregation sings these at weekly worship or only at special psalm sing gatherings I cannot say. It sounds to me as though these would take some training to sing properly. Here the congregation sings Psalm 149, as composed by Dr. David Erb:

    Here Erb manages to extend the shortest of the psalms, Psalm 117, by rendering it as a canon:

    And now Psalm 19:

    The congregation also sings the Apostles' Creed:

    Are these psalms sung elsewhere, perhaps in other CREC congregations? Further information on this subject would be welcome.


    A brief exploration of the CREC reveals that it has a publishing arm, Canon Press, which produces the denomination's liturgical publications. The above psalms are from Worship in Harmony, while the one below is a portion of Psalm 119 from its primary congregational worship book, Cantus Christi. The singing is inspiring.

    26 May 2010

    Singing the Psalms: a Reformed lectionary

    Pierre Pidoux's edited volume, Le psautier huguenot du XVIe siècle: Mélodies et documents, contains a fascinating lectionary for singing through the entire Psalter in the course of 25 weeks, or approximately half a year. This was used in Geneva during the 16th century. I am unaware of any Reformed denomination, at least in North America, prescribing such a pattern for its congregations. Note that it presupposes two sunday worship services and a wednesday "day of prayers." When I was a child, our church congregation had a midweek prayer meeting. This chart makes it clear that such a gathering has historical precedent. The reference to the second ringing of the bell may arouse curiosity nowadays given the lack of bells in most contemporary church buildings. Click on the image below to bring it up in a larger and more legible format.

    My question is whether it would be in order to revive the use of this or a similar lectionary to ensure that the entire Psalter will be covered on a regular basis in the church's liturgy. It is worth at least serious consideration.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

    13 May 2010

    Singing the psalms: bluegrass

    I have sometimes thought, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that I should try to recover my former competence on the banjo after some four decades away and arrange at least a few of the Genevan Psalm tunes for bluegrass. It seems someone got there ahead of me. No, it isn't a Genevan tune, but it definitely is the banjo and it's even in Hebrew. Here's Psalm 89:

    Ascension Day

    Today the church recalls the ascension of Christ to heaven, where he sits at the right hand of God the Father. In the liturgies for this day, the assigned psalm is often Psalm 47: “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm!” Here is the Genevan tune for this psalm, sung in French:

    Here is my own English versification:

    Clap your hands, all you peoples of the earth,
    shout to God with a song of joyful mirth!
    Hold the Most High our LORD in reverent awe.
    Our great King rules the peoples with his law;
    he has put all the nations in their place;
    he has chosen us, Jacob, in his grace.

    God ascends amid great resounding cries,
    with the blast of the trumpet see him rise!
    Sing to God, all your praises to him sing,
    let your praises be rendered to our King!
    For our God is the Ruler of the earth;
    sing his praise, sing to him with psalms of mirth!

    God reigns over the nations here below,
    from his throne his decrees down to them flow.
    Princes gather from earth’s remote extent
    with God’s people of Abraham’s descent.
    All the shields of the earth to God belong;
    let us highly exalt him with our song!

    Text and harmonization copyright © 1999 by David T. Koyzis.

    9 May 2010

    Psalm 119 files

    I have now posted eleven pdf files for my complete versification of Psalm 119 with music.

    5 Apr 2010

    Gelineau psalmody

    Unbelievably, no one appears to have posted any Gelineau psalmody on youtube. . . until now, that is. Here is a description from my Reformed Worship article, Straight from Scripture, originally published some two decades ago:

    One of the more interesting ways of singing the psalms was developed by Joseph Gelineau of France. Of all the methods of singing the psalms, Gelineau's chant best preserves the Hebrew poetic style, retaining both the parallelism and the metrical structure of the original. Ancient Hebrew meter is somewhat like early English meter (e.g., nursery rhymes) in that it focuses on the number of stresses within a line rather than on the number of syllables. Gelineau psalmody is often sung to the Grail translation, which was produced specifically for this purpose. The following passage (again from Psalm 54) is "pointed" to indicate the regular rhythmic stresses in each line:
    O Gód, sáve me by your náme;
    by your pówer, uphóld my caúse.
    O Gód, heár my práyer;
    lísten to the wórds of my moúth.

    Gelineau psalmody also takes into account the different number of lines within each stanza, something that is not possible with other methods of psalm-chanting.

    Gelineau psalms are usually sung responsively. The soloist or choir begins by singing the refrain; then the congregation repeats it. The psalm then proceeds responsively with a soloist or choir chanting the verses and the congregation responding with the refrain. Many Roman Catholics, who have recently begun congregational singing, have found this "responsorial" style of psalm-singing very helpful. A refrain (or antiphon, an older term) is much easier to learn than the whole psalm. Among Protestants who are used to exclusive metrical psalmody, the responsorial style has the advantage of making a clear distinction between psalms and hymns. Rather than simply reading the psalm directly from the Bible or singing a paraphrased version of it metrically, the congregation can sing the actual words from Scripture.

    Within the last month St. Peter's Church in Columbia, South Carolina, has posted six Gelineau Psalms, numbers 23, 24, 29, 34, 80 and 104. Because these are not Genevan tunes, I will not post them on the website proper, but I will post them below, because I firmly believe Gelineau psalmody deserves to be better known outside of Roman Catholic circles.

    8 Mar 2010

    Blast from the past

    Using the Wayback Machine Internet Archive I have located what my Genevan Psalter website looked like a decade ago, when it was no more than a single page with links to a few midi files. This is how it looked on 9 October 1999. And this is it a year later on 27 October 2000. Needless to say, the site grew considerably over the next few years.

    By the way, I have a short piece, Metrical psalmody: singing God's word, which was recently posted at The Worldview Church, which bills itself as "Resources for Pastors from the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview."

    1 Mar 2010

    Update: Psalm 146

    Having heard Sweelinck's arrangement of Psalm 146 below, I have now composed my own and versified the text, which I posted this morning here. This is the first stanza of the text:

    Praise the LORD; sing alleluia!
    O my soul, sing forth his praise.
    Praises will my voice be chanting
    to the LORD through all my days.
    To my God my lips shall give
    songs of praise while yet I live.

    22 Feb 2010

    Updates: Sweelinck arrangements

    Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was a Dutch musician who, among other things, arranged the Genevan Psalms for choral singing. Coincidentally, Sweelinck's birth year saw the Genevan Psalter's completion. I have just added a number of his arrangements to the videos page. Two of them follow, the first Psalm 8 and the second Psalm 146.

    One more update: bibliography, discography, links and videos are now on separate pages.

    16 Feb 2010

    Psalm 95 - T'ai Giorkou

    There is an intimate connection between folk and liturgical music that often goes unnoticed. Both typically grow out of local communities in which their personal origins are obscured. No one in particular writes folk songs, and, until fairly recently, the same was true of the songs used in corporate worship. Folk and liturgical music is also modal music, that is, it is composed in the several musical modes or in variants thereof. This is in contrast to more recent (i.e., post-Renaissance) western music, which tends to be in major or minor scales only.

    Recognizing the relationship between folk and liturgical music, some years ago I paired a versification of Psalm 95 I had written in the 1980s with the tune of an ancient Greek Cypriot folksong, Τ'αη Γιωρκού (T'ai Giorkou), which is an epic poem about St. George and the Dragon. Here it is sung by Greek Cypriot musician Alkinoos Ioannidis:

    In the summer of 1993, my sister, Yvonne Koyzis Hook, and I recorded Psalm 95 set to my own arrangement of this beautiful tune at St. Barnabas Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Note the asymmetrical rhythm of the piece, which is in 5/4 time. Thus far I have not written down the arrangement, which exists only in this recording. Here is the text:

    Come, sing our praises to the LORD,
    the Rock of our salvation;
    into his presence now let us come
    with songs of jubilation.
    O let us make a joyful sound,
    our happy voices raising;
    for God is King above every god
    and worthy of our praising.

    For in his hands he holds the earth
    and all the depths thereunder;
    to him belong all the mountain peaks
    amid their regal splendour.
    His also is the restless sea,
    the work of his creation;
    his hands have fashioned the continents
    and fixed their habitation.

    Come, let us chant our Maker’s praise
    and bow before the Father;
    for he is ours and we too are his,
    the flock that he would gather.
    If only you would hear his voice,
    accepting his correction!
    Incline your ear and hear what he says
    and he will give direction.

    Text copyright © 1986 by David T. Koyzis; recording copyright © 1993 by David Koyzis and Yvonne Koyzis Hook

    31 Jan 2010

    Tallis' haunting tune

    This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first performance of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. I fell in love with this magnificent work nearly 30 years ago while studying for my written comprehensive exams at Notre Dame. The “theme” in the title is a tune composed by Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter to which a versification of Psalm 2 is set. In most hymnals it is given the title THIRD MODE MELODY, because it’s in the phrygian mode, and it is sometimes paired with Horatius Bonar’s text, I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. In the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnal a metrical version of Psalm 62 is set to it. Here is the original psalm below:

    The tune itself doesn’t seem especially strong, at least at first. There’s not much movement in the first half of the melody, which sneaks up on the listener hesitantly with a chant-like quality. Yet it is surprisingly compelling, all the same. Like most music of the period, it lacks a regular time signature, yet it’s in the double common metre ubiquitous in English psalmody and hymnody. Above all it is an “ecclesiastical” tune.

    In the hands of Vaughan Williams this tune takes on an unforgettably haunting quality. The Fantasia is played entirely by strings, and the composer even employs parallel fifths, which defy musical convention but work wonderfully to heighten a sense of awe and mystery. When the piece finally brings us back to the original tune, we recognize that we have been on a remarkable musical journey – perhaps into a nearly forgotten past of some four and a half centuries ago. On more than one occasion this piece has left me with moist eyes. Listen for yourself below:

    One can nearly picture the peaceful nobility of the English countryside in the composer’s swelling cadences. I myself tend to associate it with another tranquil landscape, namely, that formed by the land along the Illinois Prairie Path, where I rode my bicycle during that summer so long ago.

    Remarkably, Vaughan Williams seems to have considered himself an agnostic, despite his having contributed so much to the music of the English church. Who does not love to sing For All the Saints, set to his whimsically (un)named SINE NOMINE? Incidentally Vaughan Williams was the grandnephew of Charles Darwin.

    As for Tallis' THIRD MODE MELODY, here is another elaboration composed by the late Texas composer Fisher Tull in 1971, Sketches on a Tudor Psalm. This has a quite different feel to it. While Vaughan Williams' Fantasia is written entirely for strings, Tull's Sketches are for brass band. This gives the piece a less tranquil and more dynamic and agitated flavour, as underscored by the discordant tonality and energetic percussion. There are echoes of Vaughan Williams in a very few of Tull's phrases, as heard below:

    Finally, soon after discovering Tallis' tune, I wrote a metrical versification of Psalm 25 to be sung to it, which returns it to its original use, namely, as a setting for a psalm.

    23 Jan 2010

    Update: 'gods' and 'angels'

    I have just completed a versification of Psalm 97 along with an arrangement of the Genevan melody.

    As is the case with a number of psalms (e.g., 8, 82, 95, 138), Psalm 97 includes two references to "gods," which appear to presuppose a polytheistic context. Some of our study bibles tell us that this accords with an ancient view of God presiding over a council of gods, as seen, e.g., at the beginning of Job. However, in Psalm 82 the translators of the New International Version place inverted commas around the word "gods," implying that these are not genuine gods but definitely subordinate to the one true God. The context appears to point to earthly political rulers who fancy themselves gods, as was not uncommon in the ancient near east. The RSV translates Psalm 97:7 thus:

    All worshipers of images are put to shame,
    who make their boast in worthless idols;
    all gods bow down before him.

    However, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) renders the same verse slightly differently:

    Let all who do obeisance to carved images be put to shame,
    those who make their boast in their idols.
    Do obeisance to him, all his angels (άγγελοι)!

    Note the change from the Hebrew to the Greek — from gods (elohim) to angels. I have rendered the same verse thus:

    Those who deny his name
    are quickly put to shame
    for worshipping untruly
    and reverencing unduly.
    You gods, pay homage now;
    before him you must bow.

    However, following the Septuagint rendering, the fifth line could be rendered as follows: "Pay homage, angels, now." But for the present I have kept it as is. Such references to gods in scripture could thus mean either (1) false gods, as understood by the pagans; (2) angelic beings, as the LXX has it; or (3) political rulers who claim divinity. Interpreting which is correct obviously depends on context.

    22 Jan 2010

    God as 'Supreme Being'

    It is well known that liturgical language changes more slowly than ordinary spoken or written language and that people are exceedingly reluctant to alter the language of worship unless forced to do so. Of course any innovation, however controversial at first, has the potential to develop into hallowed tradition over time.

    The Dutch Reformed churches have long sung from the Genevan Psalter, but there has been more than one approved versification of the psalms. An early versification in Dutch was that of Pieter Datheen, which became the standard version sung in the Reformed churches after 1566. In 1773 the States General of the Netherlands commissioned and imposed a new versification of the psalms on the churches. This was controversial at the time, as told by my emeritus colleague, Dr. Harry Van Dyke:

    There were of course nation-wide protests when the 1773 berijming [versification] was forced on the church by the States-General. People hate to lose their well-known spiritual songs. In the town of Maassluis riots broke out when the minister announced a psalm from the new versification. A complication was that they were also to be sung at a faster tempo than the old version, and the congregation had practised doing so in weekday evening sessions a month earlier. That Sunday, however, people stormed out of the sanctuary and bellowed loud protests. But it was not likely to have been a protest against rationalism in the verses, and much rather a question of the tempo and the wish to stay with the old and familiar versification of Petrus Dathenus of 1566 (still sung in some ultra-conservative Reformed churches, esp. in Zeeland).

    With respect to "rationalism," the 1773 version refers to God as het Opperwezen (Supreme Being) in 16 psalms (7, 8, 21, 33, 38, 40, 68, 71, 77, 78,81, 96, 99, 102, 112 and 113). With its abstract and impersonal connotations, Opperwezen's use here reflects the influence of the Enlightenment and Deism — at their height in the 18th century. It is found nowhere in the Statenvertaling, the 1637 Dutch translation of the Bible, comparable to our own King James Version.

    The 1967 versification of the Psalms almost entirely removes Opperwezen as a reference to God except for a single uncharacteristic reference in Psalm 68 that appears to have escaped the attention of the editors.

    9 Jan 2010

    New year updates, 2010

    I have made several updates to my website in recent weeks, as indicated below.

  • For Christmas my wife gave me a rather extraordinary CD, The Psalms of Ali Ufki, whose name readers will recognize. It is billed as "An interfaith concert of sacred music exploring the shared traditions of Judaism, Turkish Sufism, Greek Orthodoxy and Protestant Christianity." This performance by a collection of musicians was recorded under the auspices of Dünya, an organization undertaking to "foster awareness, educate, deepen the dialogue and celebrate the similarities between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths." Recorded 2005 at Harvard University.

    The one Genevan tune on this disc is Psalm 13, performed in Protestant, Jewish, Greek Orthodox and Turkish Sufi versions. The tracks to listen to are 1, and 17 through 21. Number 19, the "Greek Orthodox Version," takes its text directly from the Septuagint, where it is numbered Psalm 12, managing, by means of melismatic manipulation, to fit this nonmetrical text to the Genevan tune, where it sounds strikingly like Byzantine chant. This is a remarkable achievement, yet it is testimony to the enduring strength and versatility of the Genevan tunes. Definitely worth hearing and savouring. I have posted this on the discography section on the links page.

    Incidentally when I told my father, who was born in the Greek Orthodox community in Cyprus, about Ali Ufki, he recognized the name immediately, knowing that he had translated the Bible into Turkish. Ali Ufki seems to be better known in the eastern Mediterranean than in the English-speaking world.

  • After having received this CD, I versified the text of Psalm 13 and just this past week composed an arrangement of the tune. Although the traditional rhyming scheme for this psalm is a-a-b-b-a, I have altered this to a-b-b-a-c, which better fits the alternation of masculine and feminine endings to each line: m-f-f-m-f. The music can be heard here, and the score can be downloaded here. For purposes of comparison, Michael Owens' performance of Goudimel's arrangement can be heard here.

  • I have at last completed a full versification of Psalm 119, the alphabetical psalm which is by far the longest. The tune I arranged back in 2001, while I began the unrhymed versification in 2007. I had still not done very much of the psalm as recently as September of this past year when I decided to go through it methodically and attempt a full versification before Christmas, a deadline I managed to beat by one day.

    I confess that I am not entirely satisfied with much of this, because the Genevan tune has six lines per stanza while each Hebrew letter has sixteen lines. I opted to try to fit two English stanzas into each letter, making for a total of 44 stanzas. This meant that I usually had to combine the thoughts of four lines into two lines per stanza, or eight lines into four lines per Hebrew letter. This doesn't work equally well throughout the psalm. I may try to reversify the psalm using a different scheme at some point.

    I have not yet had the time to put together printable musical scores for the entire psalm, but that will come, probably sometime during the summer months.

  • My text, Christ Who Is in the Form of God (Philippians 2:6-11), was recently republished in Hymns for Worship, by Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publication arm of the Christian Reformed Church. It is set to Sir Charles Hubert Parry's tune, JERUSALEM, to which, in my humble opinion, it is ill suited. The CRC should have followed the Mennonites in using Orlando Gibbons' SONG 34, which the late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould thought to be the finest piece of music ever written.

  • As of last October I am one of the bloggers at the new First Things blog, Evangel. First Things is, of course, the journal founded two decades ago by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, whose death almost exactly a year ago silenced one of the more significant Christian voices in the North American public square. For the most part my posts there concern Christianity and the public square, but I am taking the opportunity when appropriate to post on the psalms and liturgical matters in general. This is my most recent contribution: Epiphanytide.

  • Finally, I should mention another gift from my thoughtful wife, who thoroughly supports my interest in the psalms. To my surprise, she presented me with a copy of the 1903 facsimile reproduction of the 1640 Bay Psalter, a scanned version of which can be found here. What a wonderful surprise! Thank you, sweetheart.