16 Dec 2011

Psalm 23: alternative versification

My versification of Psalm 23 is one of the first ones I wrote back in the mid-1980s. I have now posted another alternative versification that is closer to the original text, is unrhymed and consists of only two stanzas:

The LORD's my shepherd, I shall want for nothing.
He makes me lie in pastures lush and verdant.
He leads me to refreshing waters flowing,
restores my strength, leads me to righteous pathways
for his name's sake. Though I may walk in darkness,
I will not fear; for you are always with me.

Your rod and staff provide me constant comfort.
Before my foes, a feast you are preparing.
My head with finest oil you have anointed;
with you my cup is full to overflowing.
Goodness and mercy all my days pursue me,
and in the LORD's house I will dwell for ever.

15 Dec 2011

Psalm 95 (St. George)

I have posted a second video at the ByzantineCalvinist youtube channel:

13 Dec 2011

Stolz: Psalm 9

The count continues as Ernst Stolz has now posted Psalm 9:

11 Dec 2011

Gaelic psalm-singing

The BBC reports on Gaelic psalm-singing in the Isle of Lewis. Oddly, the reporter misfires at the outset with an obviously inappropriate reference to nature worship, but the remainder of the report is worth hearing.

9 Dec 2011

Youtube channel posted

I've finally established my own youtube channel, ByzantineCalvinist. Here is the first video I've posted, which contains my arrangement of Psalm 13 played on the guitar:

8 Dec 2011

Ernst Stolz's psalms

The psalm posted yesterday was performed by early music artist Ernst Stolz, whose youtube channel is worth exploring. Here is his performance of Psalm 7, which was posted just two days ago.



Stolz appears to be systematically going through the Genevan Psalter from the beginning (to the end?) and posting his performances here. Let us hope that he will soon release a recording of these.

7 Dec 2011

Psalm 1

And here is a recently posted performance of the first Psalm:

Ali Ufki's Psalm 8

More from Ali Ufki, Sarband and Chorakademie Dortmund, complete with whirling dervishes:

3 Dec 2011

Jimmy Webb's Psalm One-Five-O

Some of us will remember the remarkable song-writer of the late 1960s and early '70s, Jimmy Webb, whose Wichita Lineman and Up Up and Away were runaway hits. I had not known until recently that he is a man of deep christian faith who once composed a jazz setting of Psalm 150. Although parts of it are somewhat dated nearly forty years later ("yeah, yeah, yeah"), it is nevertheless worth hearing.

Psalm 42: Mint a szép hűvös patakra

Katalin Szvorák and Péter Pejtsik give Psalm 42 something of a Celtic flavour, with a slightly modified melody line in the mixolydian mode, proving once again that the Hungarians do marvellous things with the Genevan Psalms.

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.

31 Oct 2011

The Psalm Project: Teach us to Pray Tour, 2012

The latest from The Psalm Project, which will be performing at Redeemer University College during their North American tour in January:

22 Aug 2011

Brother Down sings the psalms

An acquaintance has linked me to two excellent psalm renditions performed by an American band called Brother Down: Psalm 13 and Psalm 75. Yes, these are the Genevan tunes! Here is more from Douglas Wilson: Psalm Off Results. "Canon Press is now negotiating with the band Brother Down in Santa Cruz in hopes of releasing an album of Reformation-era psalms, all done in their distinctive style." It seems we have something to look forward to.

8 Aug 2011

Update: Psalm 122, the halfway point

I have now posted my versification of Psalm 122 and arrangement of its melody. The opening verse is familiar: "I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the LORD." Psalms 120 through 134 are known as the Songs of Ascent, which may have been sung by pilgrims on their way to the Jerusalem temple. Because God had chosen the temple as the most important place to meet his people, the pilgrims are understandably concerned for its continued welfare, as well as for the flourishing of the city as a whole. After all, their own relationship with God depends on it.

Psalm 122 is often used in christian liturgies to open a worship service. The Genevan tune is in the ionian mode, which is identical to our major scale. The metrical pattern is the highly unusual 8888 88 9898. I have largely maintained the traditional rhyming scheme of abba cc deed, with variation in line 7 to fit better the melody line.

With this I have now posted 75 psalms on this website, which is half the total number of the Psalms. It has taken me approximately 25 years to make it this far.

Update to update: I've redone the first stanza to this psalm. This project is, of course, very much a work in progress.

2 Aug 2011

Update: Psalm 127

I have now posted my versification for Psalm 127, along with my harmonization of the Genevan tune. The metrical text follows:

Unless the living LORD shall build,
the builders' aims go unfulfilled.
Unless the LORD himself defend,
on sentries we cannot depend.
In vain you early wake to rise;
in vain you close your weary eyes.

Though you may toil to earn your bread,
you'll soundly sleep upon your bed.
Sons are a blessing from the LORD,
the fruitful womb a great reward.
Like arrows in a warrior's hand
are strapping youths who by you stand.

Happy and blessèd are the ones
who find their quiver full of sons:
they will not suffer injury
when challenged by an enemy. [sung to last four lines of music]

Psalm 127 is a much loved psalm, whose opening verse is memorable in the King James Version familiar still to my generation: "Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." This psalm strikes out at the false pride of the "self-made man," who imagines himself to be utterly independent of others, including the Almighty. It is a reminder that those who undertake great endeavours do so only by the grace of God, to whom they owe their very existence.

This psalm anticipates at least one of the themes taken up in the next psalm, numbered 128: the fruitful womb is a blessing from the LORD. It is easy to get sentimental about children, but this psalm makes a very practical point about their value. The NIV 2011 renders verse 3 in gender-inclusive fashion: "Children are a heritage from the LORD, offspring a reward from him." True enough, but it misses the point of the psalm, which I have attempted to communicate with my own metrical versification. The New Oxford Annotated Bible footnote has it right: "The gift of many stalwart sons makes a father feel secure." Even the NRSV gets it right this time. Ain't nobody gonna mess with a man and his sons.

The tune has a metrical structure of 88 88 88 — surprisingly regular for one of the Genevan melodies. It is in the hypo-mixolydian mode and has a rhyming scheme of aabbcc, a departure from the traditional rhyming scheme of abbacc. The occasion for my writing this was a short holiday last weekend at the shores of Lake Huron.

6 Jul 2011

Lobwasser's psalms for lute

My video pages are in desperate need of updating, but until I have the opportunity to do this, here is a version of Psalm 5 beautifully performed by Christoph Dalitz. The words are the versification of Ambrosius Lobwasser.

26 Jun 2011

Chanting the psalms, daily prayer

An acquaintance recently called to my attention two paragraphs from the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the confessional standards of the Swiss and Hungarian Reformed Churches, as well as of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

CHAPTER XXIII
Of the Prayers of the Church, of Singing, and of Canonical Hours



SINGING. Likewise moderation is to be exercised where singing is used in a meeting for worship. That song which they call the Gregorian Chant has many foolish things in it; hence it is rightly rejected by many of our churches. If there are churches which have a true and proper sermon but no singing, they ought not to be condemned. For all churches do not have the advantage of singing. And it is well known from testimonies of antiquity that the custom of singing is very old in the Eastern Churches whereas it was late when it was at length accepted in the West.

CANONICAL HOURS. Antiquity knew nothing of canonical hours, that is, prayers arranged for certain hours of the day, and sung or recited by the Papists, as can be proved from their breviaries and by many arguments. But they also have not a few absurdities, of which I say nothing else; accordingly they are rightly omitted by churches which substitute in their place things that are beneficial for the whole Church of God.

There are a number of things erroneously rejected by many of the Reformers, whose knowledge of antiquity was not always accurate, including the sursum corda in the Lord's Supper and the sign of the cross. In this case the authors of the Confession appear to have been unaware that chanting the Psalms in the course of daily prayer has ancient roots in the church, extending back into biblical times. See, for example, Psalm 119:164: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances." Also Daniel 6:10: "[Daniel] got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God. . . ." And Acts 10:9: "Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour." Following scripture, the Rule of St. Benedict prescribed (or, perhaps better, codified) seven daily prayer offices for use in the monasteries:

As the Prophet saith: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:164), this sacred sevenfold number will be fulfilled by us in this wise if we perform the duties of our service at the time of Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin; because it was of these day hours that he hath said: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:164). For the same Prophet saith of the night watches: "At midnight I arose to confess to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:62). At these times, therefore, let us offer praise to our Creator "for the judgments of His justice;" namely, at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin; and let us rise at night to praise Him (cf Ps 118[119]:164, 62).

Although St. Benedict intended these daily prayer offices for monastic communities, it seems evident that they were much more widespread in the early church. The Muslim practice of praying five times daily, which many westerners regard as strange, obviously has roots in earlier Jewish and Christian usage.

The Reformers recovered so many ancient things lost to the mediaeval church, especially the doctrines of grace. Yet, given what we know now of the ancient church and its liturgical practices, it is difficult not to conclude that in some instances they were too quick to discard usages that ought to have been retained.

20 Jun 2011

Update: Psalm 38

I have just posted my versification for Psalm 38, along with my arrangement of the tune. This psalm is scarcely less dark than Psalm 88, which I set to verse the weekend after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in March. It is definitely a psalm of lament, the kind we tend not to sing in our churches these days.

My iniquities flood o'er me,
and before me
all my sins are a burden.
My wounds fester without healing,
I am reeling
from my mad and foolish ways.

I am bowed low in my grieving,
scarce believing
that I'll cease from my mourning.
For my loins are racked with burning
from your spurning;
there's no soundness in my flesh.

The author of the psalm appears to be conflicted, sounding different, and not entirely consistent, themes throughout. On the one hand, he recognizes and confesses his own sin and its role in his current state of suffering. Yet he also believes he has been unjustly abandoned by his friends, who fear to suffer his fate along with him:

Foes oppose me without reason
in their treason,
they are many and mighty.
Those who answer good with evil
cause upheaval;
enemies are they of right.

This psalm, which is ascribed to David in the Hebrew, could relate to episodes in the great Hebrew ruler's life when he was fleeing from enemies plotting his demise, including his wayward sons whom he proved unable to control. A not altogether able administrator, David was undoubtedly painfully aware of his own shortcomings in the unfolding of these episodes, while nevertheless protesting against his betrayers.

On the other hand, a christological interpretation might see this psalm expressing the words of Christ, who, while not sinful himself, bore the sins of the world in his own suffering on the cross.

A word about the tune, which has a metrical structure unusual even for the Genevan psalms: 847 847. The rhyming scheme is aab ccd, with the short four-syllable lines rhyming with the previous eight-syllable line. The traditional rhyming scheme has rhymed lines 3 and 6, despite their having feminine and masculine endings respectively. Consequently, I have abandoned any effort to rhyme these lines in my own versification, which I believe makes the psalm more singable.

This psalm of lament ends, if not on an upbeat note, at least on a note of expectation of future redemption:

LORD above, do not forsake me,
rather make me
to be near you for ever.
Hurry to become my saviour;
show your favour
to me, my redeeming LORD.

6 Jun 2011

Earliest English edition of Genevan Psalms?

My Brazilian alter-ego, Lucas Freire, has alerted me to the following volume available via Google Books: All the French Psalm Tunes with English Words, a collection of Psalms accorded to the verses and tunes used in the reformed Churches of France and Germany (London: T. Harper, 1632). This is the first I have heard of this version, which places an English translation of the Genevan Psalms earlier than I had previously assumed.



As was typical of the early metrical psalters, the language, while rhymed, is not particular poetic and is rather woodenly literal. Psalm 150 runs as follows:

Let vs all Gods praise expres,
Praise him in his holines.
Praise him in the firmament
Of his povver [power] permanent,
And his high magnificency.
Praise him in his greatnes shevved [showed?],
In his goodnes multitude,
VVitnessing his excellency.

Praise him, ioyning vvith the noyse
Both of Trumpets and Hautboyse[1],
Praise him in the Psaltery,
And the Harps svveet harmony.
Laud the Lord with praise abounding,
Timbrel, Taber[2], Fife and Flute,
Organ, Sagbut[3], Cornamute[4],
Laud the Lord, his praise resounding.

Praise to him for his goodnes,
Let the cymbals loud expres
Viall[5], Virginall[6] and lute,
Let not string nor breath be mute,
Him to praise let all indeuer [endeavour].
All his works, aboue, beneath,
VVhat so ere doth moue or breath,
Praise the Lord most blessed euer.

Note: Here is a key to some of the less familiar musical instruments referenced above:

1. Hautboyse = hautbois, or oboe
2. Taber = tabor
3. Sagbut = sackbut
4. Cornamute = cornamuse
5. Viall = viol
6. Virginall = virginal

21 Apr 2011

Singing the Psalms at Redeemer and Princeton

This is to let everyone know that my two presentations on the Psalms took place earlier this month. The first took place at Redeemer University College on tuesday, 5 April, as I announced late last year. Around 20-25 people attended, some of whom I know, including a former student of mine. I brought along a classical guitar and played my own arrangements of some of the Genevan tunes before the formal part of the talk began. The presentation and discussion lasted around two hours in total with a break in the middle.

Then a week ago I was at Princeton Theological Seminary for the annual Kuyper Center conference titled, "Calvinism and Culture." The keynote speaker and recipient of the Kuyper Prize was Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, Home and The Death of Adam. There I presented sections of a paper titled, "Singing the Psalms in the 21st Century: An historical survey and update (or why Abraham Kuyper was wrong about the Genevan tunes)." I hope it will be published in some form in The Kuyper Center Review.

I will here indicate that I am available to present publicly my work on the Psalms elsewhere, for example in churches or educational institutions. If you are interested, please contact me at dkoyzis[at]redeemer[dot]ca.

29 Mar 2011

Phos Hilaron

I have recently posted my freshly composed versification of the ancient Greek hymn, the Phos Hilaron (Φῶς Ἱλαρόν), which is the most ancient Christian hymn outside the Bible itself, dating back at least to the 3rd century AD, if not earlier. It is an evening hymn most appropriately sung at the beginning of vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is first recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions in the 4th century. St. Basil the Great spoke of it as an ancient hymn already in that same century. For the tune I have taken that for Genevan Psalm 77/86 and somewhat extended it to fit the length of the single stanza. The tune is in the hypodorian mode. I may still come up with my own tune at some point.

22 Mar 2011

Praying the Psalms in community

I recently found this wonderful quote from St. John Chrysostom through one of my current students:

If we keep vigil in church, David [the author of the psalms] comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Coincidentally, I have been reading The Rule of St. Benedict, which in some fashion governs the monastic communities in the Benedictine tradition. I am struck by how much my own practice of prayer for the last more than three decades has been shaped by Benedictine spirituality, and especially the place of the Psalms within it. The basic patterns of the Liturgy of the Hours were at least codified, if not created, by St. Benedict in the 6th century. Among other things, Benedict prescribed that all 150 Psalms were to be sung each week. After having set forth the pattern of sung psalms through the successive prayer hours during the night and day, he offers this:

We particularly admonish that if this distribution of the psalms is displeasing to anyone, he should make any other disposition he may think better. Let him take care, however, above all that each week the entire Psalter of one hundred fifty psalms be recited and be always begun anew at the Night Office on Sunday. For those monks show an exceedingly slothful service in their devotion who, within the course of a week, sing less than the entire Psalter with the usual canticles, since we read that our holy Fathers resolutely performed in a single day what we tepid monks but hope to achieve in an entire week.

For those of us who are even more tepid than St. Benedict and his followers, some are content to sing through the Psalms every 30 days, as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, or at an even slower pace. Inspired by these readings, this past weekend I versified and arranged another psalm, this time Psalm 133, which extols the joys of living in community:

Behold, how right and good it is whenever
brethren have dwelt harmoniously together!
It is like precious oils that flow
upon the consecrated priestly head;
down to the beard their goodness too is shed;
even to Aaron's beard they go.

Anointing oils flow down along the trimming
of Aaron's garments where their drops are gleaming,
as if the dew that oft descends
on Hermon's mountains were to come and rest
on Zion's mount where God his people blessed
with blissful life that never ends.

Of course, most of us do not live in monasteries. But what if the ordinary communities of which we are part, namely, families, schools, work communities, &c., were to adopt something of this benedictine spirituality, praying through the psalms together on a regular basis? By God's grace, it could just transform these very communities.

18 Mar 2011

The Politics of the Psalms

Perhaps it has something to do with my first name, but I have always been fascinated by the biblical book of the Psalms. I grew up singing from a hymn book in which the Psalms set to meter were given a prominent place. The liturgical practice of singing the Psalms has ancient roots going back to temple and synagogue worship, finding its way also into Christian churches. It is thus not surprising that, until the end of the 18th century, the majority of Protestants sang from metrical psalters containing all 150 Psalms. Most Protestants since then have abandoned this practice, but many in the Reformed tradition have held to it, glorifying God, as it is often said, in his own words.

Read more here.

13 Mar 2011

Updates: Psalms 128 and 88

I have just completed versifications and arrangements for two more psalms: 128 and 88. The tune for Psalm 128 I first heard more than 30 years ago when I was a graduate student at Toronto's Institute for Christian Studies. Senior Member Calvin Seerveld had brought along to class his own versification of this psalm and had us, his students, sing it through. I was intrigued and began to follow in his footsteps, setting to verse Psalm 133 albeit to my own rather weak common metre melody. I finally returned to this psalm late last week.

The psalm itself is one of the more cheerful and optimistic ones, promising peace and prosperity to those who fear the LORD. I completed it last friday, the very day that northeastern Japan was struck by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Because its promises sounded a little too glib against the backdrop of tragedy, I held off posting it until I had also versified and arranged Psalm 88, easily the darkest of the psalms. This I completed today. Verses 16-17 are reminiscent of a tsunami:

Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.

In my own regimen of praying through the psalms, I currently encounter Psalm 88 on the 17th day of each month at morning prayer. It always takes my breath away because it is so bereft of anything resembling hope. It is appropriately said or sung on Holy Saturday, that is, the day between Good Friday and the Paschal feast. As St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Yet Christ has indeed risen, which is our ultimate source of hope as we travel through the penitential Lenten season. Psalm 88 does not have the last word, although it is the last psalm for morning prayer that day. However, at evening prayer Psalm 89 is sung, which begins: "I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations." God's faithfulness has the final say as we look forward to the day of our salvation at Christ's return.

Psalm 128 is a rhymed psalm, while Psalm 88, with its feminine endings in four of the six lines, is unrhymed. Both melodies are in the dorian mode, which is probably the most versatile of the traditional church modes, easily capable of communicating both hope and despair. More of the Genevan Psalms are in the dorian mode (45 in total) than in any other single mode.

8 Mar 2011

Updates: Psalms 111 and 112

Last month I mentioned that I had posted Psalm 111, but I will say a bit more about this psalm now that I have posted 112 as well. Psalms 111 and 112 are in effect mirror psalms comparing God with the godly person. It may be justly said that the notion of man being created in God's image, often thought to be limited to Genesis 1:26-27 and 9:6 and implied in Psalm 8, is also found in these two psalms. Both are alphabetical acrostic psalms containing 22 lines each. Each line of 111 is reflected in some fashion in its counterpart in 112, conveying the sense that, e.g., if the justice or righteousness of God endures for ever, so does that of the just man (the ו VAV line is identical in both psalms). The alleluias at the beginning of each psalm precede the alphabetical lines.

Although the Genevan tunes for the two psalms have different metres (889 889 and 999 999), they nevertheless have the same number of lines per stanza. With four stanzas in my own versification, this adds up to 24 lines in total, two more than the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Consequently, I have had little choice but to expand slightly the thoughts contained in the first stanzas of each psalm while following the number of lines from the original in the remaining stanzas. The texts are unrhymed.

Both tunes are in the dorian mode. That for 111 is shared with Psalms 24, 62 and 95, while the tune to Psalm 112 is unique to that psalm.

4 Mar 2011

Updates: Psalms 70 and 80

Psalms 70 and 80 have now been posted. Psalm 70 is an unrhymed metrical versification set to a tune in the phrygian mode. Since ancient times the first two lines of this psalm have been used to open the prayers in the liturgy of the hours, especially at vespers. Here the psalmist cries out to God for help in distress brought on by his enemies. The Hebrew superscript ascribes it to David, while the Septuagint indicates merely that it is for him or pertains to him.

Psalm 80 is striking in that it obviously originates in the northern kingdom of Israel after its division from Judah following the death of Solomon. It relies, somewhat curiously, on a mixed metaphor. As in the beloved Psalm 23, God is likened to a shepherd, yet his people are likened, not to sheep, but to a vine which he took from Egypt and planted so that its tendrils would spread from the river (the Jordan or perhaps even the Euphrates) to the sea. The reference in verse 17 to the "son of man" could perhaps be understood as an anticipation of the coming Messiah, the True Vine. This is a rhymed versification and the tune is in the dorian mode.

16 Feb 2011

February updates

Psalms Unplugged
  • I have just obtained a copy of the first English-language album by The Psalm Project, titled Psalms Unplugged, which was just released late last month. Here is the brief review I've posted on the discography page:
    This is a noteworthy recording rendering the Genevan Psalms in contemporary jazz style, employing a full array of instruments. The group generally sings in Dutch, but this is their first English-language album. With their unique treatments, they make the Genevan tunes sound as if they were composed the day before yesterday, although they do alter the melodies and rhythms somewhat to fit their purposes. For example, the well-known tune to Psalm 138 they effectively move from ionian to mixolydian mode, giving it nearly a Celtic flavour. In the hands of The Psalm Project, Psalm 150 takes on the flavour of a lively African-American gospel song. The results will likely win over even the classical music aficionado. Unlike many contemporary treatments of scripture songs, they do not restrict their efforts to psalms of praise, but are willing to tackle such lamentations as found in Psalm 22. Perhaps unsurprisingly they have not thus far touched the imprecatory psalms. Check out The Psalm Project's Dutch and English websites.

    CDs can be purchased in Europe: info@thepsalmproject.nl, in the United States: Calvin College Campus Store, and in Canada: psalms@newmaker.net.

    Here is a sample from the album:





  • I have just posted an unrhymed versification of Psalm 111, which I wrote last week. I did not have to arrange the tune, which is the same as that for Psalms 24, 62 and 95, which are already posted. Psalm 70 is forthcoming. I've come up with a text but I have yet to complete a harmonization of the melody.

  • I have received a copy of the "Authorized Provisional Version" of the Book of Praise of the Canadian Reformed Churches. I have not yet made a detailed comparison to the 1984 edition, but from what I've seen thus far, it looks to be superior. I will be posting a fuller review at some point. A few things immediately struck me that I will mention here. First, the volume has finally dropped the old second-person-singular pronoun and verb forms in addressing God, a usage that this federation of churches retained long after other English-speaking Christians had abandoned it. Second, Psalm 150 now has a reference to dancing, which the earlier edition had seen fit not to include. I will have other observations to make in the near future.
  • 15 Jan 2011

    Genfi Zsoltar: the Psalms in Hungarian

    I have posted a link on both my bibliography and links pages to a pdf file of the Psalms in Hungarian. These versifications were the work of Albert Szenci Molnár (1574-1639), or Szenci Molnár Albert. (In the Hungarian language the "Christian name" comes last with the family name coming beforehand. In Molnár's case Szenci refers to his birth village of Senec, near the city of Pozsony, now Bratislava, Slovakia. A not uncommon family name, Molnár means "miller" and obviously refers to a forebear's occupation.)

    A Reformed pastor, Molnár travelled widely during his life, visiting and studying in a number of European centres of the Reformation. His metrical translation of the Psalms was inspired by the German-language Lobwasser Psalter and was published in Herborn in 1607. (The Reformed Christian legal theorist Johannes Althusius had published his Politics in Herborn a few years earlier but had moved to Emden before Molnár's arrival.) He died in Kolozsvár in Hungarian Transylvania, now Cluj-Napoca, Roumania.

    The following video shows choral performances of Psalms 19 and 128, using Molnár's texts: