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 In any event, their Authorized Provisional Version was outdated at virtually the moment it was published.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.

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