18 Dec 2012

The two lives of the Virgin Mary

Six days after posting my second version of Mary's Magnificat, I am posting my most recent "Principalities & Powers" column from Christian Courier, dated 10 December 2012.

Jesus’ mother Mary can be said to have had two lives: the one recounted with tantalizing brevity in the Scriptures and the one bequeathed to her in subsequent centuries by the church, which made her an object of veneration. Mary, of course, plays a prominent role in the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and at the beginning of Acts.

Luke 1 recounts the visit by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, announcing that she would give birth to the promised Messiah, the one who would save his people from their sins. Although we are told that she at first questioned how this could be, given her virginity, and that, in response to Gabriel’s explanation, she said: “let it be to me according to your word,” we are not told much else.

This is where Mary’s “second life” comes in, with later writers embroidering the biblical account with their own additions. For example, the second-century Protevangelion of James tells us that her parents were named Joachim and Anna (or Hannah in Hebrew). Lamenting her barrenness, Anna promises that, if God will grant her a child, she will dedicate him or her to the Lord’s service in the Jerusalem temple. An angel appears to Anna and informs her that her prayers have been heard and that she will indeed bring forth a child. In a plot twist similar to that of the Old Testament story of Hannah and the child Samuel, once her daughter Mary is born and attains the age of three, Anna entrusts her to the priests at the temple.

When Mary hits puberty, the priests decide to marry her to an elderly widower named Joseph, who has children by a previous marriage. When she is sixteen years of age, she is found to be pregnant. The author of the Protevangelion then recounts an entirely plausible scenario in which Mary and Joseph are condemned for having secretly married without the assent of the larger community. The priests subject the distraught couple to trial by ordeal, making them drink a concoction that will harm them if guilty but will not harm them if innocent. They survive the ordeal, and the plot continues with the birth of Jesus at Bethelehem.

It is, of course, difficult to determine where these extrabiblical stories came from or how they developed. It is possible that Mary’s parents were really named Joachim and Anna. Or it could be that, given the obvious literary dependence of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) on the much earlier song of Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, a tradition began that Mary’s mother was also named Hannah.

In any event, Mary’s status became the subject of the Christological disputes of later centuries. In AD 431 the First Council of Ephesus declared Mary Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), or God-bearer, commonly rendered in English as the Mother of God. This was less a statement about Mary than an affirmation that her Son Jesus was fully God and fully man.

Indeed, in Orthodox iconography Mary is rarely portrayed without her Son, who is shown in her arms, seated on her lap or even inside a stylized circular womb, fully clothed and his head wrapped in the traditional gold halo.

The sixteenth-century Reformers continued to esteem Mary. Ulrich Zwingli, who reformed the church in Zürich, even retained the first part of the Ave Maria in his initial liturgy: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Recognizing its scriptural origins (Luke 1:28, 42), Zwingli argued that “the Ave Maria is not a prayer but a greeting and commendation.”

Reformed Christians do not request Mary’s intercessions before God, primarily because Scripture is deafeningly silent on the matter. However, all Christians of whatever tradition do well to emulate Mary in her ready acceptance of God’s will for her life, despite hardships incurred, and in her jubilant expression of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!”

14 Dec 2012

Stolz: Psalms 53 - 56

The tune for Psalm 53 is, of course, the same as that for Psalm 14, which is not surprising given that the texts of the two psalms are nearly identical in the original. The scholars tell us that Psalm 14 is "yahwist" and 53 "elohist," referring to the two different names for God used by the author(s). The message is the same: only fools deny God's existence. How very different is the attitude of the author of the next psalm:

Update: Stolz is definitely picking up his pace:

Holst: Psalm 124

Psalm 86 is not the only Genevan melody that Holst adapted for choral performance. He also arranged Psalm 124 using Clifford Bax's text, Turn Back, O Man.

13 Dec 2012

Gustav Holst: Psalm 86

One-hundred years ago the English composer Gustav Holst, best known for his series of orchestral tone poems, The Planets, composed a moving choral piece based on Genevan Psalm 86:

The metrical text was apparently written around 1620 and is attributed to either Jo­seph Bry­an or Fran­cis Da­vis­on.

To my humble supplication
Lord, give ear and acceptation;
Save Thy servant that hath none
Help nor hope but Thee alone.
Send, O send relieving gladness
To my soul opprest with sadness,
Which from clog of earth set free
Winged with zeal, flies up to Thee.

To Thee, rich in mercies treasure,
And in goodness without measure,
Never failing help to those
Who on Thy sure help repose.
Heav'nly Tutor, of thy kindness,
Teach my dullness, guide my blindness,
That my steps Thy paths may tread
Which to endless bliss do lead.

This is from the notes for the Hyperion recording of Holst's Two Psalms, of which 86 is one:

Holst’s Two Psalms, for chorus, string orchestra and organ, H117, were written in 1912 at a time when the composer’s compositional style was undergoing a process of textural and structural refinement. He had recently completed the last of his Sanskrit works, The Cloud Messenger, which had been a complete failure, although his next major composition was to prove extremely successful—the symphonic picture ‘Mars’ for The Planets.

Holst composed very little religious music as such, probably as a result of his somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the Church. He found the spiritual aspect enormously appealing, but felt stifled by regimented orthodoxy. Of the current two Psalm settings, that of Psalm 86 is the more striking with its greater textural variety and emotional range, though the beautiful setting of Psalm 148 has a compensating warmth of expression that is rarely found in Holst’s music.

The melody for Psalm 86 was composed, or at least adapted, by L Bourgeois in the Genevan Psalter (1543). The first text (‘To my humble supplication …’), sung by the chorus, is a metrical version of the words by Joseph Bryan (1620); the second (‘Bow down thine ear …’), sung by the tenor soloist, is taken from the Authorized Version of the Bible (Psalm 86: 1–6, 12).

Incidentally, despite Holst's general lack of enthusiasm for liturgical music, the hymn text, O God Beyond All Praising, is often sung to his tune THAXTED, taken from the Jupiter movement of The Planets.

12 Dec 2012


During this Advent season I have posted a second version of Mary's song, the Magnificat, in addition to my metrical version of this ancient Lukan canticle. This is not a new version, as I composed the music for it twenty years ago. My inspiration came from the chanted psalmody of Fr. Joseph Gelineau as used in the Roman Catholic Church for the past several decades. Accordingly, I have used a modified form of The Grail text. Here is a description of Gelineau psalmody from my Reformed Worship article, Straight from Scripture:

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 God, save me by your name;
          by your power, uphold my cause.
          O God, hear my prayer;
          listen to the words of my mouth.

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.
Here is a Gelineau version of Psalm 25 sung on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Peter's Church in Columbia, South Carolina:

11 Dec 2012

Bay Psalm Book for sale

Ted Olsen has written a fascinating article inspired by the recent decision of Boston's Old South Church to sell off one of its two remaining copies of the original edition of the Bay Psalm Book, used liturgically by the New England Puritans in the 17th century: What You Need to Know About the Bay Psalm Book.

Last week, Boston's Old South Church voted 271-34 to sell one of its two remaining copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book—one of the most historic volumes in American religious history. When it goes up for auction, Sotheby's vice chairman David Redden told The Boston Globe, it's likely to fetch between $10 million and $20 million. (The historic and liberal United Church of Christ congregation is also selling 19 pieces of early American communion silver.)

The church says its building needs at least $7 million in repairs, and its endowment needs to grow to support at least $300,000 in annual repairs after that. "We will take this wonderful old hymn book, from which our ancestors literally sang their praises to God, and convert it into doing God's ministry in the world today," Nancy Taylor, the church's senior minister, said in a press release.
While one can understand the congregation's desire to raise funds for its ongoing ministry, one is justified in hoping that the historic volume ends up in the right hands. It's certainly too dear for me to bid on. On the other hand, I am content to own a copy of the 1903 facsimile edition of the Bay Psalm Book, which my beloved wife gave me for Christmas three years ago. Despite its evident literary flaws, the Bay Psalm Book is testimony to our forebears' eagerness to sing God's praises in his own words.

6 Dec 2012

The latest from Hungary: Psalms 104 and 107

Hungarian soprano Judit Lengyel sings two more Psalms beautifully according to the 16th-century versifications of the great Albert Szenczi Molnár:

Then sings my Seoul: Psalm 35

A lovely rendition of Psalm 35 from the Korean peninsula:

4 Dec 2012

Psalm 29: getting it right at last?

Some months ago I wrote of my recent effort to come up with a fresh text and tune for Psalm 29. Several weeks later I entered my effort in a Psalm contest sponsored by Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the encouragement of Greg Scheer, the congregation's minister of worship. Last month I tested it out at a chapel service at Redeemer in connection with the annual Zylstra Symposium and quickly discovered that it's not especially singable by an ordinary congregation. One of my colleagues went so far as to call it "dreadful." Oh, well. A fine blow to my conceit, that's all. Back to the drawing board.

Accordingly, I have now come up with a fresh tune for the same text, dubbed VOX DOMINI. A printable score can be found here. I believe it is more singable than the first tune, QOL ADONAI, but I suppose there's only one way to find out for certain: try singing it! I may rearrange the latter as a choral piece at some point in the future.

Stolz: Psalms 51 and 52

28 Nov 2012

Update: The Psalm Project

Earlier this year I was privileged to hear The Psalm Project when they came to Redeemer during their North American tour. They have now released their third Dutch-language album, Ik roep tot U (I call to you). Here are excerpts:

We have reason to hope they'll release an English-language version of this album in the not too distant future.

An update to the update: I have been informed that an English album may follow in the spring of 2013 followed by another North American tour in September. Prachtig!

26 Nov 2012

Psalms 50 and 93

Our church is taking a breather from the pastor's sermon series on the Psalms, as we had a guest preacher yesterday. But Ernst Stolz continues his clockwork postings of the Psalms with the fiftieth:

And in honour of yesterday's celebration of the Sunday of Christ the King, we hear Psalm 93 as posted by the indomitable ijsselm (short perhaps for Ijsselmeer?).

21 Nov 2012

Psalm 49: You can't take it with you

Once again our pastor, Dr. Ervine, and Dutch musician Ernst Stolz appear to be co-ordinating their treatment of the Psalms. Ervine's sermon, You Can't Take it With You!, is based on Psalm 49. Once again, hours after it was preached, Stolz posted his own performance of the psalm:

14 Nov 2012

Then sings my Seoul: Psalm 104

The youtube user calling himself huang867 has posted a video of his congregation singing Genevan Psalm 104:

I myself have been working on and off on a versification of this psalm for a few years now. I have made it only as far as verse 15, although I have composed a harmonization for the melody. When I have finished a complete text, I will, of course, post it on my website.

Psalm 48: the city of our God

Ernst Stolz and Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton seem to be making their way through the Psalms at exactly the same pace. Our pastor, Dr. Clyde Ervine, preached on Psalm 48: The Holy City. Hours later, Stolz posted his performance of the Genevan tune for that same psalm:

9 Nov 2012

The Psalm Project: Psalm 67

The Psalm Project has posted another performance, this time of Psalm 67, a harvest psalm appropriate to this time of year. Although they do sing in English, this one is in the Dutch language.

8 Nov 2012

Stolz: Psalm 47

Stolz's postings of the Psalms continue with Psalm 47. This is one of my favourite of the Genevan melodies.

Although this is a lovely rendition, it seems to me that this psalm needs to be performed or sung at a brisker and more energetic pace, given its subject matter. I rather like this enthusiastic performance below:

Coincidentally, Psalm 47 was the Old Testament reading at our church this past sunday. My wife was the lector, and the choir sang this wonderful rendition by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which was followed by an inspiring sermon by the Rev. Dr. Clyde Ervine. You had to be there.

31 Oct 2012

Ein' feste Burg: Reformation

Two days ago I posted Ernst Stolz's rendition of Genevan Psalm 46. Today, as we observe the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, it is appropriate to post Martin Luther's christological version of Psalm 46, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, known in English as A Mighty Fortress Is our God:

Here is a compelling musical elaboration of the same melody, Intrada: Ein feste Burg, arranged by English composer Ray Farr and performed by the Brassband Willebroek of Belgium.

29 Oct 2012

The Psalms: voice of the martyrs

Peter Leithart publishes his thoughts on the bloodshed in Nigeria, as Boko Haram continues its persecution of the church in that troubled land: Voice of the martyrs. The Psalms play a crucial role here:

In many churches, prayers for vindication and judgment are considered barbaric and sub-Christian. Things would look different, I expect, if Boko Haram were breathing down our necks. We would be eager to call on a defender. And things look different in the Psalms, the prayer book of the church. Pleas for judgment are not confined to a handful of fanatical “imprecatory” Psalms. On the contrary, few appeals are more pervasive and prominent in the Psalter than the cry for just vengeance.

It is implicit in Psalm 2: “Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way.” It is in Psalm 3: “Arise, Yahweh; save me, O my God! For You have smitten my enemies on the cheek; you have shattered the teeth of the wicked.” And in Psalm 5: “Hold them guilty, O God, by their own devices let them fall.” And Psalm 6: “All my enemies will be ashamed and greatly dismayed; they shall turn back, they shall suddenly be ashamed.” It is even more explicit in Psalm 7: “Vindicate me, O Yahweh, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me . . . [My enemy’s] mischief will return upon his own head; and his violence will descend upon his own pate.” And Psalm 9: “You rebuke the nations; You have destroyed the wicked . . . The enemy has come to an end in perpetual ruins.” In Psalm 10, David prays for a new exodus: “Arise, O Yahweh; O God, lift up Your hand. Do not forget the afflicted. . . . Break the arm of the wicked and the evildoer, seek out his wickedness until You find none.”

There are 140 Psalms left, and we already know that this is a hymnal full of war Psalms, cries of the afflicted, petitions for vindication and deliverance. These are the prayers shrewdly designed for a martyr church. The Psalter articulates the voice of the martyrs.

From one of the comments below Leithart's post:

Anyone who does the Roman Catholic liturgical hour of the Office of Readings knows well the Psalms of supplication and lamentation. They provide the trunk of the Office on which the sacred texts of the Readings depend. Thank you for calling attention to them as an integral part of the Christian heritage.

Reading through the Psalms on a daily basis is a good way to remember the martyrs and to pray for our persecuted brethren around the globe.

Stolz: Psalm 46

Is it coincidental that our good friend Ernst Stolz has recorded Psalm 46 only two days before we observe the 495th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation? It does appear to be, given that this was the next psalm in the numerical order in which he has been performing them. In any event, this tune is one of my personal favourites, and Stolz's rendition is very nice indeed.

28 Oct 2012

Gaël Liardon - Ouverture et fugue sur le psaume 47

Imagine Bach composing a fugue based on Genevan Psalm 47, and this is what it might sound like:

Incidentally, this video and yesterday's were drawn to my attention by Lucas Freire.

24 Oct 2012

Sweelinck in Hungary: Psalm 24

Judging from the youtube postings, one would think that the whole population of Hungary is divided into hundreds of thousands of choral groups. This is the Óbudai Kamarakórus, conducted by Erdős Ákos:

20 Oct 2012

'To every generation': Psalm 145

This past monday the Redeemer Faculty Association hosted a retirement gathering for Dr. Jacob Ellens, who came to the university as a history professor the same year I did: 1987. During the 25 years we served together, I came to love and respect Ellens as a Christian man of utmost integrity and compassion. He brought to his work a strong sense of the communion of the saints and especially of our debt as Reformed Christians to the early centuries of the church. Ellens' profound catholic sensibility caused him to appreciate the larger christian liturgical tradition as well. Accordingly, Ellens was most supportive of my work with the Psalms, even though it took me well outside my field of formal competence.

During the gathering I was privileged to sing the first two stanzas of Psalm 145, according to my own versified text and arrangement of the melody, accompanied by my esteemed French colleague, Dr. Thea VanTil Rusthoven. Here are the first two stanzas:

My God and King, I'll tell abroad your fame,
and I will ever bless your holy name.
From day to day I'll bless your majesty,
and praise your name through all eternity.
Great is the LORD and worthy of our praises;
great is his name, surpassing earthly places.
Your works are told to every generation,
your mighty acts throughout the whole creation.

Upon the splendour of your majesty
and on your works I'll ponder ceaselessly.
Your mighty wonders we will celebrate,
and I will tell abroad your marvels great.
They'll celebrate your goodness overflowing,
and sing aloud your righteousness all-knowing.
The LORD is merciful and very gracious,
slow to be angry, full of loving kindness.

8 Oct 2012

Stolz: Psalm 43

Psalms 42 and 43 were almost certainly a single psalm in the Hebrew. Nevertheless, they are canonically distinct, as reflected in virtually every translation of the Bible and, of course, the Genevan Psalter. Ernst Stolz continues his steady march through the Psalms with Psalm 43:

2 Oct 2012

Stolz: Psalm 42

This is, of course, one of the best known of the Genevan tunes in the English-speaking world:

24 Sept 2012

Stolz: Psalms 31 through 39

Ernst Stolz appears to have turned off the embedding function on his videos, so I will have to content myself with linking to his performances of Psalms 31 through 39 and let you play them for yourselves. It has been almost exactly a year since he began posting these. At this rate one can assume that, if he maintains the same pace, he will make his way through the entire Genevan Psalter in not quite three years. Perhaps by then he will consider releasing a recording of the entire collection, which would be a valuable contribution towards making it better known outside of those places where it is still sung.

3 Sept 2012

Mikołaj Gomółka and David's Psalter

Although Poland as a whole did not embrace the Reformation in the 16th century, the country nevertheless managed to produce a metrical psalter of high quality that is virtually unknown to outsiders. This is the Psałterz Dawidów, or David's Psalter, consisting of 150 metrical texts by the great Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski set to tunes by Mikołaj Gomółka. So highly esteemed was this collection by Poles that it has reputedly been used liturgically by both Catholics and protestants. Midi files of the tunes can be found here: Melodie na Psałterz Polski, and pdf files of the scores can be found here.

Twenty-three of these Psalms were recorded in 1996 in a collection titled, Mikolaj Gomolka Melodie Na Psalterz Polski - Melodies For The Polish Psalter, and is available from the Polish Art Center. The recording received a Fryderyk award from the Polish music industry.

Might there be possibilities for setting English translations of these Psalms to their proper tunes from David's Psalter? It is certainly worth considering.

Here are some performances from this collection below:

Psalm 1:

Psalm 29:

Psalm 77:

29 Aug 2012

Through a Glass brightly: three centuries of metrical psalters

More than a century ago, Englishman Henry Alexander Glass happened upon an old copy of the Tate and Brady metrical psalter dated 1771 in a used book stall. By the 1880s metrical psalters, while still in use in Scotland, had long ceased to be used liturgically in England, so Glass, curious about the volume he had discovered and unable to locate a general history of metrical psalters, decided to write one himself. The result is the highly readable The story of the psalters: a history of the metrical versions of Great Britain and America from 1549 to 1885, published in 1888 and well worth reading even today.

Glass, about whom I have found next to nothing via a google search, had a good ear for the witty turn of phrase, as evidenced throughout the first two chapters. On p. 8 we read that "George Buchanan rhymed the Psalms in Latin," followed by a parenthetical bit of dry humour: "for whose convenience perhaps scholars can tell" (8). We read also of George Wither, whose psalter appears not to have been highly esteemed, especially by his peers, and who found himself imprisoned during the English Civil War. He was not alone: "When he was afterwards taken prisoner during the Civil Wars by the Cavaliers, Sir John Denham, himself afterwards to be enrolled in the list of versifiers, desired his Majesty not to hang [Wither], 'because that, as long as Wither lives, I shall not be accounted the worst poet in England'" (33). As for the authors of the Sternhold & Hopkins psalter, their "piety was better than their poetry," and with respect to the Bay Psalm Book of the New England Puritans, "Quotations from it have afforded amusement to almost all writers on metrical psalmody" (34).

Not surprisingly, the Sternhold & Hopkins collection occupies a large place in Glass's account. Indeed for centuries the three great influences on the English language and Anglican spirituality were the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter. By the time Glass wrote his account, the last collection had been all but forgotten in the Church of England. Indeed only a very few metrical psalters would attain official position within the church.

Nevertheless, Glass surveys a total of 123 metrical psalters in chapter III, the vast majority of which were created by private individuals for their own use or for the use of their immediate communities. Indeed the bulk of this book consists of this survey, each example of which includes introductory material, the initial stanzas of Psalms 1 and 23 for purposes of comparison, and supplementary information on the author or the psalter. In this respect, Glass provides a valuable reference book. The reader will be amazed at how many ways there are to express the same thought poetically, although many of these psalters simply undertook to improve an existing collection, for example, the durable Scottish Psalter of 1650.

There are a few delightful surprises here. I had not known that Queen Victoria's son-in-law, the Marquess of Lorne, completed a metrical psalter in 1877, the very year before he became Her Majesty's representative in the decade-old Dominion of Canada. (To this day, "Lorne" is still a popular male first name in that country.)

There is also a possible genealogical connection with yours truly. In 1636 George Sandys' psalter obtained coveted official status, cum privilegio Regiae Majestatis, which eluded all but a few such efforts. George was younger brother to Sir Edwin Sandys, one of the founders of the Virginia Company, and son to the elder Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York during Elizabeth I's reign and one of the translators of the Bishops' Bible. According to one theory (in doubt, admittedly), Archbishop Sandys was my 13th great grandfather through his daughter Anne (1570-1629). That would make her brother George a collateral ancestor of mine.

One issue raised by Glass's survey of metrical psalters is translation philosophy. Every avid reader of the Bible in English knows that some bibles are fairly literal, closely replicating the syntax and vocabulary of the original languages, while others employ something called dynamic equivalence, namely, conveying the meaning of the original text sentence-by-sentence rather than word-for-word. A generation ago the most widely-used English-language Bible, the New International Version, was translated largely according to the principles of dynamic equivalence. However, in recent years there has been a certain retrenchment and a move towards formal equivalence, as seen, for example, in the English Standard Version and even in the most recent NIV update.

Some think this is a new issue, but it is not. It has been around since at least the 16th century and probably earlier. Many, if not most, of the versifiers of the Psalms saw themselves very much as "translators" of God's word into singable form. Yet, due to the constraints of metre and rhyme, they could hardly be word-for-word or literal translators. In general, of course, the more closely a rhymed versification adheres to the original text, the more convoluted it will sound to ordinary English-speakers. If, on the other hand, a rhymed versification carries only the general thought of the original, the more freedom the poet has to render it in comprehensible form in our own language. Isaac Watts' Psalms fall into the latter category, but largely at the price of fidelity to the Hebrew.

What is the answer? One obvious possibility is to chant a prose translation of the Psalms. Glass writes:

In England the old metrical Psalter is a thing of the past. It lingers in the Presbyterian Churches; but even among them there are signs that before long the common-metre rhymes of the oft-revised 1650 version of [Francis] Rous [whose metrical psalms formed the basis of the Scottish Psalter of that year] will give way to the chant of the literal paraphrases (p. 8).

Sadly, Glass's prediction was not borne out. Instead of chant replacing metrical psalms, psalm-singing went into seemingly terminal decline, as the admittedly excellent hymns of Watts, Wesley and many others very nearly replaced sung psalmody in the church's liturgy. Nevertheless, there are a number of smaller Reformed denominations that have clung faithfully to psalm-singing in the face of the predominant trends that would erode this practice. Moreover, in the past generation some of the larger protestant denominations have been moving decisively to reincorporate sung psalmody into their own worship of the triune God. Now that Glass's informative book has been made available through google, they have access to a valuable resource serviceable to this long overdue effort.

23 Aug 2012

Psalm 29 revisited . . . and a fresh effort

The twenty-ninth Psalm brims with excitement, or at least it should. Its author appears to have been caught in an especially violent thunderstorm and was mightily impressed by God's power manifested therein. The psalmist chooses words beginning with a "k" sound, seemingly to echo the crashing sound of the thunder. The expression qol Adonai (קול יהוה) – the "voice of the LORD" – occurs seven times. The words kavod (כָּבוֹד) ("glory") and Kadesh (קָדֵשׁ) are in evidence as well. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon believes this use of onomatopoeia is quite deliberate. Obviously this psalm calls for a tune with a similar flavour – one which has a thunderous or rolling quality.

The Genevan tune communicates this sense very well indeed. Some two decades ago I came up with a metrical versification to match the tune. The first stanza runs as follows:

Angels, give the LORD your praise;
glory in his mighty ways!
Give the glory due his name,
and adore him for his fame.
GOD's voice echoes o'er the ocean,
breaking waves in loud commotion.
Our LORD's voice is like the thunder
in its power and in its splendour.

This is, admittedly, somewhat overly paraphrastic, and I managed to mention the LORD's voice only five times and in different language nearly each time. While I believe my text to be quite singable, it largely fails to carry the sense of the original, which depends on the repetition of key words and sounds to make its full impact.

A few weeks ago I decided to try my hand again at a serviceable versification in English, which I have now posted here. It begins thus:

Mighty ones, give to the LORD,
give the LORD with one accord
strength and glory to his name.
Spread abroad the LORD's great fame.
Serve the LORD in holy splendour.
God is glorious in the thunder.
Our LORD's voice is o'er the waters,
our LORD over many waters.

Here I am finally able to repeat something akin to "our LORD's voice" a full seven times, though I am not confident the final text is more singable than the earlier version. The metrical structure of the Genevan tune (77 77 88 88) is largely trochaic, while the English expression "the voice of the LORD" demands something more dactylic in character.

As it happens, there are two metred versions of Psalm 29 that satisfy this demand, one from the 1912 Psalter (Now Unto Jehovah, Ye Sons of the Mighty) and the other a text by my friend Calvin Seerveld, Give Glory to God, All You Heavenly Creatures, which is set to Charles Gabriel's rather dated and pedestrian tune, ARLES. A few days ago I decided to put aside any further efforts to match the text of this psalm with the proper Genevan tune, and to write instead a fresh text and a new tune to go with it. Here are the first two stanzas of my new text:

Ascribe to the LORD, O you heavenly creatures,
ascribe to our lofty LORD glory and might.
Ascribe to the LORD all his holy name's glory;
and worship the LORD in his splendour and light.

The voice of the LORD rumbles over the waters;
our glorious God thunders over the land.
The LORD presides over the waves of the ocean.
The voice of the LORD is incomparably grand.

The tune I have called QOL ADONAI for obvious reasons. Its metrical pattern is 12 11 12 11 dactylic, and it is mostly in the hypomixolydian mode. Given its subject matter, I have made use of dissonances and suspensions throughout the harmonization. Unlike most of my psalm arrangements, this one has a time signature: 3/4 time, with five measures in each phrase. I believe it is eminently singable, but that, of course, is up to the congregation to decide. Feel free to try it out at your church.

7 Aug 2012

Instrumental praise . . . or the lack thereof

One of the drawbacks of versified psalmody is that it may reflect too much the prejudices of the versifier and not enough the biblical text. I came across an interesting example of this in Henry Alexander Glass's fascinating and witty book, The Story of the Psalters. Some Reformed Christians believe that liturgical song should use the human voice alone and that musical instruments do not belong in church. The 18th-century hymn writer and psalm versifier, James Maxwell, followed this belief, which he incorporated into his paraphrase of Psalm 150:

As did with instruments the Jews
His praises high proclaim,
Let us our hearts and voices use
To magnify His Name.

As they with minstrels in the dance,
And instruments well-strung,
Prais'd God, let us His praise advance
With well-tuned heart and tongue.

Like cymbals let our cheerful tongues
His praises sound on high:
And let our sweet harmonious songs
Transcend the lofty sky.

In Glass's words, "Finding it impossible to keep out the instruments in Psalm cl., [Maxwell] ingeniously lays the responsibility of his compelled references on the Jews." Although I myself do not adhere to this prohibition of musical instruments in worship, there is something to be said in its favour. But first the other side:

One can hardly get around the explicit biblical commands to praise God with musical instruments. The notion that worshipping with such instruments belongs only to the old covenant does not take seriously enough the continuities between the old and new covenants. Most significant is the lack of an explicit prohibition in the New Testament itself. As far as I can see, there is no credible biblical warrant for keeping musical instruments out of the church's liturgy.

On the other hand, there is nothing sweeter than the sound of a cappella voices joined in praise of God. In fact, the very phrase a cappella means in Italian "in the manner of the church or chapel." There is a very ancient tradition, particularly in the eastern churches, of exclusive a cappella singing in the liturgy.

Then there are the praise bands, which have become ubiquitous in protestant churches in recent years. Although in principle I have no confessional or theological difficulties with the use of drums, or even electric guitars and the like, they do have a tendency to drown out congregations and discourage their participation in the liturgy, which becomes thereby a form of what can only be called litur-tainment. Perhaps it's time to bring back a cappella worship in church, not in legalistic fashion, but in recognition that the psalms and canticles are supposed to be, well, sung. And singing requires voices intoning words, which is something no trumpet or drum can manage to do.

26 Jul 2012

Heinrich Schütz and the Becker Psalter

If the Genevan Psalter is less well known in the English-speaking world than it deserves to be, the 17th-century Psalter of Cornelius Becker (1561-1604) is all but unknown and certainly underutilized. Becker was a Lutheran pastor in Leipzig who produced a German-language metrical psalter in two editions in 1628 and 1640. Heinrich Schütz composed most of the tunes for this collection, along with four-part harmonies. The complete Becker Psalter can be found here.

Thus far I have been able to locate only three performances of Becker Psalms on youtube, two of which, Psalms 23 and 102, are immediately below:

Although these were meant for congregational use, they largely failed to catch on outside of Dresden. In general, Lutherans have not sung metrical psalms, preferring to chant them according to more than one method, as found in their worship books.

I've not made an exhaustive search through the hymnals for Becker's Psalms, but one hymnal, Cantus Christi, makes use of several of these. Here is Psalm 45, from Cantus Christi, as sung by the congregation of Providence Church in Florida:

My initial impression of the music in the Becker Psalter is that it is in general less modal than the tunes of the Genevan Psalter, with wider vocal ranges, more accidentals, more melismata and more regular metres. I personally do not find the Becker tunes as easy to sight-read as the Genevan tunes, but that may just be me. The Becker Psalter seems more obviously a 17th-century rather than a 16th-century collection. Once I explore it further, I may post more thoughts here.

19 Jul 2012

Update: Psalms 30, 76 and 145

I have recently posted versifications and harmonizations for Psalms 30, 76 and 145.

Psalm 30 was perhaps written by someone who had recovered from a near fatal illness, as indicated in these verses: "O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit" (verses 2-3). The psalmist expresses great joy at his unexpected healing, similar to what the nation of Israel as a whole experienced when it was delivered from its foes on numerous occasions. Accordingly, the ancient Hebrews sang Psalm 30 to celebrate the re-dedication of the Jerusalem temple in the 2nd century BC after it was desecrated by the tyrannical ruler Antiochos IV Epiphanes, or what we now know as Hanukkah (see also John 10:22-42). In Christian liturgical usage, Psalm 30 is appropriately sung on Easter or one of the sundays thereafter.

The focus of Psalm 76 is more obviously corporate in character, with a special focus on Mount Zion, site of the Jewish temple. It appears to have been composed on the occasion of Judah's victory over the Assyrian armies of Sennacherib, as recounted in 2 Kings 18-19 and Isaiah 36-37. Might King Hezekiah himself have written this psalm? He certainly would have had ample reason to express the sentiments therein, for tiny Judah's victory over the near eastern superpower of the day was miraculous by any standard.

In the Genevan Psalter Psalms 30 and 76 are set to the same melody, which is in the hypomixolydian mode and has a metrical pattern of 88 88 99. In arranging this tune one might say that I was killing two birds with one stone, to coin a phrase. Psalm 139 is also set to this tune, and a text for this may well be my next effort.

Psalm 145 is one of the final Psalms of praise that close this ancient liturgical collection. It is an alphabetical psalm, meaning that each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. In Jewish practice Psalm 145 makes up the major part of the Ashrei, which is prayed three times daily. Very early it was noticed that this psalm is missing a verse for the Hebrew letter נ (nun) in the original language. However, most English translations include a verse based on its presence in the Septuagint and other ancient versions, on the assumption that these translations were made before the verse fell out of the surviving Hebrew manuscripts. My own text includes this verse.

In the Genevan Psalter the tune for Psalm 145 is in the mixolydian mode and has a metrical pattern of 10 10 10 10 11 11 11 11.

This text and harmonization I have dedicated to my esteemed colleague, Dr. Jacob P. Ellens, on the occasion of his recent retirement after 25 years of service at Redeemer University College. Verse 4 is key here: "One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts," which has obvious relevance for someone who has devoted his working life to educating the young in the ways of God and his world. Thanks be to God that he saw fit to bless us with Ellens' years of selfless service in academia proper and in academic administration.

Stolz: Psalms 28 through 30

9 Jul 2012

Recovering the Practice of Communal Singing

This was published today in Comment, the daily publication of Cardus:

Just before the dawn of the recording industry, popular songs were sold to the North American public in a format requiring of customers more musical literacy. When Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Down by the Old Mill Stream were published in 1910, their popularity was judged by sales of sheet music, and not yet by the records that would come into their own during the interwar years. Yes, people would attend performances of these songs by local bands and choirs, but they were more likely to gather round the upright piano at home and sing them together. People had to make their own music rather than rely on others to make it for them. Obviously not everyone had professional-quality voices, but that didn't matter. Young and old alike sang their hearts out.

Although I was born well into the recording age, I grew up in a family that sang with gusto at the slightest provocation. We had two pianos in our house, and everyone played at least one musical instrument. We were raised on the old movie musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and, of course, Meredith Wilson, whose score for The Music Man harked back to that earlier era just before the outbreak of the Great War. In fact, so many times did we play The Music Man soundtrack that scratches eventually caused the record to skip. (If you were raised on CDs, ask your parents or grandparents what that means.) The notion of Julie Andrews breaking into song in the course of her day did not strike us as the least bit unusual.

Where did all this come from? Read more here.

July updates: youtube psalms

Here are four samples of psalm-singing worth posting.

I am constantly amazed and heartened that, after four decades of communism, the church not only survived in Hungary but appears to be thriving, with ordinary Hungarians continuing to sing the Psalms as they have for centuries. This is Psalm 25, sung, one assumes, according to the versification of the great Albert Szenczi Molnár:

In the meantime, Ernst Stolz is continuing his slow but steady journey through the Psalms. First, Psalm 26:

And then, Psalm 27 below, which I think is one of the finest recordings of a Genevan Psalm. It ends all too soon; I really wanted it to keep going. To begin with, the tune, in the mixolydian mode, is one of the more compelling of the Genevan melodies. Second, the combination of lute, recorder and strings nicely brings out the Renaissance flavour. Definitely worth repeated listenings.

Finally, this is not a Genevan Psalm, but this congregational singing by young and old of Psalm 45 is energetic and inspiring. I believe this group, the Providence Church of Pensacola, Florida, has some connection with the psalm-singing Reformed congregations of Moscow, Idaho.

20 Jun 2012

A cappella Psalms

Here is another useful link for those with an interest in sung psalmody: The Psalms of David Sung A cappella. The website has been put together by one Connor S. Quigley, who has graciously permitted us to "Listen, Share & Download for Free." With pleasure!

14 Jun 2012

URC Psalmody

The United Reformed Churches in North America (not to be confused with the vastly different United Reformed Church across the pond) began nearly two decades ago when a number of congregations broke with the Christian Reformed Church and formed their own denomination. Up until now these churches have been singing from the CRC's old blue Psalter Hymnal dating back to 1959 and 1976. But this book is long out of print, and continuing to sing from it is obviously not feasible over the long term. Accordingly the URC is planning a new Psalter Hymnal in co-operation with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Progress on this front can be tracked at URC Psalmody.

I myself grew up in the OPC, and we sang from the 1961 edition of the Trinity Hymnal, which was heavily based on the now century-old 1912 Psalter. Although it contained a large number of metrical psalms, it did not include the entirety of the biblical Psalter. By joining forces with the URC to produce a Psalter Hymnal, members of the OPC will now have access to all of the Psalms for the first time in 76 years, which is definitely a step in the right direction.

12 Jun 2012

June updates

  • Russell Stutler is a Christian residing in Japan who loves the biblical psalter and has posted Three ways to sing the Psalms. Included is a nice survey of published psalters appropriate for personal use, even on public transportation. I myself have taken to reading through the Psalms on my Kobo Touch eReader, which holds huge amounts of information in a small, easily portable unit. Perfect for the bus ride.

  • Sarah Noll has come up with a way to sing prose Psalms that closely resembles Gelineau Psalmody. Check out her efforts at Prose Psalm Singing (NKJV) to a steady tempo.

  • Those interested in hearing all 150 Psalms sung in Hebrew would do well to look at this website: Ashkenazi/Sefardim Torah Leining/Reading MP3 Audio, hosted by Daf Yomi Review. All 150 files can be downloaded for personal listening. If you don't understand Hebrew, perhaps it's time to learn.
  • 11 Jun 2012

    Psalms on the chest organ

    I had not heard of a chest organ before now, but here is a young man playing three Genevan Psalm tunes on this 17th-century instrument. The tunes are for Psalms 42, 134 and 65/72.

    Stolz: Psalm 22

    Ernst Stolz has rectified his apparent omission by recording and posting Psalm 22. Unlike his other recordings, this one features a baritone soloist singing the first stanza successively in French and German:

    10 Jun 2012

    Stolz: Psalm 24

    Stolz is picking up his pace a bit and has now recorded Psalm 24, whose tune is, of course, identical to that of Psalms 62, 95 and 111. He has already recorded Psalm 23 twice, but he looks to have skipped over Psalm 22.

    7 Jun 2012

    Stolz' latest: Psalm 21

    Ernst Stolz is recording the psalms in order, which brings him now to the 21st:

    5 Jun 2012

    Psalm 1

    I have just uploaded my performance of Psalm 1:

    2 Jun 2012

    In defence of the Scottish Psalter: simplicity

    Compared to the lively and irregular metres of the Genevan Psalter, the Scottish Psalter's ubiquitous common metre texts can seem monotonous in the extreme. However, the Rev David Silversides makes a legitimate point in defence of the latter in his piece on The Development of the Scottish Psalter:

    It is a lovely biblical thought, is it not, that the Psalmody of the people of God should be such that as many as possible, even those of limited musical ability, can seek to join in? Yes, we should make our Psalmody as beautiful as possible, but without causing one of the saints of God to be left unable to attempt to sing because of its complexity. It should never become so elaborate that we end up with those who are musically skilled as the only ones who can really sing. At the Reformation, there was a deliberate reversal of Rome's practice of having the professional singers perform to a silent congregation. Our Reformers purposely sought to have the Psalms sung by the whole congregation of the people of God. John Calvin in Geneva resisted anything too complex in the singing of Psalms in order to ensure that the whole congregation could join in the praise of God.

    Did the Scottish Psalter achieve this aim of simplicity? Well, let us ask the question: How many tunes do you need to know to be able to sing the whole Scottish Psalter through? The answer of course is one. It may not be desirable, but if you can manage one tune, you can sing every verse in the Book of Psalms from the Scottish Psalter. Where there is only one version of a particular Psalm, it is always in common metre (i.e. the number of syllables in the four lines respectively is 8:6:8:6). If there are two versions of a particular Psalm, one of them is always in common metre. This means that if you can remember the tune that our precentor used in singing Psalm 95 this evening, then you could sing every Psalm to that tune if you use the Scottish Psalter. Now that is simplicity if ever it existed.

    Psalm 121

    This is a soulful arrangement and performance of Psalm 121, a favourite of many believers down through the ages. I don't know who is performing it or who composed the lovely arrangement for winds and chorus, but it was uploaded to the Upquark2 channel.

    29 May 2012

    Versifying the Psalms: a speed record?

    This is from Imre Revesz, History of the Hungarian Reformed Church (Washington, DC: The Hungarian Reformed Federation of America, 1956):
    The great name in connection with the versifying of the Psalms, an idea he learned abroad, is that of Albert Molnar Szenczi (pronounced "Sentsi"). He himself tells us that he completed the whole Psalter in Hungarian verse in less than a hundred days.
    Not knowing the Hungarian language, I am not competent to judge the literary quality of Molnar's versifications. But even if it were in stilted or clumsy Hungarian, I question his claims to have completed these in so short a span of time. The Genevan Psalter itself took at least 23 years to complete, and it has taken me some 27 years to versify just over half of the Psalms in English. Could Molnar really have produced his metrical psalter in just over three months?

    27 May 2012

    PR Psalm Choir: Psalm 134

    During its recent concert, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir sang Psalm 134, using the text of their own Psalter as set to the arrangement by, well, yours truly.

    17 May 2012

    Psalm 23

    Here is the latest upload to my Byzantine Calvinist youtube channel:

    16 May 2012

    Stolz: Psalm 20

    Ernst Stolz is moving a little more slowly through the Psalms these days. Here is his performance of Psalm 20:

    12 May 2012

    PR Psalm Choir: Psalm 46

    Joshua Hoekstra has been posting videos of the recent concert by the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir in Grandville, Michigan. Here the choir sings Psalm 46, according to the familiar version in the Scottish Psalter of 1650, as set to the tune Stroudwater:

    The group will be releasing a CD of their performances later this year. We wish them God's blessings in this endeavour. The Protestant Reformed sing from the 1912 Psalter, whose centenary we observe this year.

    9 May 2012

    Psalms for All Seasons

    Ben Myers reviews the new collection, Psalms for All Seasons, published earlier this year by Brazos Press and Faith Alive Christian Resources. From Myers' review:

    I sometimes worry that our hymnbooks – where you have a more or less arbitrary selection of songs, arranged by various doctrinal and liturgical themes – create the impression that worship is a matter of human choice. You choose your Sunday hymns as you might choose a dessert from the menu at a restaurant; and you choose them on the basis of thematic relevance (this week, let's sing about love; this week, let's sing about forgiveness), so that entire dimensions of human experience might never once enter into the singing of a congregation.

    But with psalmody as an overarching structure, the congregation is invited to share in experiences that might seem quite remote from their own everyday concerns. That is why we find some of the psalms so offensive: we simply cannot conceive of such experiences, even though they are – manifestly – genuine human possibilities. Instead of criticising such psalms, we need to learn how to sing them.

    Our own private griefs are, often enough, quite paltry: but we are invited to join in the gigantic earth-shaking laments of the psalms. Our own criteria for happiness are selfish and small: but we are allowed to share in the magnificent heaven-rending joys of the psalmist. Our own love for God is so feeble that we might even forget all about God for days at a time: but our hearts are torn wide open as we join our voices to the enormous lovesick longing of the psalmist's praise. We are safe, affluent, protected, untroubled by enemies or oppression: but we learn to join our voices to the psalmist's indignant cries for the catastrophic appearance of justice on the earth.

    If your congregation sings only Hillsong choruses, then their emotional repertoire will be limited to about two different feelings (God-you-make-me-happy, and God-I'm-infatuated-with-you) – considerably less even than the emotional range of a normal adult person. It is why entire congregations sometimes seem strangely adolescent, or even infantile: they lack a proper emotional range, as well as a suitable adult vocabulary. But in the psalter one finds the entire range of human emotion and experience – a range that is vastly wider than the emotional capacity of any single human life.

    Myers obviously echoes Calvin in his eloquent defence of psalm-singing. I've not yet seen Psalms for All Seasons, but I hope to do so soon.

    3 May 2012

    Psalm Choir concert

    Joshua Hoekstra, director of the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir, has just uploaded a recording of  his group singing Genevan Psalm 105:

    This is from his notes accompanying the video:

    This video is being published in advance of the May 6, 2012 Psalm Choir concert to help draw attention to the concert. This video is also intended to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Genevan Psalter. This song will be included in the upcoming concert by the Psalm Choir and was recorded on April 22, 2012. Performance by the Psalm Choir of Psalm 105, Psalter 425 titled "Unto the Lord Lift Thankful Voices."
    The concert will take place at the Grandville Protestant Reformed Church, Grandville, Michigan. I would love to be able to attend, were it not for the distance. Nevertheless, I wish this ensemble all the best as they sing God's praises in his own words.

    28 Apr 2012

    Psalms in English; Credo in Portuguese

    Two items of interest from Lucas Grassi Freire:

    1. Lucas has uncovered an English-language metrical psalter dating from 1767: The Psalms of David, with the Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord's Prayer, &c. in Metre. Also the Catechism, Confession of Faith, Liturgy, &c., Translated from the Dutch. This collection is an interesting amalgam, including a number of Genevan melodies, common-metre texts adapted from Nicholas Tate and Nahum Brady's "New Version" Psalter of 1696, and some original texts by Francis Hopkinson, including that for Psalm 23:
    The LORD himself doth condescend
    To be my shepherd and my friend;
    I on his faithfulness rely
    His care shall all my wants supply.
    In pastures green he doth me lead,
    And there in safety makes me feed,
    Refreshing streams are ever nigh,
    My thirsty soul to satisfy.
    Hopkinson signed the Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Jersey, and he would later serve as a federal judge in Pennsylvania. He also contributed to the design of the first American flag:

    2. Freire has composed a metrical credo in Portuguese set to be sung to the Genevan tune for Psalm 91: Confesso e Creio. Bravo, Lucas! Obrigado.

    22 Apr 2012

    Chabanel: Psalm 33

    Although I have devoted my energies to reinvigorating the tradition of metrical psalmody for those Christians who have all but lost the liturgical use of the Psalms, I think Reformed Christians in particular need to explore more seriously the various ways of chanting the Psalms in prose translations. One effort that I find especially compelling is the open-source Chabanel Psalter, spearheaded by church musician Jeffrey Ostrowski. Although it is created with the Vatican's liturgical standards in mind, including USCCB-approved texts, protestants could do worse (and, sad to say, often do) than to use some form of the Chabanel psalms in their own worship. Here is the latest composition, posted only today:

    20 Apr 2012

    Psalm 23 and Herzliebster Jesu

    Thanks to Lucas Freire for alerting me to this performance. Yes, it's Bach, but the tune is that of Genevan Psalm 23.

    It seems likely that Johann Crüger borrowed and adapted this melody in composing the well-known Herzliebster Jesu, performed below as arranged by Bach for his St. Matthew's Passion. The hymn is best known to English-speaking Christians from Robert Seymour Bridges' translation, Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended.

    J. G. Vos on the Psalms

    Thanks to Sean McDonald for finding this:

    "Since Watts’ time, some Psalm-singing denominations have shied away from the proper names in the Psalter, and have tried to screen many of them out of it. Zion is changed to 'the church,' and Jerusalem likewise; many of the others are omitted or smoothed over in some way. This yields us a de-natured Psalter. No wonder the next step is to give up the Psalms in worship. They have already given up the real vigor and beauty and power of the Psalms by omitting the proper names" (J. G. Vos, Ashamed of the Tents of Shem?).

    16 Apr 2012

    Update: Psalm 81: singing in God's voice

    I have now posted my versification of Psalm 81, along with my arrangement of the Genevan tune. Verses 4 and 5 of this psalm, with their references to Jacob and Joseph, indicate that it originates in the northern kingdom of Israel. If so, that would place its time of origin in the two centuries between the division of Solomon's kingdom and 721 BC, when it was conquered by the Assyrians. The psalm begins with a summons to the people to praise God in language reminiscent of the final three psalms, viz., 148-150. Instruments referenced are the tambourine, the lyre, the harp and the trumpet, to be employed at a seasonal festival prescribed by law.

    At verse 6 God himself suddenly speaks to his people, reminding them of his faithfulness to them in the past in freeing them from slavery. He further reminds them of his promises of protection if only they would be faithful to him and his ways, avoiding the sin of idolatry and worshipping him alone. Here his tone is reminiscent of the final verses of Psalm 95. God laments that his people would not listen, and so he left them to their sinful ways. He reiterates his promise, which is still on offer to those who love him and obey his commands.

    The last two verses see another shift of voice, as the psalmist echoes God's threat of punishment and his promise of prosperity.

    Some Christians are uncomfortable singing in God's voice, that is, in taking on their own lips the words of God as if they themselves were God. I've heard this complaint made most often of contemporary Roman Catholic hymns, such as Be Not Afraid and I Will Be With You, but also of Lord of the Dance, which has found its way into a number of denominational hymnals. Those who do not like to sing in God's voice should remind themselves that those singing the psalms necessarily find themselves doing so on occasion. Psalm 81 is a good example of this. Nevertheless, there is a valid concern here, on which church composer Aristotle A. Esguerra offers some wisdom:

    Singing in the “voice of God” becomes problematic when a lyricist puts words into God’s mouth — that is, either loosely paraphrases Scripture beyond recognition (similar to many based-on-a-true-story films), or worse, completely makes something up to place into God’s mouth (and subsequently our mouths when we sing it, and our ears when we hear it). At best, it is an imposition of private revelation on an act of public worship; at worst, it is a lie. Both are unacceptable, and neither are guaranteed to be God’s Word — for if “it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church”, who speaks when the holy scriptures are paraphrased or someone puts words into God’s mouth?

    My recommendation? Sing in the voice of God without worry if it’s really and truly the Word of God you’re singing, for God is speaking to you even as you sing — voice of God or not.

    I found the Genevan version of Psalm 81 not especially easy to work with, mostly because the stanzas are short, as are the phrases within each stanza. The metrical pattern is 56 55 56. My own text thus contains ten stanzas for what is otherwise a fairly short psalm. The tune is in the ionian mode, which is equivalent to our major scale.

    Immediately below the Komlói Pedagógus Kamarakórus (Teachers' Chamber Choir of Komló, Hungary) performs Psalm 81 followed by Psalm 119:

    15 Apr 2012

    Music of the Bible Revealed, encore une fois

    As mentioned in an earlier post, the late Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura was convinced that she had discovered how the entire Hebrew text of the Old Testament was sung in ancient times, although her thesis has been disputed by biblical scholars and musicologists alike. In the new issue of the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, David C. Mitchell has published an article, "Resinging the Temple Psalmody," whose abstract follows:

    The French archaeomusicologist Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura made two important proposals that have never been fully investigated: first, that the te'amim or cantillation marks of the Hebrew scriptures did not originate with the Masoretes, but date back to temple times; second, that she had developed a system for their musical deciphering. This paper suggests that there is indeed evidence for the great antiquity of the Masoretic cantillation. It also suggests that the basic idea of Haïk-Vantoura's deciphering system—that the sublinear te'amim represent the steps of a diatonic scale—is confirmed by more recent archaeomusicological research. Finally, a comparison between the ancient tonus peregrinus to Psalm 114 and the cantillation of the same psalm deciphered according to Haïk-Vantoura's system provides strong evidence in support of her claims.

    Coincidentally, a review of this book appears in the most recent issue of the Review of Biblical Literature: Burns, Jeffrey; David Bers and Stephen Tree, eds. The Music of Psalms, Proverbs and Job in the Hebrew Bible: A Revised Theory of Musical Accents in the Hebrew Bible. The review is written by Rebecca A. Mitchell and Matthew W. Mitchell. Whether the three Mitchells are related to each other I could not say.

    10 Apr 2012

    Aurél Tillai: Psalter Cantata

    The Genevan Psalms continue to live in the hearts of Hungarians, as evidenced by this inspiring Psalter Cantata composed by Aurél Tillai, performed only last month and posted as recently as yesterday:

    7 Apr 2012

    Stolz: Psalm 19

    The heavens are telling. . .

    24 Mar 2012

    Diephouse & Scheer: Psalm 80

    Today I was contacted by Greg Scheer, Minister of Worship at Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Music Associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. He informed me that he and David Diephouse, historian at Calvin, have co-authored a paraphrase of Psalm 80 to be sung to the proper Genevan melody. From his blog post:

    A month ago, I decided that Psalm 80′s vine themes would fit perfectly with a sermon on “I am the Vine.” But I wasn’t sold on any of the versions I found. The closest thing to something that excited me was a stodgy metrical text paired with a great Genevan tune that I hadn’t heard before, O PASTEUR D’ISRAEL, ESCOUTE.

    So I sent David Diephouse an email: I think there could be some kind of rich ties between God clearing a place to plant a vine (Israel), Jesus ingrafting us into himself the Vine, and perhaps even the fruit of the vine and the Tree of Life. Play with it and see what you come up with, whether it’s a literal metrical setting or a looser hymn that treats Psalm 80 through New Testament eyes.

    He, like me, works best when a songwriting project is a diversion from a pile of “real” work, and he quickly sent me a first draft. He would insist that the bulk of the final draft is my words, but the fact is he established the basic structure and set up key phrases like “graft us into the Living Vine.” Add a bit of advice on Goudimel’s harmonization from our church’s local music historian, Cal Stapert, and you end up with a really solid metrical Psalm that revives an overlooked, but beautifully singable Genevan tune.

    The text is a free paraphrase with a christological focus, similar in many respects to Isaac Watts' psalm paraphrases from the 18th century. Here is a pdf file of the piece: O faithful Shepherd of your people; and here is an mp3 file of the congregation singing it. The harmonization is that of Claude Goudimel.

    I myself set this psalm to verse last year and wrote about it here: Updates: Psalms 70 and 80. My own text is somewhat more literal than Diephouse's, as can be seen here for purposes of comparison.

    21 Mar 2012

    Magyar zsoltár: Psalm 90

    A brass band leads the assembled congregation in singing Psalm 90 in the rain, while a man in a bow tie sings along on stage:

    A bearded man sings the same song. Obviously not a professional singer, yet his performance is just as obviously heart-felt:

    20 Mar 2012

    Update: Psalm 33

    My 77th psalm versification has been posted. This one is Psalm 33, which has no title in the Hebrew and appears to be a continuation of the previous psalm, which ends with words similar to the opening words of 33. In this psalm we first encounter the command to sing to the LORD "a new song," which recurs five more times in the Psalms, once in Isaiah and twice in Revelation.

    What exactly is this new song we are enjoined to sing? Can a church that sings from so ancient a book as the biblical Psalter really sing a song no one has sung before? Is that what new means? Is this a licence for endless liturgical innovation, as some would have it? Not necessarily. In scripture the adjective new often refers to the redeemed life in Christ, in which we turn aside from the old ways that kept us in sin. A new song is one in which we celebrate afresh the grace of God, whose mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). This may be in freshly composed words or, better, in the inspired words of the biblical authors. As Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon writes, "The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore 'walk in newness of life' (Romans 6:4)."

    My own text is a rhymed versification in six stanzas. The traditional rhyming scheme is ABABCCDEED, which I have modified to ABCBDDEFGF to reflect better the stresses in the melody and thus to render it more singable. The metre is highly irregular: 98 98 66 56 65. As for the tune, which is in the dorian mode, it has had a special allure for at least two composers, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Zoltán Kodály. Commercial recordings of Sweelinck's music often begin with his arrangement of this psalm. I am unable to locate an online performance of Kodály's arrangement, but here is Sweelinck's:

    In the Genevan Psalter Psalm 33 shares its melody with Psalm 67, which I set to verse a decade ago. Revisiting the tune presented an opportunity for me to alter, and hopefully improve, the arrangement I composed at that time. Its flavour is mostly the same, but there is now more movement in especially the lower voices.

    12 Mar 2012

    Then sings my Seoul . . .

    More from the Samyang Presbyterian Church in Korea:

    János Pálúr: Psalm 50

    In general I am not an enthusiast for the ubiquitous organ improvisations on the Genevan tunes appearing so often on the web. However, organist János Pálúr's improvisation on Psalm 50 is a notable exception and is worth hearing. This was recorded on 5 July 2009 at the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen, Hungary:

    9 Mar 2012

    Singing the Psalms 2012

    There was a good turnout last week for my most recent lecture on Singing the Psalms at Redeemer University College, and I am grateful that it was so well received by those in attendance. One of my former students attended for the second year in a row and was kind enough to present me with a copy of the 1912 Psalter, whose centenary we mark this year. He is a member of the Free Reformed Churches, whose members sing from this collection at their worship services.

    I will take this opportunity to remind readers that I am available to lecture on this topic, complete with a multimedia presentation including visuals and sound files. If interested, please contact me at dkoyzis[at]redeemer[dot]ca for more information.

    2 Mar 2012

    Psalm 15: voice and guitar

    I recorded this last week at the First Christian Reformed Church, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada:

    1 Mar 2012

    Singing the Psalms: Korea

    The Genevan Psalms are being sung in some unexpected venues. Over the past week or so, a member of the Samyang Presbyterian Church in Seoul, Korea, has posted videos of the congregation singing the Genevan Psalms in their own language. These can be found at this youtube channel. Stay tuned, as more will undoubtedly be posted in the coming days. Here is a sample below:

    29 Feb 2012

    Mozarabic chant:: Psalm 1

    Am I alone in thinking this Mozarabic chant from Spain sounds remarkably Byzantine in flavour? It's sung in Latin, of course, but it could just as easily be Greek.

    Later: A perusal of the album on amazon.com reveals that the singer is one Lykourgos Angelopoulos, who was trained in the Byzantine tradition. This explains the apparent similarity between Byzantine and Mozarabic chant as performed above.

    27 Feb 2012

    Dancing his praise

    As a followup to my earlier review posts of the new Canadian Reformed metrical psalter, I want to call attention to an improvement in the translation of Psalm 150:4, which runs thus in one of the English-language versions of the Bible: "Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!" In the 1984 edition of the Book of Praise, the verse is rendered as follows:

    Praise Him with the pipe and timbrel.
    Praise Him with stringed instruments . . . .

    Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to dancing, whose omission from the versified text appears to signal an uncharacteristically paraphrastic approach to the psalm. But this oversight has been rectified in the new edition:

    Worship him in exultation
    and with tambourine and dance.

    Now that this correction has been made, perhaps we shall see more ventures like this taking off amongst Reformed churches:

    21 Feb 2012

    Please register for Singing the Psalms here.