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.