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.


Greg Scheer said...

Last year sometime, I got a bee in my bonnet about the Schütz Psalms. With a bit of help from a librarian friend I was able to track down an edition of all 150 Psalms in English (unfortunately only a few verses per Psalm) edited by H.S. Drinker. It's published by the Association of American Choruses, Choral Series No. 188.

This weekend I found a new publication of Schütz Psalm arrangements with texts by David Rogner: http://www.cph.org/p-5377-salvations-joy.aspx.

Schütz's Psalms would be fairly difficult for modern congregations, and editing would need to be done to put them in singable ranges. However, I think they're worth the attention and would love to see the at least some of these appear in modern editions. My hope is to use some of them at Church of the Servant throughout the coming year.

David Koyzis said...

Thanks for the reference, Greg. I'll have to look into it.

Off hand, I don't find the Schütz Psalms as compelling as the Genevan melodies, although I am not yet able to articulate all the reasons for this intuitive response. The Genevan tunes seem more evidently dependent on the plainsong tradition and the church modes.

But, yes, you are right about the wide vocal ranges, which would make the Beckers difficult for the ordinary congregation to sing. Still, I enjoy a challenge, and I may see what I can come up with for at least a few of the Beckers, both textually and musically. If and when I do, I'll post them on my website.

Donald P. Owens II said...

I know this is an older thread, but are you still interested in the Becker? If you serach WordMp3.com for "Becker", you will find a long list of these psalms performed by my brother Michael Owens, founder of Genevan Psalter.com. He and I are trying to republish the complete Becker Psalter with new english lyrics, but still have a lot of versification left to do, and are looking for backers for the project. By the way, I recognize your name from the Congregational Psalter. Our congregation in NY profited from your work on several songs over the last several years. Thank you.

revpaulcain said...

I would be very interested to see the fruits of your English "Becker".