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.