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.

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