31 Mar 2014
The Niagara Psalter
I have finally come up with a title for my second psalter project: the Niagara Psalter. I chose it because we live atop the Niagara escarpment, which cuts through Hamilton and the entire Niagara peninsula.
The origins of this project extend back to the 1980s when I began to set a few of the biblical Psalms to verse. Psalm 137 may have been the first, although a very loose paraphrase of Psalm 25 either preceded or came shortly thereafter. In 1985 I came into contact with the tunes of the Genevan Psalter and was utterly captivated by this 16th-century psalter. For the next nearly thirty years I undertook to come up with fresh English-language texts to which these tunes could be sung. Shortly before the turn of the century, I began arranging these tunes to accompany the new texts, the results of which are posted at my Genevan Psalter website.
In late summer of 2013 I began a new metrical psalter project prompted primarily by a bout with depression and secondarily by a desire to enter the annual psalm contest sponsored by Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This quickly took off and, over the following months, I managed to produce more than forty metrical psalms set to fresh tunes. For all their beauty and sturdy durability, the Genevan Psalms were originally written for the French language, and the drawbacks quickly become evident in trying to fit the tunes to English texts. In 2012 I attempted a revision of my Psalm 29 text from some years earlier, trying mightily to capture the seven occurrences of qol Adonai, the “voice of the LORD,” in English, which had not appeared consistently in my earlier versification of the text. Later that year I undertook a fresh versification using a different metre entirely. The expression, “the voice of the LORD,” suggests a more dactylic metrical structure, which I used for the tune I came up with for my new text.
These then are the principles undergirding this new project, which I anticipate will lead to a book about my own personal pilgrimage through the biblical Psalms:
1. Rather than the tunes dictating the texts, this project has the texts determining the tunes. These versifications have generally started with one of the major English translations of the Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version or the English Standard Version. Reading a Psalm in one or more of these has usually suggested to me a metrical structure and a length for each line.
2. Unlike most hymnic songs or metrical psalms, not all of the stanzas here are of equal length, reflecting the grouping of thoughts in the original texts. A metrical psalm that generally has, say, four lines per stanza may occasionally require a stanza of five or six lines, in which case I have simply repeated the last one or two musical lines to accommodate the longer stanza. Partial stanzas are often found in the Genevan psalters, but not in those standing in the English and Scottish traditions.
3. Unlike the English and Scottish psalters, which make disproportionate, if not exclusive, use of common metre (CM) or double common metre (CMD), this psalter makes use of a variety of metres while not neglecting common and long metres. This makes for a certain similarity to the Genevan Psalter. Unlike the latter, however, I have made an effort to avoid odd-numbered lines in individual stanzas (e.g., five or seven lines per stanza), which tend to mask the parallelism in the original Hebrew texts. The metrical structures of my tunes are also somewhat more symmetrical than many in the Genevan corpus.
4. Some of the versified texts are rhymed, while others are not, if rendering them as such would seem to do violence to the translated prose texts.
5. The tunes in this new psalter, like those of the Genevan Psalter, make use of the traditional ecclesiastical modes. I have made an effort to choose a mode for the tune that in some fashion reflects the emotional feel of the text. Psalms 22 and 88, for example, have tunes in the phrygian mode, while many more tunes are in the dorian, hypodorian, mixolydian or hypomixolydian modes, which accommodate more thematic and emotional diversity.
6. As best as I am able, I have tried to compose tunes that will be singable by ordinary people but that also have some interesting twists in tonality. This means that the tunes do not keep strictly to a particular mode but may shift, for example, between mixolydian and ionian modes within the same melody.
7. Unlike the Genevan tunes, my tunes generally employ time signatures and bar lines. A slight majority of tunes use triple metre, i.e., 3/4 or 6/8 time, with 4/4 time coming next. A very few tunes alternate between time signatures. Once again, the English texts have usually influenced my choice of time signature.
8. The tunes for these texts contain no melismata in the melody line, that is, more than one note assigned to a single syllable, to facilitate greater ease of singing. Two of my texts, namely those for Psalms 51 and 137, were previously published in a hymnal back in 1989. I have now come up with fresh tunes for both, because the previous tunes contained numerous melismata, which I have sought to avoid. In this too my collection has something in common with the Genevan corpus, which uses very few melismata.
9. The names I have thus far chosen for the tunes are taken from areas I have lived, especially the Hamilton, Ontario, and DuPage County, Illinois, regions, although some represent a theme in the psalm itself.
This is, of course, an ongoing project which could follow one of a number of possible paths over the next few years. At this point, as mentioned above, I plan to write a book about my personal pilgrimage through the Psalms, but I may find a way to publish separately a collection of my sung psalmody as well.
I have now posted nine Psalms in this series on my website, including Psalms 8, 23, 29, 51, 95, 98, 130, 137 and 150. Clicking on the title of each psalm will bring up an mp3 file of the music. Scores are posted for Psalms 23 and 29. Thus far there are 45 sung psalms in this collection, of which I have now posted a representative sample.