GENEVAN PSALTER PROJECT

Texts and arrangements by David T. Koyzis

My initial contact with the Genevan Psalms came during my childhood at Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, a congregation my parents started with another family. My second contact came at age 21, when during a memorable visit to Prague I purchased a Czech-language Psalter and Hymnal containing Jiří Strejc's versifications, although I did not recognize these as Genevan Psalms for another decade. In 1985 a friend alerted me to the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, containing the Genevan Psalms in English. I found it an impressive collection in many ways, although it struck me that the versifications therein showed, among other things, the limitations of the original rhyming schemes, in which the stresses in the music and those in the text did not necessarily match. An example from the French will suffice to illustrate. Here is the first stanza of Psalm 13:

Jusques à quand as establi,
Seigneur de me mettre en oubli?
Est-ce à jamais? par combien d'aage
Destourneras-tu ton visage
De moy, las, d'angoisse rempli?
Note that the rhyming scheme is A-A-B-B-A. However, the alternation of masculine and feminine endings in the tune does not quite match this scheme: M-F-F-M-F. Hence the French verse fails to flow in the way one might expect, which makes for somewhat awkward singing. This same flaw has found its way into all the translations of the Psalms of which I am aware, due to a somewhat slavish fidelity to the traditional rhyming scheme found in the original French.

Around the same time I came into possession of a copy of the Hungarian Psalms recording reviewed in the annotated discography page through what was then called the Board of Publications of the Christian Reformed Church. I was immediately taken with what I heard, especially the Cantus’ performances of Psalms 23 and 121, which I found particularly moving. Thus began a near obsession with the Genevan Psalms with which I have been (probably terminally) afflicted for several decades. At this point I began to compose my own arrangements of the tunes. Unable to play the piano, I generally worked out these tunes on guitar, where they took on something of the flavour of John Dowland’s compositions for the lute. In my head I heard these tunes in their Renaissance context, where their similarity to the works of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons seemed evident. In addition to arranging these marvellous melodies, I began also to versify the Psalms in a contemporary idiom so they could be sung to them. In so doing, I departed to some extent from the traditional rhyming schemes and, in some cases, from rhyme itself.

With respect to the versifications, I admit that, having next to no knowledge of Hebrew, I have relied on the major English translations of the Psalter, such as the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version and the New Jerusalem Bible. I have not sought a word-for-word translation, which would, in any case, be impossible within a fixed metrical scheme. The Scottish Psalter of 1650 comes close to a word-for-word translation, but largely at the expense of comprehensibility and, I would judge, singability. Moreover, as English has developed, the syllables in some words have been elided, making it more difficulty to sing the 1650 texts in their intended metre.

My own versifications are paraphrases–sometimes close to the text and sometimes merely communicating the overall sense of the text, as seems appropriate in each case. While the biblical scholar, with her exacting standards, may not like my approach, the poet will be more understanding. Some of the versifications are rhymed (e.g., Psalms 23 and 51) and some are not (e.g., Psalms 24 and 119). To an extent it has been possible to retain something of the parallelism of the Hebrew poetic form, but this has not always worked within the constraints of the Genevan metres. I have not been overly literalistic or legalistic on this score and have taken poetic licence where necessary.

It must also be recognized once more that it is not always easy to write in English for the Genevan tunes. The Genevan metrical schemes and the French language both have an abundance of feminine endings, that is, phrases ending on unstressed syllables. By contrast, English has relatively fewer of these, which in large measure explains why English-language psalters have tended towards the uniformity of common, long, and short metres. Thus in my own renditions certain kinds of words, e.g., those ending in -ing and -tion, will be noticed to reappear with some frequency. In any case, I have attempted to match the stresses in the melodies with those in the text.

Here is my own versification of Psalm 13, which departs from the traditional rhyme scheme, using instead A-B-B-A-C, which in my judgement better corresponds to the metrical structure of the music and eliminates the entirely unnecessary melisma in the fourth line:33

How long, O LORD, must I endure?
Will you forget me for ever?
Shall I look on your visage never?
How long shall my soul constant pain endure,
and my poor heart be in sorrow?

Shall my foes have the victory?
Answer me, LORD; hear my pleading!
Lighten my eyes – my voice be heeding –
lest mortal sleep should overpower me,
and enemies think me vanquished.

Though my foes sneer at my distress,
yet your love is my foundation.
My heart is glad at your salvation.
I raise my song the faithful LORD to bless,
for he has treated me kindly.
As for the harmonizations, these were worked out, with the single exception of Psalm 8, in 1999 and following up to the present. I have attempted to recover something of the modal flavour of the arrangements, taking as my inspiration the music of those Renaissance masters mentioned above. Some of the harmonizations may sound a little dissonant to those familiar with the arrangements traditionally sung in the Dutch or Hungarian churches. Moreover, if one follows the suggested tempos, the traditionalist is likely to find them entirely too rapid. To such a person I have a two-fold answer: First, I am rendering them as I have heard them in my head. Coming fresh to the Genevan tradition means that I am working without the benefit and the burden alike of having grown up hearing them sung a certain way. Second, at a time when so much traditional hymnody is being neglected in favour of (to my mind) vastly inferior praise music, with its repetitive phrases and transparently derivative tunes, we need to affirm that the singing of the Psalms need hardly be a dreary business. The liveliest of the Psalms, e.g., 47 and 92, would even seem to call for a supportive percussion instrument, such as the tambourine. At the same time, we should never shrink from singing the laments, which sorely need to be reincorporated into our liturgical life. Our individualistic, consumer-oriented churches often seem to suffer from a lamentable inability to lament. Our congregations need to learn once again to sing Psalms 88 and 137, among many others.

Among the first psalms I set to verse in the 1980s and early ’90s were Psalms 8, 23, 46, 47, 91, 121, 130, and 150. In 1999 I began to post these on a website devoted to the Genevan Psalter. In the following years I added more texts and musical arrangements to this website, eventually numbering more than eighty. After I was nearly laid off from my academic position in 2014, my changing circumstances compelled me to neglect this project, and in 2019, my former employer removed it from its server. I have decided not to try to restore the entire website, but to post a small sample of my work below, along with sample performances from my YouTube channel. At some point, I would love to complete the versification of all 150 Psalms and to find someone willing to publish the entire collection.

Suffice it to say that this project, which takes me well outside my field of professional competence, has been for me a genuine labour of love–of love for the Psalms and for the God who inspired their writers. St. Athanasius wrote of the Psalms that they are a kind of compendium of the whole of scripture. As each book of the Bible is like a garden bearing its own unique fruit, the Psalms bear all the fruit found in the other books. Calvin famously labelled the Psalter “‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” I hope and pray that this project may help the larger church to recover the liturgical use of the Psalms. After all, the Psalms are simultaneously the most confessionally Reformed and the most ecumenical worship resource we have. First, the Genevan Psalms are the common heritage of the Reformed churches. Second, the Psalms themselves we share with our fellow Christians of virtually every tradition. Third, the Psalms we have in common with the synagogue, or, as Pope John Paul II called them, our Jewish elder brethren, even if we might interpret differently especially the messianic psalms.

David T. Koyzis, October 2020

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Psalm 1

(10 10 11 11 10 10)

How blest are they who keep from evil ways,
who heed not sinful counsel all their days,
nor seek the company of wicked scoffers,
but take delight in all the Lord God offers
within the statutes of his holy Law:
both day and night they ponder it with awe.

They are like trees that grow beside the stream,
whose fruitful limbs with ripened bounty teem,
whose verdant leaves will fade and wither never;
all that they undertake in faith will ever
be blessed by God with great prosperity.
But wicked ones a different lot shall see.

For they, like chaff, before the wind are blown
and will not last before the judgement throne,
nor will they stand in council of the holy.
But God protects all those who follow solely
the paths of virtue and of righteousness,
while death shall stalk the ways of wickedness.



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Psalm 8

(11 11 10 10)

O LORD, our Lord, your name excels creation!
Your glory far surpasses every nation.
Out of the mouths of children flows your praise
to silence rebels who forsake your ways.

When I behold the works your hands have moulded —
sun, moon and stars across the sky unfolded —
man, what is he that you a thought should spare,
the son of man that he should own your care?

Yet you have made him to reflect your splendour,
crowned him with glory and with highest honour,
placed him as steward over all you've made;
beneath his feet your earthly realm is laid.

Earth's flocks and herds in grace to him you've given,
beasts wild and tame, and birds that soar through heaven;
fish in the sea you've given him to claim,
O LORD, our Lord, how excellent your name!

 

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Psalm 23

(11 11 11 11 11 11)

The LORD's my shepherd, I shall want for nothing.
He makes me lie in pastures lush and verdant.
He leads me to still waters that are peaceful,
restores my strength, leads me to righteous pathways
for his name's sake. Though I may walk in darkness,
I will not fear; for you are always with me.

Your rod and staff provide me constant comfort.
Before my foes, a feast you are preparing.
My head with finest oil you have anointed;
with you my cup is full to overflowing.
Goodness and mercy all my days pursue me,
and in the LORD's house I will dwell for ever.


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Psalm 95

(8 8 9 8 8 9)

Come, praise the LORD and be joyful,
acclaiming our salvation's Rock,
and come before him with thanksgiving.
Praise him with jubilant music,
for God is King above all gods;
his rule is over all creation.

He holds earth's depths in his own hand;
the mountain peaks above our heads
belong to him, for he has made them.
The restless sea he created,
and all the land below our feet
our gracious God has wisely fashioned.

Come, let us bow down before him
and kneel before the mighty LORD,
who is our Maker and Sustainer.
For God alone is our Father;
we are the people whom he guides,
the flock that he for ever pastures.

If only you would attend him:
"O harden not your stubborn hearts
as once you did within the desert.
That day your unfaithful forbears
rebelled and put me to the test,
though they had seen my many wonders.
                
"Through forty years of rebellion
these people would not know my ways;
their hearts away from me would wander.
So then I swore in my anger
that none of this rebellious lot
would reach a restful habitation."


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Psalm 119


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Psalm 150

(77 77 8 77 8)

Praise the LORD with joyous mirth!
Praise him in his house on earth;
praise him in the heav'nly height.
Praise him for his acts of might.
Alleluia! alleluia!
Praise his all-surpassing grace.
Bow and sing before his face:
alleluia! alleluia!

Praise God with the trumpet sound,
harp and lute, his praise resound.
Play the timbrel; dance his praise.
Strings and flute, extol his ways.
Alleluia! alleluia!
Clashing cymbals, praise the Lord;
all that breathe, with one accord
praise the LORD! Sing alleluia!


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