Archive for February, 2012

Psalm 105

Seek the LORD and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he uttered,
O offspring of Abraham, his servant,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones!

Psalm 105:4-6 (ESV)

As one of the “historical psalms,” Psalm 105 recounts God’s faithfulness to his covenant people Israel from the days of Abraham up through the exodus from Egypt.  Along the way, the psalmist pauses to praise God for his power and glory, and urges his readers to do the same.  The selections from the Psalter Hymnal under discussion today are based on this glorious historical psalm.

209, “Unto the Lord Lift Thankful Voices”

This Genevan setting is based on only an excerpt of Psalm 105.  After paraphrasing the first nine verses, the text skips the majority of the psalm to end with vv. 44, 45.  Written in 1931 by Samuel Brondsema, likely a member of the CRC himself, this setting constitutes a very free paraphrase, with some verses of the psalm completely rewritten.  While the main theme of the Scripture is preserved, some of the original meaning is clouded in the versification.  For example—

(1) Unto the Lord lift thankful voices,
Come, worship while your soul rejoices;
Make known His doings far and near
That peoples all His Name may fear,
And tell, in many a joyful lay,
Of all His wonders day by day.

It seems to me that language like “peoples all” and “many a joyful lay” does more to confuse the singers than edify them.  Hopefully this text will be given at least a minor rewrite if it is to appear in our new Psalter Hymnal.  Given the growing number of good psalm versifications, however, I doubt this version will ever be seriously considered for inclusion.

The tune, from the 1562 Genevan Psalter, is a fitting one for Psalm 105—as the Psalter Hymnal notes above the music, it is especially joyful when sung in unison.   Many different harmonizations for this tune exist, and I’m not sure this one is the best.  As alternates, consider the versions in either the 1934 or 1987 Psalter Hymnal.  If you don’t have access to either of these songbooks, you could also view the harmonization used in the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, available as a free PDF from GenevanPsalter.com.

210, “O Praise the Lord, His Deeds Make Known”

Although this text appears in the 1912 Psalter, this setting has a few modifications that are unique to our Psalter Hymnal.  In the old Psalter, this text was set in nineteen C.M. verses, whereas in our hymnbook, the text has been doubled up to create ten C.M.D. stanzas.  That is, there are fewer stanzas in the Psalter Hymnal, but each one is twice as long.

The text is more like a paraphrase than a literal setting, yet it still follows the form of Psalm 105 fairly closely.  The language is easy enough to understand that it is comparable to the ESV text in many places.  In fact, two lines in the fourth stanza differ from the ESV in the addition of only one word, “own.”

Touch not Mine own anointed ones,
Nor do My prophets harm.

Unfortunately, the structure of this versification makes the list of plagues in Psalm 105:28-36 nearly impossible to include.  Yet without stopping to mention each plague, the versifiers’ summary of this section is excellent:

(7) In darkness they were taught to fear
God’s great and holy Name;
On man and beast, on vine and field,
His awful judgment came.

The only drawback in this setting is that to avoid ending half-way through a stanza, Psalm 105:3, 4 are repeated at the end of the tenth verse.  This relocates the final command to “Praise the LORD!” from the end of the song, but the central theme of the psalm remains unaltered.  Despite such tiny imperfections, the text is certainly worthy of a place in our songbook.

Ever since hearing a Celtic jig version of this tune, SPOHR, I’ve never been able to take it quite seriously.  That’s just a matter of personal taste though; objectively, the melody of this tune flows nicely and should be easily sung by any congregation familiar with it.  The only alteration a careful organist might want to make is midway through the third line—the rhythm of a quarter note followed by two sixteenth notes might be changed to even eighths for a better flow.  And if for some reason SPOHR isn’t a desirable choice for your congregation, alternate double-common-meter (C.M.D.) tunes abound.

In a congregational setting, singing Psalm 105 might be a very fitting addition to special occasions like a church’s commemoration service or a profession of faith.  Recounting God’s faithfulness through the years should constitute an especially joyful part of the Christian’s praise.

Let songs of praise to Him ascend,
And hallelujahs without end!

–MRK

References

  1. Setting of Psalm 105 from the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, available as a PDF download from GenevanPsalter.com.
  2. “O Praise the Lord, His Deeds Make Known” as set to music in the 1912 Psalter, p. 250.

The Psalms, Alive and Well

A few weeks ago I posted regarding the lasting significance of the Genevan Psalter.  Since then, I discovered a great example of how these psalm settings are still being used today.

If you subscribe to Christian Renewal magazine, you may have recently read about a group called “The Psalm Project.”  Led by Dutch composer Eelco Vos, these musicians recently toured the Great Lakes area, performing psalms set to modern music.  Though their style is definitely contemporary, the melodies of the music are based on the original Genevan Psalter tunes corresponding to each psalm!  Apparently, The Psalm Project’s work has been enthusiastically received in certain Reformed circles, like the Christian Reformed Church and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Whether or not The Psalm Project’s arrangements should be incorporated into congregational worship could be a matter of great controversy in the Reformed arena.  But I don’t think this goal is what Eelco Vos and his musicians had in mind.  Rather, it seems to me that the mission of The Psalm Project is to expand the reach of the psalms from worship into every area of life.  By setting the psalms to contemporary texts and tunes, they can reach believers and unbelievers alike, in settings outside church gatherings, with the message of God’s Word.

This same approach has been proposed by others in the Reformed community, such as Calvin Seerveld.  Seerveld (incidentally, a former organist here at West Sayville) has long been an influential figure in Christian Reformed circles, and has authored many contemporary adaptations of psalm texts for the 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal.  I’m not convinced that all of his psalm adaptations are Scripturally accurate, but this argument (as quoted in a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship article) is a significant one:

[Seerveld] believes that bringing the psalms back into public life would remedy the current “weakness of biblical consciousness.  There is so little, if any, common song (much less Psalms!) among followers of Christ.  ‘Amazing Grace,’ the doxology, and ‘Silent Night’ are probably about the most Christians could muster to sing impromptu without printed notes (not counting the Bible choruses).

“We need to start way back and have leaders fall in love with the psalms, get current language, recite certain psalms, exercise certain tunes, and then-after a generation?—they may begin to live in our voices,” Seerveld says.

He hopes that the Voicing God’s Psalms book and CD will inspire ordinary and younger believers to start reading the psalms for devotions, using them in Bible studies and outreach programs, and sharing the CD at hospitals, nursing homes, and on military bases.

“If believers ask their pastors to give attention to the psalms, and then if pastors and music leaders show they do take God’s psalms to heart, not just as token items in a Sunday liturgy, then maybe the CD and careful translations will endear the psalms to God’s people and the curious disbelievers,” Seerveld says.

Again, as URC members holding to a more traditional Reformed perspective, we may be inclined to shy away from the modern sound and idiomatic language of the settings of Eelco Vos and Cal Seerveld.  I’m not making an argument for bringing this style of song into congregational worship.  But could it be that this perspective—the mission of applying the psalms to every area of life—is one we should seriously consider?  How might the psalms have a greater impact on us and our unbelieving neighbors if we don’t limit them to Sunday services, but instead bring them anywhere God leads us?  And in this way can we make a permanent place for God’s Word in our hearts?  It’s not an easy question, but it may be worth some careful thought.

To God be the glory!

–MRK

References

  • For more information about The Psalm Project, visit their website.  On the home page, excerpts from several of their arrangements are available for listening.
  • The Calvin Seerveld article I referenced, entitled “Voicing God’s Psalms,” is available from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship here.  As it relates to our current discussion in the “Meet the Psalm-Hymn” series, I especially recommend reading the sidebar on “Translation, Paraphrase, Versification: What’s the difference?” near the bottom of the article.
  • To get an idea of Calvin Seerveld’s versification style, take a look at his psalm settings in the gray 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal, including numbers 22, 91, 105, 131, and 150, or number 22 in the URC Hymn Proposal (which the Songbook Committee has since decided to remove).

Meet the Psalm-Hymn (Part 1)

In an earlier post, I presented a question about the psalms we sing in church: Where is the dividing line between psalm settings and hymns?  Or, to put it another way, how close must the lyrics of a psalm-based song be to the original Scriptural text in order to be considered a proper psalm setting?

There’s much more to this issue than a simple set of criteria.  Because of this, I’d like to discuss the topic a little more thoroughly in a short blog series—offering my own thoughts, but also seeking comments and guidance from my readers.  The discussions in this series might seem rather painstaking, but I’m convinced that this matter is important, since it directly influences our view of the psalms we sing.  I ask you, then, to bear with me!

Two quotes from the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee help to set the issue of psalm paraphrasing in context.  In a recent article in The Outlook, Mrs. Denise Marcusse explains, “There are a lot of questions swirling around URC circles about the new songbook and the committee’s work on the hymnal.  The proposed new hymnal is intended to be just that: a new hymnal!  We understand that some might wish this to be a replicated blue Psalter Hymnal.  The committee, however, is working from the understanding that this songbook will span more generations by adding some newer songs along with some of the older and well-loved songs.  Mainly we are striving to have it be a hymnal that more closely reflects our Reformed creeds and confessions.  It will be a songbook in which the psalm songs more closely reflect the Scripture texts and do not just loosely paraphrase God’s Word” (emphasis added).

Looking back at the Songbook Committee’s original criteria for selecting church music, we read in guideline 4 that “when psalms or other portions of Scripture are set to music, the words must be faithful to the content and form of the inspired text (II Tim. 3:16)” (again, emphasis added).

I’m sure we would all agree that these are commendable standards for psalm settings.  Yet at the same time, one might ask, where is the dividing line?  How close to Scripture is close enough?  What exactly is the “form of the inspired text” and how should it be followed?  While we can’t really answer these questions directly, I’d like to at least try to sketch a few tentative guidelines as we enter this discussion.  Let’s start with a simple example.

If you take a look at Psalter Hymnal number 28, and then compare it to number 31, you’ll probably notice some differences right away.  Although the two texts are based on the same section of Psalm 19, their content is hardly the same.  Number 28 follows the literal order and phrasing of the psalm, with little deviation or poetic embellishment.  Number 31, on the other hand, is a much freer paraphrase.  It starts with a fairly simple versification of Psalm 19:1-4a.  In the second stanza, it condenses verses 4b-6 into a single line, then adds a reference to “moonbeams soft and tender” (which aren’t mentioned anywhere in Psalm 19), ending with two lines that revisit verses 3, 4.  In the third stanza, the text summarizes verses 1-6 from the psalm, then skips completely over verses 7-13 to end with a loose paraphrase of verse 14.

My point is not to criticize this particular Psalter Hymnal selection, but merely to emphasize one important definition.  The name I’m going to assign to this definition is the “psalm-hymn.”  While the distinction between a psalm-hymn and a regular psalm setting is hard to pinpoint, here are some typical characteristics of these songs:

  • Psalm-hymns generally contain only pieces of the original psalm.  They focus on one small section, skim the main themes from the rest of the text, or merge fragments of multiple psalms.
  • Psalm-hymns are not strictly true to the form of the inspired text.
  • Often, psalm-hymns contain refrains or other repetitions of key themes.
  • In some cases, an excerpt from a psalm is used as a springboard to other themes in a psalm-hymn.  The percentage of “non-psalm” content is much higher than that of a traditional psalm setting.
  • The paraphrasing of a psalm-hymn is usually very free compared to other settings.

Below is a short list of Psalter Hymnal selections I’ve compiled that, in my evaluation, fall into this category.

  • 13, “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”
  • 14, “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving”
  • 31, “The Heavens Declare Thy Glory”
  • 36, “The Ends of All the Earth Shall Hear”
  • 37, “Amid the Thronging Worshippers”
  • 78, “Judge Me, God of My Salvation”
  • 79, “Send Out Thy Light and Thy Truth”
  • 135, “Christ Shall Have Dominion”
  • 137, “In Doubt and Temptation”
  • 180, “It Is Good to Sing Thy Praises”
  • 198, “Thou, O Lord, Art God Alone”
  • 204, “O Come, My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord”
  • 221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”
  • 265, “To Thee, O Lord, I Lift Mine Eyes”
  • 282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim”
  • 284, “Give Thanks to God, for Good is He”
  • 297, “O Happy Land, Whose Sons in Youth”
  • 304, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”
  • 483, “Come, Ye That Fear Jehovah”

Again, I realize that this discussion may seem overly technical and practically irrelevant.  Yet this topic, in my belief, is extremely important at this point in time—because the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s treatment of these issues will influence (for better or for worse) the songs we sing in worship for decades to come.

In the next installment, God willing, I’ll dig deeper into the structure of these psalm-hymns and discuss their place in the Psalter Hymnal.  For now, though, I’d like your input.  As you can see, the majority of the selections on the list of psalm-hymns are old favorites, beloved by many.  In your experience, what are the benefits of using these songs in worship, as opposed to more literal psalm settings?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of psalm-hymns, and how might they be improved?  As always, I look forward to your responses.

To be continued!

–MRK

References

  1. Denise Marcusse, “Now That’s a Good Question.”  The Outlook, January/February 2012, pp. 21, 22.
  2. The fourth Guideline for Selecting Songs, from the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee (see p. 4 of their report to Synod 2010).

Psalm 48

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God!
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.
Within her citadels God has made himself known as a fortress.

(Psalm 48:1-3, ESV)

Like an Old Testament version of the familiar hymn “The Church’s One Foundation,” Psalm 48 is full of praise for the city of God and its Maker.  Echoing themes from similar psalms, such as 46, 87, and 122, this text presents a majestic call to worship our God.  Nor does the Psalter Hymnal shortchange this psalm in its selections.  While only two settings of Psalm 48 are included, both songs solidly reflect the majesty of the original text.

88, “The Lord Is Great”

Short, accurate, and powerful, this long-meter setting presents the first eight verses of Psalm 48 in four stanzas.  Yet while the text is solid, I don’t think I’ve ever played, sung, or heard this setting (in my limited experience) in worship.  Certainly we could sing it more often!

One potential drawback of this setting is the tune, ST. JOHN’S HIGHLANDS.  Although there’s no obvious flaws with the structure of the tune, some of the intervals (such as the C to G-flat in mm. 3, 4 and 11, 12) could surprise an unsuspecting congregation.  But the tune can easily be interchanged with the familiar L.M. tune DUKE STREET instead—a melody that’s easy to sing and reinforces the triumphant message of the text.

The concept of the “praise medley” may be more common in contemporary evangelical churches than in URC congregations, but here’s an interesting twist on the idea.  What would happen if a congregation were to sing a medley of numbers 88 and 89? For number 88, the tune DUKE STREET could be used in the typical key of D; then the key could be raised to E to conclude majestically with number 89.  This might be an uplifting venture for accompanist and congregation alike!

89, “Within Thy Temple, Lord”

Many factors combine to make this psalm setting one of the most well-known in the Psalter Hymnal, as far as my experience reaches.  Taken from Psalm 48:9-14, this song is easy to appreciate and even easier to sing.  The lack of archaic language (for the most part) makes the text understandable to all, both young and old, and the concise three-stanza format makes the setting flow just like a traditional hymn.

The text and tune are perfectly paired as well.  DIADEMATA, in S.M.D. (double 6.6.8.6.), is the tune most commonly used to the words “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  The melody line rises and falls right along with the text.  All the way through the third line, the tension builds and builds, till it resolves in a grand series of cadences in the fourth.  This is especially powerful when set to the words of the third stanza:

For God as our own God
Forever will abide,
And till life’s journey close in death
Will be our faithful Guide.

Too often, this majestic tune is played in the dull keys of E-flat or D.  One of these keys may be suitable for the first two stanzas if your congregation has trouble hitting the high notes, but the brilliance of the original key of E is something that should be preserved if at all possible, at least for the final stanza.  With full organ, and maybe some broad piano accompaniment, this tune is awe-inspiring.  Singing this psalm should inspire every believer to praise the Lord of the Church, the King of “the city of our God, which God will establish forever” (Psalm 48:8, ESV).

To God be the glory!

–MRK

Getting the Psalms into Worship

If you’re from a traditional Reformed church, especially in the URC or OPC, it’s more than likely that your church government affirms the singing of psalms in services.  This is a key distinction of Reformed worship, and thus Article 39 of the URC Church Order states:

The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.  Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.

But how can the psalms be practically incorporated into church services, especially in congregations that are not familiar with psalm-singing (or that have lapsed from the practice)?  Even if your church uses a songbook that contains psalm settings, such as the Trinity Hymnal or one of the Psalter Hymnals, the congregation may be uncomfortable with these songs or unable to sing them without difficulty.  In some churches, there may even be a negative connotation associated with singing the psalms.  What can be done, then, to improve such a situation?  Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:

  • First, the impetus for psalm singing must start at the top.  Whether the role in your church falls to your pastor, your elders, your worship committee, or one of your musicians, the person or group responsible for choosing the congregational songs must make a determined effort to incorporate the psalms into worship.  While beating congregants over the head with the same psalm settings week after week will not produce the desired results, a well-planned gradual incorporation of psalms and psalm-based songs can be immensely helpful.
  • Second, the musicians at your church must work towards the cause.  Some of the psalm tunes, especially the Genevan ones, are rather difficult and require more practice on our part than usual.  Unfortunately, it is very easy to play these tunes much too slow or much too fast, leaving singers faint-headed for lack of breath.  Complicated psalm settings often require more time for practice, so you may have to request that the weekly songs be picked sooner.  But the extra practice will certainly pay off, allowing both musicians and congregation to make it through the psalm setting without trouble.
  • Third, the congregation must be willing to step outside their comfort zone for singing.  The idea of incorporating psalms into the church as “new” music seems backwards, but it is a vital part of the integrity of Reformed worship.  Hopefully, the previous two steps will make your church more appreciative of the beauty of the psalms.  Perhaps, if there are a small number of favorite psalm settings among the congregants, you can use these more familiar versions as bridges to less familiar ones.  Maybe the congregation needs to be encouraged to value the psalms more highly from the pulpit.  Whatever the case at your particular church, by God’s grace the end result of your efforts will be a renewed appreciation for the singing of his Word.

More practically, here are some suggestions for how the psalms can actually be incorporated into worship, especially relating to our roles as church musicians.

  • Start small.  It would be disastrous to sing an incredibly long or extremely difficult psalm setting, such as blue Psalter Hymnal numbers 211 or 235, as the congregation’s first attempt at psalm singing.  Instead, look for short paraphrases set to familiar tunes (a fine example is “Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving,” number 14, set to the tune of “To God Be the Glory”).  If your church is trying to transition from a more contemporary worship style to psalms and hymns (yes, this does actually happen!), you might be able to use some more modern psalm settings as bridges to more substantial selections.  But while starting small is a good idea, we should never be satisfied with a permanently half-hearted attempt to sing the psalms.
  • During your church’s service order, is a psalm read regularly?  Consider whether you might sing a matching psalm setting immediately afterwards.  Make sure, though, that the particular psalm settings picked will be suitable for the current singing ability of your congregation.
  • Incorporate psalm settings into your weekly service music.  This will attune the congregation’s ears to the melodies, especially the more unfamiliar ones, and enhance their appreciation of the psalms.  Try to pick psalms that complement the sermon theme, and be sure to make the lyrics of the songs available to the congregation if at all possible!

Do you have any additional advice to aid in bringing the psalms into worship?  Many of you, with much more experience than I have, can probably offer some helpful thoughts.  The comment field is open!

Blessings,

–MRK


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