Tunes (Part 1)

It seems like this is unofficially Reformed Presbyterian week here on URC Psalmody, thanks to James’s excellent articles on the RPCNA and their songbooks (and to the publicity generously provided by Dr. Clark and a number of other readers).  And I’m extremely grateful for these circumstances, because I’ve long desired to learn more about our Reformed Presbyterian brothers and sisters.

I insert this preface because today’s post has a good deal of relation to many of our topics of discussion over the past few days, most notably the various views on psalm-singing in the Christian church.  Yet it also introduces one of the broadest topics we’ve covered to date here on URC Psalmody, which can be summarized in a single word: tunes.

Although the tunes to which we sing the psalms are often taken for granted, they are crucial to the practice of psalm-singing—or any vocal music, for that matter.  That seems like an obvious statement, but stop long enough to think about it.  When was the last time you pondered the music of a particular psalm setting sung on a Sunday morning?  Did you study its melody, harmony, and rhythm to discover how the music interacted with its textual counterpart?  Did you play around with alternate harmonizations or test a different tune?  Though we may not often realize it, music is, put simply, the salt of our psalter.  Subtle yet permeating, it profoundly affects the significance of the text as well as the impact on its singers.

Music is one of the most powerful phenomena known to man.  If you’ve ever tried to watch a movie with the sound off, you know this to be true.  And if music is important to the storyline of a movie, how much more in the worship of our God!  Since one of the goals of URC Psalmody is to promote a greater awareness of the union between text and music in our psalms and hymns, I’d like to devote at least a few blog posts to discussing the tunes of church music in greater-than-usual depth.  Thus, our first topic: The original tunes of the Hebrew psalms.

One particularly striking feature of the book of Psalms is its repeated directions regarding the music used to accompany it.  The superscription of Psalm 6 (ESV) reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith.  A Psalm of David.”  Psalm 8 was to be sung “according to The Gittith,” and Psalm 9 to “Muth-Laben.”  Psalms 45, 69, and 80 were to be sung “according to Lilies.”  Another tune, “Do Not Destroy,” was to be used with Psalms 57-59 and 75.  The music used to accompany the psalms was an integral part of Old Testament worship, but in God’s all-wise plan, none of these tunes have survived.

Or have they?  In the mid-1900s, a scholar by the name of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura made the revolutionary claim that the music of the Hebrew psalms had not been lost.  Rather, she said, the directions for musical performance were included within the texts of the psalms themselves, in a complicated system of notation known as the te’amim or the Tiberian Masoretic Accents.  Haïk-Vantoura reconstructed the music of the psalms by attempting to decipher these hidden directions.  Although her work is hypothetical at best, given the multitude of uncertainties about how the psalms were actually utilized in Israelite worship, one thing can’t be denied.  As Dr. Paul Jones says,

An interesting and validating aspect of Haïk-Vantoura’s work is that when applied to biblical texts it always yields coherent music, well suited to the mood of the words it accompanies.

(“What Psalm Ascriptions Tell Us,” Chapter 11, Singing and Making Music, p. 84)

Admittedly skeptical of this radical new method of deciphering the psalms, I browsed around YouTube to see if I could find recordings of Haïk-Vantoura’s work.  They do exist!  As I listened to her version of Psalm 148, I was profoundly moved.  The melody was simple, yet beautiful even to Western ears.  And it matched the text unbelievably well!

Now granted, Haïk-Vantoura added her own harmonizations to these psalm arrangements, which probably accounts for their surprising similarity to Western music.  But while the system is based largely on theory rather than actual practice, I must affirm that its results are surprising.

Studying these matters leaves me with a few extremely hard questions—and to take advantage of the conversational aspect of URC Psalmody, I’d like to ask for your input on each of them.

Questions for discussion:

  • After listening to some of Haïk-Vantoura’s psalm reconstructions, do you feel that the music is well-suited to the accompanying texts?  Do you think this system could be valid and accurate?
  • How important are the original Hebrew tunes to the psalms?  If we had access to them, should we use them as the basis for our own psalm-singing?  Or is music relative to the culture in which it is created, meaning that we should use distinctly Western (American/European) music in our worship?
  • Were the superscriptions of the psalms inspired by God?  How should this shape our understanding of the significance of music?
  • Was the original music of the psalms itself divinely inspired?  If so, how do we explain the apparent loss of this crucial part of the songs of God’s people?

Without a doubt, these are very difficult—possibly even unanswerable—questions.  Nevertheless, I hope you’ll take the time to offer a few of your own thoughts.  Even if we can’t resolve these questions, I’m confident that this discussion will enhance our collective appreciation of the immense value of music in worship.


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