Singing Luke’s Christmas Carols

A URC Psalmody ChristmasYesterday I introduced the three “Lukan canticles”—the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon—and reflected on their appropriateness for Christian worship.  Today I’d like to approach these same songs from a practical and musical perspective by considering their versifications in the Psalter Hymnal.

THE SONG OF MARY – 332, “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”

The text of Mary’s song can be found in Luke 1:46-55.  The Psalter Hymnal’s adaptation by Dewey Westra is exceptionally literal and accurate, without sacrificing poetic integrity.  My only quibble—and it is indeed a tiny one—is that the term “my Savior” is not used in the versification of v. 47.  Other than that, this text is pristine, and its accompanying tune, PENTECOST, is quite solid as well.

THE SONG OF ZACHARIAS – 333, “Blest Be the God of Israel”

“Blest Be the God of Israel” is another Dewey Westra gem.  The text (Luke 1:68-79) is amplified just a bit to fill this setting’s four irregular stanzas, but it is absolutely solid in beauty and Scriptural accuracy.  Its tune goes by various names, including BENEDICTUS and AN WASSERFLÜSSEN BABYLON.  Composed in the 16th century separately from the Genevan Psalter project, this is the traditional tune for the Song of Zacharias (as far as I know).  A different version is found in the 1987 gray Psalter Hymnal, but both settings are grand and fitting, even if they seem a bit difficult at first.  The structure of BENEDICTUS seems to demand strong rhythmic accompaniment; in my head I can imagine a piano and organ duet rendering this tune very nicely.  Below is a remarkable Dutch improvisation.

THE SONG OF SIMEON – 334, “Now May Thy Servant, Lord”

The text of “Now May Thy Servant, Lord” (also by Westra) isn’t quite as literal as the previous two selections; nevertheless, I believe it renders Simeon’s song in Luke 2:29-32 adequately and faithfully.  The tune, NUNC DIMITTIS, comes straight out of the Genevan Psalter, even including Claude Goudimel’s original 1564 harmonization.  Although it might be unfamiliar, the melody is quite straightforward, and with adequate accompaniment, it should be singable by just about any congregation.

I’ve heard that “Now May Thy Servant, Lord” has traditionally been used as a closing song in Dutch Reformed churches.  Honestly, this puzzles me, since Simeon’s song uses the term “depart” to refer to death (cf. Luke 2:26)—not the close of a worship service.  Still, the doxology of the second stanza is worth singing at any time, so I wouldn’t be too hasty to strike Simeon’s song from the Psalter Hymnal.  The best route, as always, is simply to sing it with conviction and understanding.

A Dutch version of the Song of Simeon is embedded below.


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