Featured Recording: Dust to Dust

Prepare for a bold statement: If the music of the Psalter Hymnal has one flaw, it’s too much cheerfulness.

You might think, “But the psalms are cheerful!”  Yes, many of them are—and the Psalter Hymnal does a great job of setting them to exciting, uplifting tunes.  You might think of #13, “Lord, Our Lord, Thy Glorious Name”; #187, “Sing to the Lord, Sing His Praise”; or #304, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.”  These songs are all set to excellent music.

But we must remember that not all psalms are cheerful.  Some of them express fear, anger, sorrow; some are downright morose.  Sadly, I fear that the Psalter Hymnal often fails to give proper voice to these less-than-jubilant emotions.

Take, for example, number 18, “How Long Wilt Thou Forget Me”—an individual lament with a rousing tune we are instructed to sing “brightly.”  Another strange combination is found in number 91, “Dust to Dust, the Mortal Dies,” set to the eerily jig-like tune WATCHMAN.  Or think of number 158, “O God, No Longer Hold Thy Peace.”  The first stanza of the Psalter Hymnal’s versification of Psalm 83 reads as follows:

O God, no longer hold Thy peace,
No longer silent be;
Thine enemies lift up their head
To fight Thy saints and Thee.
Against Thine own, whom Thou dost love,
Their craft Thy foes employ;
They think to cut Thy people off,
Thy Church they would destroy.

If you were to listen to the tune, FOREST GREEN, on the other hand, you would think it was intended for an invigorating piece of poetry, something along the lines of “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.”  Even the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee picked up on this rather glaring conflict in their November 2012 report, which I quoted last Saturday here on URC Psalmody:

Psalm 83 is a Psalm of lament, calling for God’s swift judgment on Israel’s enemies. The tune with which it is paired in the Psalter Hymnal is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ excellent FOREST GREEN, an uplifting arrangement of a joyful English folk melody. This, however, presents a disconnect with the Psalm text. The Psalm’s dark lamenting affect needs a more fitting minor tune…

I must confess that these contradictions between text and tune tend to get under my skin—perhaps oftener than they should.  That’s why I was highly excited to discover a unique arrangement of the song “Dust to Dust, the Mortal Dies” created for the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir.  This arrangement preserves the tune, WATCHMAN, but tweaks it to convey a completely different—and much more appropriate—mood.  And thus I present to you this week’s URC Psalmody “Featured Recording.”

Right away you’ll probably notice the altered rhythm and key.  The Psalm Choir converted the meter to straight 4/4 time to remove “some of the movement” and put stanzas 1, 2, and 4 in minor.  The director commented, “I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out because it fits the words much better”—and I found myself compelled to agree wholeheartedly.

What can we take away from this recording?  Well, first is the acknowledgment of the tough fact that no psalter or hymnal is perfect because every one is manmade—including the 1912 Psalter and the beloved blue Psalter Hymnal.  Second, we must read the texts of the psalms we sing carefully, to ensure that their tunes match their diverse themes.  The good news, however, is that such discrepancies can actually be fairly easy to correct.   Taking a hint from the Psalm Choir, all we need to do is be on the lookout for creative solutions!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

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