Meet Your New Psalter (Part 3)

Hymnal Line-Up

As we continue this brief journey through the proposed psalm section of the joint URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal, I’d like to spend some time today evaluating a few specific songs from its contents.  Please keep in mind that much of this material represents merely my own biases and opinions; nevertheless, I hope it can at least serve as a helpful stimulus for your own reactions and recommendations.

1A, “That Man Is Blest”

Let Psalm Proposal #1A serve as the poster-child for this collection’s many settings that exactly (or nearly) duplicate songs from our existing Psalter Hymnal.  A careful look through “That Man Is Blest” reveals only one tiny textual change, from the archaic “Yea, blest” in stz. 2 to the more contemporary “How blest.”  Everything about the tune, MEDITATION, including its Psalter Hymnal key and harmonization, has been preserved.  You’ll also notice that gender neutralization is not an issue here—references to “that man” and “his works” have remained, in keeping with many modern Bible translations including the English Standard Version.

Many other Psalter Hymnal settings have been preserved in the Psalm Proposal in their entirety and without significant alterations.  Here are a few other examples:

69ph, “Thy Loving-Kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free”

“Thy Loving-Kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free” (Psalter Hymnal #129) has long been a favorite selection from the Psalter.  Although its text is rooted in the reality of affliction, it looks upward to the Lord’s never-failing mercy.

This text is one of those “Psalter Hymnal essentials” which the Songbook Committee has wisely included in the Psalm Proposal.  However, the tune is another matter: the committee chose to replace EVENTIDE (“Abide with Me”), which appears in the PsH and has been used with this text since the 1912 Psalter, with ELLERS (“Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise,” PsH #326).

While tune choices necessarily reflect some aspects of personal taste and preference, I can point to several objective reasons why EVENTIDE remains a more faithful choice to accompany this text.  First, it is a highly familiar selection, having been used with this text for more than 100 years.  Second, it possesses musical integrity as a conventional and well-proven hymn tune (though it should be noted that ELLERS is musically sound as well).  Third, and perhaps most importantly, its associations with the text of Psalm 69 are deep and profound.  Even as distressed Christians sing, “Needy and sorrowful, to Thee I cry,” the tune calls to mind the words of “Abide with Me”—“I need Thy presence every passing hour; / What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?”  Such a connection is lost when the tune of a psalm setting is needlessly changed.

Although personal preference is certainly involved in this discussion, as a church musician I have reservations about several of the Psalm Proposal’s tune changes which neither connect properly with the text nor provide the familiarity essential to a smooth transition to a new songbook.  Here is a partial list:

To be fair, the Songbook Committee has also made several commendable tune modifications to settings in the Psalm Proposal.  For instance, 104B, “My Soul, Bless the Lord,” replaces the Psalter Hymnal’s HOUGHTON with the association-rich tune LYONS, which calls to mind the creation imagery present in the familiar hymn “O Worship the King” (PsH #315).  Interested observers may also notice the introduction of several appropriate new tunes such as NEW CITY FELLOWSHIP for 51pr, “God, Be Merciful to Me” (in addition to the familiar tune AJALON).

On the other end of the spectrum, some of what I consider to be the Psalter Hymnal’s weakest tune choices have been preserved in the Psalm Proposal.  Perhaps the most dramatic instance is 13, “How Long Will You Forget Me,” whose bouncy tune FAR OFF LANDS seems totally unsuited for all but the last stanza of this desolate lament.  Since pairing a psalm text with an appropriate tune is one of the most difficult challenges an editorial board can face, do not hesitate to share well-reasoned recommendations of this nature with the Songbook Committee.  They welcome such feedback!

19A, “The Heavens Above Declare”

Much more common than psalm settings which alter the tune of a familiar Psalter Hymnal number are selections which pair a new versification with an existing tune.  Psalm Proposal 19A, for instance, utilizes the tune of Psalter Hymnal #28 (ARTHUR’S SEAT) with new words from the Scottish collection Sing Psalms.  Here are a few other instances of this trend, which seems to help bridge the gap between the familiar PsH psalm settings and the new versions in this proposal:

128B, “Blest the Man Who Fears Jehovah”

Among the Psalm Proposal’s selections, 128B seems a bit of an enigma.  Although its lyrics have been thoroughly modernized, the Songbook Committee made the decision to keep all three uses of the obsolescent form of the Lord’s name, “Jehovah.”  In contrast, many of the Psalm Proposal’s other selections, even those in which the word “Jehovah” plays a much more significant role, have lost this familiar term.  Numbers 146 and 148pr, both formerly titled “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” now bear significantly altered lyrics and hardly recognizable titles.  In general, I am inclined to suggest that even though the name “Jehovah” is neither up-to-date nor linguistically correct, perhaps the Songbook Committee should approach its removal with a little more caution—especially for the first edition of this new Psalter Hymnal.  A few of many other instances in which “Jehovah” has been removed:

This selected survey of the Psalm Proposal’s contents is far from exhaustive, nor is it a particularly well-refined exposition.  However, if nothing else, I hope this blog post has served as a somewhat-helpful introduction to the many facets of the Psalm Proposal.  Do you have any comments or concerns to share?  What are your favorite or least favorite selections in this proposed songbook?  I’d love to know!



9 Responses to “Meet Your New Psalter (Part 3)”

  1. 1 Ian Barclay November 6, 2013 at 1:38 am

    On Psalm 1, “Yea” didn’t bother me – I suppose I am used to it, since there is quite a bit of it in the 1973? RPCNA psalter – but I thought “that man” should be “the man” since it seems like an overly archaic use of “that.” I have set it to a different tune. I’ll e-mail it to you.

    I really like Psalm 128 set to “Ulster” as in the 1973 RPCNA Psalter. I was disappointed to find it absent from their 2009 psalter. Getting to sing my favorite lines of psalms twice can’t be a bad thing.

    • 2 Michael Kearney January 10, 2014 at 4:12 pm

      Somehow I skipped over this comment until now–I got a chuckle out of your comment about singing the last line of ULSTER twice. We use that tune for Psalm 132, “Gracious Lord, Remember David,” out of the Psalter Hymnal, and I love it for just the same reason. 🙂

  2. 3 Pamela Compton November 8, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Michael — Thanks for your continued posts on the PH. I’m enjoying them!

    In this particular post, I’m not sure you made an “objective” case regarding the EVENTIDE/ELLERS debate.

    Regarding your reason #1: You point out that EVENTIDE has been used with Ps. 69 for a very long time in the URCNA (and CRC), But you didn’t acknowledge that ELLERS has also been used a very long time by the Presbyterians (over 50 years).

    Regarding your reason #2: You made the point (and it’s true) that both tunes are musically sound. So how does this further your argument that EVENTIDE is the better choice?

    Regarding your reason #3: You say that the associations between EVENTIDE and Ps. 69 are deep and profound. Well, for the Presbyterians, the associations between ELLERS and Ps. 69 are also deep and profound.

    I think a better route to objectively choosing a marriage of tune and text is to deeply examine the music itself. Once we know the music (and I mean REALLY know the music — a thorough analysis of the chord progressions, the melodic contour, the harmonic rhythm, etc….) we can begin to see how the Psalm text is either helped or hindered by the music.

    Here are some observations, to get us thinking in more objective categories:

    1. Notice the nearly identical melodic rhythm of EVENTIDE and ELLERS: only two measures (14 and 15) are different. Fascinating! Now examine the words that will be sung in bars 14 and 15. Which rhythm better suits those particular words?

    2. Notice the melodic range: EVENTIDE spans a M6, ELLERS covers an octave. Where are the high points of each tune? And what words fall on those high pitches? Do they match?

    3. Notice the harmony at the end of phrase three. In EVENTIDE phrase three ends in f minor. Does this suit the text there? Or would major be better there, as in ELLERS?

    4. Notice how different phrase one is in each tune. The end of phrase one in ELLERS climbs up the scale, while the end of phrase one in EVENTIDE descends the scale. Which movement, upward or downward, better suits the text sung at that spot?

    I believe this type of detailed analysis about the music itself will help lead us toward more objective answers to our questions about text/tune marriages.

    Pamela Compton

    • 4 Michael Kearney November 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm

      Mrs. Compton,

      Thanks for your (as always!) thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

      Actually, I had prepared a longer analysis of “Thy Loving-kindness, Lord, is Good and Free,” but cut the length down for this blog post to keep its size manageable. I’ll try to draw a few bullet points out of that analysis, however.

      I heartily agree with you that both EVENTIDE and ELLERS are appropriate and beautiful tunes for this portion of Psalm 69, and that whatever objectivity I may have tried to present in my points was overshadowed to some extent from my perspective as a URC member who grew up with the blue Psalter Hymnal. However, here are some thoughts that came to mind as I read your analysis:

      • My question was not which of the two tunes, EVENTIDE and ELLERS, was better for Psalm 69, but specifically which one is better for us with our background in the URC.
      • Response to response to point #1: Not only has EVENTIDE been used with this setting for almost twice as long as ELLERS (speaking strictly numerically), it also has the advantage of being the original tune used when “Thy Loving-kindness, Lord” was created (cf. 1912 Psalter #187).
      • This is mostly speculation, but the fact that the 1912 Psalter contains only this section of Psalm 69 in meter makes me wonder if its creators formed this paraphrase specifically for the tune EVENTIDE, perhaps even as an intentional answer to the hymn “Abide with Me.” Notice similar trends in 1912 Psalter #3 (paralleling “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”), #128 (paralleling “A Mighty Fortress”), and #266 (paralleling “Holy! Holy! Holy”). I believe there is something to be said for the connotations of the original text-tune combination. Nor can I find any similar kind of textual connection with the words of “Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise.”
      • Further response to response to point #1: I think the placement of the rhythm on the words is to some extent subjective as well. For instance, I honestly tend to prefer the emphasis created by the tune EVENTIDE above ELLERS: “will not despise” in v. 3 vs. “distress the Lord,” and “with Him shall live” in v. 4 vs. “that love His Name.” Is personal preference involved here? More than likely.
      • Response to response to point #2: I love how ELLERS beautifully fits the shape of the first stanza’s text, but I’m not sure that suitability carries over into the following verses. There is a sense of resolution, even triumph, at the end of EVENTIDE which, to my ear at least, is painfully lacking in ELLERS. And the last line of each stanza in “Thy Loving-Kindness” is incredibly powerful: “My thankful song Thy mercy shall proclaim,” “Those in distress the Lord will not despise,” “And they that love His Name with Him shall live.” Regarding the fourth stanza, ELLERS’s leap of a fifth down at the beginning of the third line seems terribly awkward on the word “Salvation,” as opposed to the smooth flow of EVENTIDE’s unison.
      • Response to response to point #3: Again I am inclined to suggest that this is a more subjective area than either of us may have taken into account. My opinion: EVENTIDE’s minor cadence at the end of the third line seems very well suited for the words lined up with it in the first and third stanzas (“distress” and “cries”), but even in the fourth stanza this f-minor chord pulls one through with incredible power and emotion to the fulfilling conclusion of the tune. (Also, I tend to think the minor chord opening the last line of ELLERS is particularly unsuited for the themes of stzs. 2-4.)
      • Response to response to point #4: EVENTIDE provides stability in its first line by returning to the opening I chord in root position on the third, and this closed-position kind of cadence carries over nicely into the next line, rather than breaking it up with a hop down a major third as ELLERS does.

      Again, let me emphasize that this is by no means an ultimatum kind of argument (if I had any illusions of complete objectivity, I have since thrown them out the window). However, I do hope that the analysis I’ve provided is at least as thorough and deep as yours, even if it only shows that we all tend to subconsciously view our own preferred tunes in the best light.

      Then again, for whatever it’s worth, one of us has a doctorate in choral music, and it’s not me. 🙂

      Thanks again so much for taking time to respond to this post.


      • 5 Pamela Compton November 8, 2013 at 11:03 pm

        Your analysis is fantastic, Michael, and has given me even more to ponder — thank you! My whole point is that THIS is the kind of work that needs to be done in the PH committee’s decision-making process. It is a careful, intelligent, educated, thorough examination of tune and text that will lead to the best choices for BOTH federations.

        (Incidentally, I also favor EVENTIDE for Ps. 69.) 🙂

  3. 8 Norm V. November 12, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    It’s interesting that you (MK) have expressed a positive view of hymn-to-psalm tune associations.
    ex. “it calls to mind the creation imagery present in the familiar hymn”

    I tend to have a cautious view of using well-known hymn tunes for psalms of poignancy and expression. Why? Whenever we sing a psalm that is set to a familiar hymn tune, I find it is more difficult to concentrate on the words of the psalm and to see them as distinct from the “original” hymn. It feels like the psalm got the second-hand version of the well-known hymn tune.

    In selecting songs for worship, I’ve actually swapped out EVENTIDE in favour of ELLERS in an effort to highlight the text of the psalm (or to avoid blurring the two songs together).

    • 9 Michael Kearney November 13, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Rev. VEP, I suppose that’s a very possible way to look at it. One of the unique features of Calvin’s Genevan Psalter was the creation of entirely new tunes for each psalm, which helped congregations build up strong psalm-to-tune connections as they learned them.

      Setting concrete guidelines for the use of hymn tunes in a psalter would be a difficult task. I know that I personally have different reactions to different hymn tunes in a psalm-singing context; I can’t sing Psalm 2 to the tune of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with a straight face, even though that’s the way it’s presented in the 1912 Psalter and the red 1934 CRC Psalter Hymnal. However, I personally like using the tune of “America, the Beautiful” for Psalm 46 because, whereas the hymn says, “Our nation is our refuge,” the psalm says, “Our God is our refuge even if the nations are annihilated.” I know many fellow psalm-singers who don’t share that preference.

      Would it be a good idea, do you think, to take into consideration factors such as the familiarity of the original hymn, the Scriptural accuracy of the original hymn, and its thematic connections with the psalm under consideration? Perhaps that would help in making decisions for specific psalms–though doubtless those decisions will still reflect the personal preferences of the decider.

      Thanks for these comments.


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