Propitius: Fantasie over Psalm 42

Here is a treat from the Dutch psalm-singing tradition to brighten the bleakness of a fall marked by crisis and uncertainty. John Propitius’s organ fantasy on the Genevan tune of Psalm 42 offers a wonderful treatment of a classic chorale tune known throughout the Western church. For many years this music was almost impossible to find in North America; it was not until this year that I was actually able to purchase a copy online. Recently I had the privilege of recording this piece on the 1962 Rudolf von Beckerath tracker organ at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

The text of the psalm, versified by Dewey Westra in 1931, offers comfort and hope in trying times:

But the Lord will send salvation,
And by day His love provide;
He shall be mine exultation,
And my song at eventide.
On His praise e’en in the night
I will ponder with delight,
And in prayer, transcending distance,
Seek the God of my existence.

O my soul, why art thou grieving;
Why disquieted in me?
Hope in God, thy faith retrieving;
He will still thy refuge be.
I shall yet through all my days
Give to Him my thankful praise;
God, who will from shame deliver,
Is my God, my Rock, forever.

A happy Thanksgiving to our American readers, and may God bless us as we hope in him.


9 Responses to “Propitius: Fantasie over Psalm 42”

  1. 1 Jacob de Raadt November 25, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    This melody is not as unknown in North America as mentioned above. The Canadian (and American) Reformed churches have sung it since the early 1950’s, be it with slightly revised words from Dewey Westra’s. The Christian Reformed churches sung the 1931 versification since the “Psalter Hymnal” was introduced in 1934. Free Reformed churches and Heritage Reformed churches adopted a 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter, and along the years, a “Chorale Section” was added with as #416 the Dewey Westra version, giving the melody the name “Thirsting” (Ps. 42:1)

    And by the way, there are seven stanzas, and what is called the “Dutch psalm-singing tradition” is more international – it started in Geneva and spread to Germany and Hungary before the Netherlands. Franz Schubert even used the melody somewhere, without giving credit to Louis Bourgois!

    • 2 William Strydhorst January 7, 2021 at 2:38 am

      I could be mistaken, but I understood Michael to mean that the Dutch Psalm tradition was hard to find in America, not this tune per se, which he acknowledges to be “known throughout the Western church”. While the Genevan melodies are well-established throughout the Calvinist churches of continental Europe (and more recently the Americas), the elaborate organ preludes and interludes along with boisterous (and historically, excruciatingly slow) singing are unique to the Netherlandish tradition so far as I can tell.

      While most Calvinist churches abolished organs from the Reformation through to the late nineteenth century or even later if not to the present day, the Dutch maintained use of them all along. Initially they were banned in worship and were played only for secular and pedagogical purposes before and after services and throughout the week, but within a century or two they were reintroduced into the services to support congregational singing—probably even before the German Lutheran churches which, like the medieval churches before, maintained for some time an antiphonal, non-accompanimental practice. Consequently, the Dutch church music tradition evolved differently than in other places and very differently from most other Calvinist traditions. Initially the Dutch organ school, as identified with Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562–1621), was particularly influential in the development of northern European organ technique, and the Germanic peoples became generally accustomed to a much more elaborate church-organ style than one might typically find elsewhere. In the Dutch churches, the flamboyant preludes and interludes continued to develop in accordance with musical trends into the increasingly lengthy and symphonic settings we hear today.

      In stark contrast to the extremely functional “play-through” followed by restrained and orderly hymn-singing—perhaps with an alternate harmony and seraphic descant on the last stanza—established across the North Sea, Dutch Psalm-singing is marked by organists improvising at length in a characteristically Romantic style, drawing on all manner of French, German, and Italian influences. It can be overblown and will give no indication of the singing tempo and perhaps not even much of the melody; when the congregation finally does join in, it can become raucous with divergent tempi, stentorian bovenstemmen, and probably one too many key changes; it can feel like the whole thing is a about to pull apart, but (at least in my biased opinion), it’s a thrilling tradition and there is not much quite like it.

      Regarding the tune of Psalm 42, non-Dutch hymnals often include it as it was transferred through the Lutheran tradition, very frequently with a version of Johannes Olearius’ hymn, “Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben” (“Comfort, comfort ye my people” as per Winkworth’s translation).

      There are also several German Baroque settings of the tune for organ that are somewhat well-known in church organist circles—notably some sets of variations (“partitas”) by J. Pachelbel and G. Böhm and a few other, likely spurious, ones by J.S. Bach. It also shows up in several of Bach’s cantatas. In nearly all these cases, and most others in Germany, the text referenced was that of a hymn by Christoph Demantius, “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele”, which speaks of comfort in facing mortal anguish and death. I personally believe (along with shockingly few scholars) that this is also the “well-known chorale” J. Brahms used as the basis of his “German Requiem” being that it is overtly referenced in the beginning of the first movement and (in an ornamented minor rendition) forms the main theme in the second. Throughout the remainder of the Requiem it is much more veiled. But all that gets to be a very long and esoteric story were I to digress further.

      I know of no Schubert works that make use of the tune; you are probably thinking of Robert Schumann. He sets the tune twice in the collection of simple piano pieces he wrote for his daughters, “Album für die Jugend”—near the beginning in simple four-part harmony (“Ein Choral”) and near the end in a more decorated keyboard style (“Figurierter Choral”). Schumann and his contemporaries would probably have had little idea of Louis Bourgeois’ involvement with the original Psalm tune since church melodies were for most of history published anonymously. Even today, his authorship is based on scholarly conjecture and cannot be known for certain.

      The title “Thirsting” is a peculiarity of the CRC Psalter Hymnal tradition. Before that, American hymnals employed numerous other fanciful titles, but most commonly “Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele” if they had a German connection. Contrariwise, Ralph Vaughan Williams called it “Psalm 42” in “The English Hymnal” (1909) but paired it with texts completely unrelated to either Psalm 42 or any of the common German hymns. Modern songbooks and hymnals have more or less settled on calling it “Genevan 42” in recognition of its earliest known source despite dubious attempts by some musicologists to connect it to an earlier Renaissance chanson.

      • 3 Michael Kearney January 7, 2021 at 8:54 am

        William, the amount of historical information in this single comment is overwhelming! I appreciate your commentary. Have you written about this at greater length elsewhere? Have you found any books that summarize the Dutch psalm-singing tradition that you could recommend?



        • 4 William Strydhorst January 8, 2021 at 12:05 am

          Hi Michael, thanks for the appreciation. Unfortunately, I find writing far too tedious to do it at great length. It was actually the the aspect of my college years that caused me ceaseless frustration.

          And I really wish I could recommend topical books on the Dutch church music tradition in particular; I am sure they exist, albeit most likely in languages I do not understand. If you find one, I would love to have a copy myself! That being said, the material I wrote out above is from no select sources but rather the cumulative product of a couple decades of experience and education, private lessons, lectures and textbooks, blogs, articles, concerts and programme notes, personal observations and casual conversations.

          The Canadian distributer for several Dutch church music publishers is only a few miles from my home, and his wife was my first organ teacher, so from childhood I was substantially playing from that repertoire as well. Psalm 42 is definitely one of the favourites among the Dutch, and I have probably played more settings of it than any other, except perhaps Psalm 134.

  2. 6 Vicky Wiegand November 27, 2020 at 7:21 am

    Michael, thank you for this Thanksgiving gift and reminder. I shall yet through all my days give to Him my thankful praise! Love Aunt V

  3. 7 Jacob de Raadt January 8, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    “Zangers en Speellieden” by D.W.L.Milo is one particularly good book, but it was published in 1946 and is surely “out of print” as well as (unfortunately) “out of sight, out of mind” by now. Milo decried the “slow singing on long notes”, which was not the initial Netherlandish way of singing theGenevan melodies, but in the early 17th century (before any organ accompaniment!) became the custom due to Datheen’s rhyming with its “unsingably” horrible prosody. The situation in the Netherlands would have been much different if e.g. Philips van Marnix’s beautiful versification had been adopted in the 1570’s – when things went wrong that were only corrected in the 1930’s!

  4. 8 Bill Chandler January 30, 2021 at 9:11 am

    Thanks for recording this. Its my favorite of all the Dutch Psalm arrangements. I place your performance up there with John’s, Leo Ravensbergen, and Gert van Hoef’s.

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