Psalm 84: Highways to Zion

I have three recordings to share this week which fit together under the theme of Psalm 84.

I come back to this beautiful psalm again and again in seasons of anxiety and uncertainty. The text begins by extolling the courts of the Lord as the place where even a swallow can build a nest in safety for her young, and it ends by praising God as a sun and a shield who gives favor and honor. And in the middle, Psalm 84 includes the beautiful phrase: “How blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion!”

Now, some context for the three recordings.

I grew up savoring the Dutch-organ-psalm-improvisation genre, as I’ve mentioned before on this site. Not only is it hard to find this style of organ playing in America (let alone the sheet music for it!), but it is also difficult to find pipe organs that are built in a style that supports the music. What, exactly, do you need? I can only offer some amateur observations on this, but depending on the piece, you need three or four different characteristics in a pipe organ: (a) at least one manual with 8′, 4′, and 2 2/3′ flute stops, (b) a variety of mutations or Baroque solo voices such as Cornet, Sesquialtera, Crumhorn, etc., (c) mechanical key action and flexible winding to provide some fluctuation in pitch and attack, and (d) tremulants that are unified across the whole organ, or that at least synchronize with one another. If you’re an organist, you may be able to sympathize with how difficult it is to find a reasonably accessible instrument that satisfies all these criteria in the USA. (That’s why the organ at Dordt University is such a significant exception.) If you’re not, here’s the basic takeaway: unless you can find an organ with at least three of these characteristics, the music not only won’t sound authentic, it possibly won’t even sound pretty.

So, in my quest for organs in my regular haunts (Long Island and western Pennsylvania) that can handle Dutch psalm settings, I was excited to discover a 2-manual Flentrop organ about an hour north of Pittsburgh in a Presbyterian church in Slippery Rock. I visited last fall and recorded the first part of Jan Zwart’s Canonisch Voorspel (canonic prelude) on Genevan Psalm 84. It’s a good start, but the organ is really small, and without any tremulants available, the music seemed a little shapeless to my ear.

That’s why I was thankful for the chance to record the whole setting a second time earlier this month on the brand-new Peragallo pipe organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, NY. Although the key action is electronic rather than mechanical, the tremulants and mutations give this recording a much warmer and fuller sound. I hope to visit the Flentrop again, but I now have a better idea of what music it can handle.

Both of the recordings above focus on the beautiful tune of Psalm 84 which came from Calvin’s Genevan Psalter and is still familiar in many countries in Europe today. The third recording is a new tune for Psalm 84, this one from Russia. I previously posted about Konstantin Zhigulin’s work and attempted to record this same improvisation on an organ in Wilkinsburg. Turns out, the tune lends itself far better to piano. This is an excerpt from the benefit concert I recently gave for Geneva College.

Each of these very different recordings affords an opportunity to meditate on the soul-settling truths contained in Psalm 84. The Lord is a sun and a shield, our hope and our song in the night . . . how beautiful are your dwelling places, O Lord!

–MRK

2 Responses to “Psalm 84: Highways to Zion”


  1. 1 Abraham Brian Bevaart February 9, 2021 at 1:25 am

    It’s a shame that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal doesn’t include the Genevan version of Psalm 84 (as well as 138, 99, 3 and others). Certainly not an improvement over what we had in the Psalter hymnal.


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