Posts Tagged 'Featured Recording'

Featured Recording: Analyzing Accompaniment

Featured Recording

Even with URC Psalmody’s 187 videos on YouTube and hundreds of other psalm-related videos from other channels, picking a Featured Recording each week can be surprisingly difficult.  Usually I try to pick a recording from which I can make a related point, or at least offer some helpful thoughts for reflection.

The candidates for today’s post included a video I just put up yesterday of my home congregation singing “Be Thou My Helper in the Strife” (Psalter Hymnal 60, from Psalm 35).  I was unconvinced; it’s a six-and-a-half-minute long video, much longer than the average congregational song, and it’s far from perfect.  For my own part, I wasn’t too confident about the way I had played it, or the merits of the recording in general. But I did start to think about some of the challenges and unique aspects of a song like this one, and came to believe it could make for a thought-provoking Featured Recording post after all.

My pastor had chosen this song from Psalm 35 to accompany a sermon on Luke 20:45-21:4—and it was a very appropriate choice, I think.  He also decided to split the psalm setting in half, having the congregation sing the first four verses before the sermon and the last four after it.  I combined the two halves on the recording for continuity, but you can still pick out the splice.

As I mentioned, the challenges inherent in this case were many.  Our second service is slightly smaller than the morning service (which isn’t large either), so the entire congregation usually sits on one side of the sanctuary.  When I’m scheduled to play, I tend to prefer the piano for this smaller group.  This gives me more musical freedom, since I’m still no master of the organ, but it also means I have to work extra hard to musically lead the congregation.  Thankfully the tune of this psalm setting is that of the familiar hymn “He Leadeth Me,” so they were able to hold the melody line without much trouble.

Then there was the interpretation of the psalm itself.  Psalm 35 is one of the most violent imprecatory songs in the entire Psalter, alternating between exultant highs and the darkest of lows.  Reflecting this in my piano playing was incredibly difficult; while I should never dominate the congregation or view the piece as a performance, I try to at least reflect the overall mood of each stanza for their benefit as I play it.  (It doesn’t help that “He Leadeth Me” is a generally uplifting tune in the bright key of D Major!)  To accomplish this I used a few techniques such as melody in octaves, changes in register, or limited harmonization tweaks.

Finally, there was the typical variety of technical obstacles to overcome.  Settling into the right tempo can be challenging, and if anything, I usually tend to speed when I’m playing piano.  The phrasing of this Psalter Hymnal arrangement also threw most of the congregation for a loop; unlike number 463, this setting includes only one fermata, at the end of the second line.   And through it all I had to rein in my urges to improvise and keep one and a half ears on the congregation.

Were my attempts at properly accompanying #60 successful?  Honestly, I’m still not sure.  At the very least I think my amount of musical communication with the congregation was deficient, as evidenced by the fact that I managed to throw them off on nearly every stanza.  I haven’t yet made up my mind whether piano or organ works better for congregational accompaniment, especially for a small group like this.  And I’m not sure what level of musical freedom I should allow myself.

So, although this Featured Recording lacks a thesis or points of application, perhaps it can still serve as a springboard for discussion.  Fellow musicians, how do you accompany your home congregation?  How do you bring out the themes of the songs you play?  What solutions could you offer to the problems I’ve mentioned above?  Your thoughts will doubtless be valuable to me and anyone else eager to learn how best to assist the church in singing praise to its Lord!


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)


Featured Recording: Hyper-Psalmody?

Featured Recording

Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Calvinism is enjoying an incredible burst in popularity.  The ubiquity of names like John Piper, Derek Thomas, and Kevin DeYoung demonstrate that, for now at least, it is cool among Christians to be “young, restless, and Reformed.”  Along with this surge of interest in the orthodox Reformed faith, there has been renewed enthusiasm for many of its key elements: the “five points” of Calvinism, the creeds and confessions, the traditions of historic worship—and, not least of all, psalm-singing.

I’ve been exploring the nooks and crannies of cyberspace for psalm-related articles and discussions since 2011, before I even started URC Psalmody.  Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places, but back then these resources seemed pitifully few and far between.  Now, almost two years later, there is almost an overabundance of articles, forums, blogs, and websites devoted to psalm-singing.

On the one hand, I’m greatly excited and inspired by this burst of enthusiasm; after all, I was the creator of one of those blogs.  Yet I can’t help but also fear that a hidden danger lies in such abundant activity.  Psalmody is becoming, or has the potential to become, more than just a healthy Biblical practice: it is becoming a fad.

DSC_0182It’s nigh impossible to measure the tone and context of the Reformed world online, but I’m troubled to see psalm-singing sometimes worn as a badge of merit, even separated from the holistic system of Biblical, Reformed worship.  I say this with extreme caution lest I make sweeping and unfounded generalizations, and I believe this phenomenon is the exception rather than the rule.  Nevertheless, may it be in the forefront of our minds that we are psalm-singers because we follow Christ—never the other way around.

Another evidence of psalmody’s increasing faddishness is the extremes to which some of its advocates are pushing it.  Not only am I finding arguments for the simple practice of psalm-singing; lately I’ve been coming across more and more writers who will settle for nothing less than a particular strain of psalm-singing in worship, arguing (or at least strongly implying) that it is more authentic, even more Biblical, than the rest.  Whether that strain is medieval chant, the Psalms of David in Metre, or even our own Psalter Hymnal, the consequences of such a view can be very dangerous to the health of the Church.  Again, I hesitate to say this, because any collection of psalms set to music has its own distinct advantages as well as disadvantages—and of course there is room for personal favorites.  Yet we must never forget that psalm settings, like Bible translations, have all passed through the hands of sinful men, and our arguments ought to be shaped accordingly.

I must mention that URC Psalmody is no more immune to these phenomena than any other blog.  As I compose articles on psalm-singing, church history, and denominational practices, I continually need to be reminded that the Lord needs none of our praises (Ps. 50), that our best deeds are still stained by sin (Is. 64:6), and that the only acceptable worship to God is that which arises out of humble gratitude for his salvation (Ps. 116).  Only with this foundation will our discussions about the particulars of worship be profitable.

Such discussions can indeed be appropriate and edifying, since we are called to grow up into spiritual maturity.  At the same time, however, I submit to you that the worship we offer our heavenly Father should be childlike in its simplicity and sincerity—not childish, but childlike.  How might that perspective change the way we interact in worship-related conversations with our brothers and sisters in the Lord?

I’d like to close this humble call to reflection with a recording that puts a smile on my face every time I watch it: a group of third-graders belting out Psalm 118.  May these words of grateful praise echo from our own hearts!

O praise the Lord, for He is good;
Let all in heaven above
And all His saints on earth proclaim
His everlasting love.
In my distress I called on God;
In grace He answered me,
Removed my bonds, enlarged my place,
From trouble set me free.

The Lord with me, I will not fear
Though human might oppose;
The Lord my Helper, I shall be
Triumphant o’er my foes.
No trust in men, or kings of men,
Can confidence afford,
But they are strong, and sure their trust,
Whose hope is in the Lord.

Salvation’s joyful song is heard
Where’er the righteous dwell;
For them God’s hand is strong to save
And doeth all things well.
I shall not die, but live and tell
The wonders of the Lord;
He has not given my soul to death,
But chastened and restored.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Featured Recording: By the Sea of Crystal

By the sea of crystal
Saints in glory stand,
Myriads in number,
Drawn from every land;
Robed in white apparel,
Washed in Jesus’ blood,
They now reign in heaven
With the Lamb of God.

Featured Recording

Blue Psalter Hymnal number 469, “By the Sea of Crystal,” is a hymn that’s brought comfort and peace to many a troubled heart over the years.  On countless occasions, especially in our Reformed churches, it has served as a response of praise, a triumphant doxology, or a song of quiet assurance at a believer’s funeral.  Its text is an adaptation of the glorious vision of the great multitude in Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’  And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

‘Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

–Revelation 7:9-17 (ESV)

Along with today’s Featured Recording, I’d like to share with you the fascinating history of the hymn “By the Sea of Crystal,” as recorded for us in the Psalter Hymnal Handbook:

Once, after hearing Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ march, William Kuipers decided to write a new hymn text that could be sung to it.  At the time the march was associated with the patriotic hymn ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’  Kuipers wrote this text late in 1932 while he was pastor of the Summer Street Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Passaic, New Jersey.  He submitted it to Henry J. Kuiper, editor of the Christian Reformed Church weekly, The Banner, and a member of the committee preparing the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, which was the first denominational collection including hymns (the CRC had previously sung only psalms in worship).

Because Elgar’s music was under copyright, The Banner held a contest to find a new tune for Kuipers’s text.  The magazine received 150 tune entries and recognized first, second, and third places, as well as six honorable mentions.  First prize of $10 was awarded to Siebolt H. Frieswyk of Whitinsville, Massachusetts, and his tune was published with Kuipers’s text in The Banner, May 5, 1933.  However, an honorable-mention winner by John Vanderhoven was chosen as the setting for this text when the new Psalter Hymnal was printed in 1934.  That association of text and tune has been continued in each of the following editions of the Psalter Hymnal.  Because it was used as a theme song for The Back to God Hour broadcasts, this hymn became well known to a whole generation of radio listeners in the 1950s and 60s.

And thus, this beloved hymn is in some sense “our own” here in the Dutch Reformed tradition.  As I researched this history, I was thrilled to find a digitized version of a single video episode of the CRC’s “Back to God Hour” from 1953, with Rev. Peter Eldersveld.  In the opening of the film you can hear the Calvin Radio Choir singing the third stanza of “By the Sea of Crystal.”  The format of the video prevents me from embedding it on the blog, but you can click here to access it.

However, today’s Featured Recording is not from sixty years ago, but from six weeks ago.  “By the Sea of Crystal” is still a beloved hymn nearly everywhere in the United Reformed Churches in North America, and this recording is particularly rousing.  Here is Grace Reformed Church of Dunnville, Ontario, singing it with all their hearts.

‘Unto God Almighty,
Sitting on the throne,
and the Lamb, victorious,
Be the praise alone.
God has wrought salvation,
He did wondrous things;
Who shall not extol Thee,
Holy King of kings?’


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Featured Recording: “Classical” Music

Featured Recording

Perhaps it’s just because I’ve never served as a delegate, but there are few church-related events I enjoy more than classis meetings.  There is something of a foretaste of heaven fellowshipping with godly men from across the eastern seaboard, watching them work through difficult issues with grace and wisdom, and witnessing their unified decisions to work for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.  Veteran readers of this blog may remember that I wrote about last year’s spring classis meeting way back here.

Carbondale URCThe classis to which my church belongs, Classis Eastern US of the United Reformed Churches in North America, most recently met at Covenant URC in Carbondale, PA, last Friday.  It included the most grueling trip of the five classis meetings I’ve attended thus far (we departed Long Island at 3:45 am and didn’t arrive back home until 10:15 pm), but it was also one of the most uplifting.  And, since four years of college will most likely prevent visits to future meetings for a while, I made sure to enjoy this one to the utmost.

For those unfamiliar with Reformed church government, the classis consists of two delegates (usually a pastor and an elder) from each of the eleven congregations along the East Coast.  These men gather to make decisions for the collective benefit of the churches—not to contradict or supersede the authority of the individual consistories, but to put our ecclesiastical unity into practice by seeking common goals.

Carbondale Stained Glass IIWCarbondale Stained Glass Ihile I could write an entire blog series outlining and evaluating the discussions and decisions that occurred in Carbondale last Friday, I’ll attempt to be brief.  It seems hardly an exaggeration to say that Classis Eastern US is exploding—in a wondrous way.  Our one currently active church plant, Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC, is in the process of organizing into a fully functioning church.  Under the leadership of Mr. Sam Perez, who will be ordained DV at the end of this month, Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship in NYC will soon begin a church plant just across the Hudson River in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Seminarian Zac Wyse is making similar efforts to start a URCNA plant on the west side of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Three churches or core groups in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia are currently looking to join our classis.  And just this week I received word that another URCNA-focused core group is forming in Danbury, Connecticut!

Along with church planting, pursuing ecumenical unity with other Reformed denominations is a vital aspect of the health of our classis.  This particular meeting included fraternal visitors from the Presbyterian Church in America, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, and the Canadian Reformed Churches.  Psalm-singing was featured prominently, and I think profitably, in discussions with the representatives from the RPCNA and the CanRC.  In addition, Mr. Joel Pearce, the Eastern representative of the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee, presented an informative update on their project.

Carbondale SanctuaryFor all the prospective church plants in our area, Classis Eastern US needs ministers—and the Lord seems to be providing those as well.  One current student at Mid-America Reformed Seminary was in attendance at the meeting; the delegates also approved the disbursement of classical funds to help pay for the tuition costs of two other prospective seminarians.  The growth of our little federation on the east coast is so great that, as one pastor has expressed it, “The ripe fruit is so abundant that it is falling out of the tree for want of enough hands to gather it up.”  All glory be to God!

One of the elements of classis that I find most encouraging is the heartfelt prayers of the delegates—at the beginning and end of the meeting, and after just about any major decision.  At this particular meeting, however, some of the most moving prayers came by way of song.  That, in fact, brings us to today’s Featured Recording.

Carbondale OrganCovenant URC in Carbondale worships in the quaintly cozy building of an old Lutheran church on Church Street in the downtown.  I’ve interspersed pictures of the sanctuary throughout this article.  The pride and joy of the building is its ancient pipe organ, which I had the privilege of playing that day.  Thankfully I had thought to bring my video camera and was able to record all of the day’s music.  Below the delegates sing the rich missionary hymn “Far and Near the Fields are Teeming,” number 405 from the blue Psalter Hymnal.  Chairman Rev. Aaron Verhoef selected this hymn to accompany his opening devotions; how perfectly it complements the desire and outlook of our churches!

URC Psalmody’s YouTube channel now includes five other recordings from that day.  During a hasty practice session during the lunch hour, I recorded organ improvisations on Psalter Hymnal numbers 55 (“How Blest is He Whose Trespass”), 165 (“Our Gracious God Has Laid His Firm Foundations”), and 172 (“My Mouth Shall Sing for Aye Thy Tender Mercies, Lord”).  After hearing Rev. William den Hollander’s address on behalf of the Canadian Reformed Churches, the delegates sang #287 (“With All My Heart Will I Record”), a setting of Psalm 138 in the Genevan style.  And this group of weary but joyful men closed their day with the singing of #490 (“Praise Ye the Lord, Ye Hosts Above”).

Organ Stops

As I reflect on this assembly, I find myself filled with gratitude to God for his faithfulness through all ages, and I am reminded of the confident words of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21, Question & Answer 54:

I believe that the Son of God,
through his Spirit and Word,
out of the entire human race,
from the beginning of the world to its end,
gathers, protects, and preserves for himself
a community chosen for eternal life
and united in true faith.
And of this community I am and always will be
a living member.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

Organ Pedals

Featured Recording: Meet the Korean-Genevan Psalter!

Featured Recording

When I think of the Genevan Psalter, I usually imagine its contents being sung in medieval French, or Dutch, or English.  I wasn’t expecting to find a set of YouTube recordings of Genevan psalms being sung in Korean.  Until now, I didn’t think the Korean language was even compatible with the structure of Western music!

Today’s Featured Recording comes from the Samyang Presbyterian Church in Seoul.  It’s a recording of the congregation singing Genevan Psalm 68, which corresponds to number 124 in our blue Psalter Hymnal.  Sadly, I don’t know much about the church, the hymnbook they’re singing from, or the uploader of the video.

Thankfully, knowing all the details isn’t necessary in order to appreciate the beauty of this recording.  Obviously the congregation is very familiar with the Genevan Psalter, because they sing this selection with confidence.  If you browse through the 128 other videos on this uploader’s channel, you’ll find psalm after psalm rendered in just the same way.  Some of the more recent uploads include the English translation of the lyrics for easier following along.

What can we conclude from the fact that a church in South Korea sings the timeless words of the psalms in their own language to a collection of tunes composed in 16th-century Switzerland?  Honestly, I’m not sure.  But if nothing else, at least this recording serves as a reminder that God’s church is, as the hymn puts it, “Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.”  I can’t help but think of the closing words of Psalm 68 as we sing them from the Psalter Hymnal:

Ye kings and kingdoms of the earth,
Extol Jehovah’s matchless worth
With psalms of adoration.
Praise Him whose glory rides on high,
Whose thunders roll through clouded sky
With mighty intonation.
Ascribe ye strength to God alone,
Whose worth in Israel is known,
For whom the heavens tremble.
O Lord, our strength, to Thee we bow,
For great and terrible art Thou
Out of Thy holy temple.


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

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