Posts Tagged 'Genevan Psalter'

Prelude and Fugue on Psalm 65

Spring has arrived, and here in the northeastern United States we are entering a wonderful season of longer days and long-awaited sunshine. The birds start singing around 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. and don’t stop until sunset or later. There are signs of new life all around, and for a coronavirus-weary world, that brings new sources of hope and energy.

What I’ve just described is a scene I often associate with Psalm 65, which says, “You make the going out of the morning and evening to shout for joy” (v. 8 ESV). Psalm 65 is a song of thanksgiving, praising God as the hearer of prayers (vv. 1-2), the forgiver of sins (vv. 3-4), and the creator and preserver of the world and those who dwell in it (vv. 5-13). From beginning to end, this psalm is a long crescendo. It begins in the first person singular (“When iniquities prevail against me”) but quickly moves to the plural (“you atone for our transgressions”). As he views creation and humanity, the psalmist incorporates the voices of everything around him into an ensemble of praise. All of creation and all of time sing an unbroken song of thanksgiving to the ruler of all.

I’ve tried to capture this spirit of Psalm 65 in a new organ composition on the Genevan tune. Although not a lot of settings from the Genevan Psalter made it into either of them, both the blue Psalter Hymnal and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal include the Genevan version of Psalm 65 (#116, “Forth from Thy courts, Thy sacred dwelling” in the blue Psalter Hymnal and #65B, “Praise waits for you, O God, in Zion” in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal).

In the original Genevan Psalter, the tune of Psalm 65 was also used for Psalm 72, so it’s possible to find organ literature on the same tune identified with either psalm. But I was thinking specifically of Psalm 65 here, particularly because of the imagery of a river. On one hand, there is the constant presence of sin that we carry with us as fallen people in a fallen world. With a bit of poetic liberty, the versification of the blue Psalter Hymnal calls it “a mighty stream of foul transgression.” But this is contrasted with the “river of God” mentioned in verse 9. This river provides the water of life which not only creates and sustains the physical world but also brings new spiritual birth and cleanses from sin.

The river comes into this arrangement of Psalm 65 in the fugue section. After a prelude that includes the complete statement of the chorale in a French overture style, the fugue quickly establishes a pattern of descending eighth notes following from the first phrase of the melody which continues and builds to the end of the piece. I included excerpts of the chorale throughout the fugue section which counterpoint with that initial subject and the pattern of eighth notes. Along the way, to highlight the “crescendo” aspect of the psalm I mentioned before, all the stops of the organ are gradually added (which is clunky work on a mechanical organ without a registrant!), leading to a dramatic final statement of the fugue subject in the pedals and driving into a concluding complete statement of the chorale with full organ.

I might use this as an extended prelude or postlude for a Thanksgiving service or another special occasion of praise. Or I might never use it liturgically–but in either case, it was a worthwhile musical exercise in seeking to capture the “shout of joy” communicated by all creation in praise to God.

–MRK

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

A Genevan Psalm Returns to Long Island

Recently I visited St. John’s Episcopal Church in the hamlet of Oakdale on Long Island’s south shore. This little congregation has the distinction of being the second oldest church in Suffolk County, and the present building predates the American Revolution. It was an interesting visit, not only because of the church’s age, but because of the likelihood that some of the earliest Dutch settlers to West Sayville, c. 1850, first worshiped with the Episcopalians in Oakdale before starting their own Reformed church in West Sayville in 1866.

In the back of the church is a tiny pipe organ built by George Jardine of New York, also around 1850. With one manual and three stops, an instrument like that doesn’t have a lot of versatility. But its tone is sweet and clear, perfect for the size of the sanctuary in which it is located. And it seemed fitting to play a Genevan tune, since it was the Dutch who brought the Genevan psalm tunes with them to New York.

The Genevan tune of Psalm 12 is included in the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. This psalm is a cry of outrage and distress to a God of justice in the midst of a crooked and troubled world. The final stanza is a fitting refrain for the church today:

O LORD, you will preserve your people always,
and from this evil age keep us secure;
on ev’ry side the wicked strut and swagger,
as people honor all that is impure.

–MRK

Psalm 25: The Paths of the Lord

This month marks nine years (!) since my first attempts as an over-eager teenager to spark some discussions about the Psalms and church music on this blog. The Lord has ordained a series of events that have shaped my life into something much different than I could have imagined nine years ago. And that’s true on a global scale as well; could you have imagined nine years ago that we would be where we are today, politically and socially?

Certainly we are living at some kind of a crossroads in the history of the West, although it is not yet clear exactly what that crossroads may be. Crossroads can be places of great anxiety. In the past existential crises of my little life, I have often turned to the words of Psalm 25 for comfort. I’ve even written about Psalm 25 before on this site. Recently, Psalm 25 popped back into my head, this time through a particularly tranquil setting of the Genevan tune arranged by Dutch organist Willem Hendrik Zwart. Earlier this week I recorded this fantasy on a beautiful new pipe organ in Sayville, not far from the West Sayville URC.

Psalm 25 is a song about the paths of the Lord. Mercifully, it promises that he “instructs sinners in the way” (v. 8 ESV). Past failures and mistakes cannot separate the children of God from loving counsel and admonition in the way of Christ. “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (v. 10). Although we look at the world and the church and see great calamities and distress, we also look to a covenant-keeping God who will never change, and because he will never change, we will not be consumed. So the psalm concludes with a prayer of faith: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles” (v. 22).

The Trinity Psalter Hymnal includes a Genevan setting of Psalm 25 in its Selection A, “LORD, to You My Soul Is Lifted.” An earlier translation can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal, number 43. As you listen, reflect on the words of Psalm 25, either from one of these psalters or from the Scriptures, and allow the comfort and wise counsel of the Lord to point the way forward for you into 2021.

–MRK

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.

–MRK


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