Posts Tagged 'Scriptural Accuracy'



Meet Your New Psalter (Part 2)

Songbook Committee Report Excerpt

(Update, 11/3/2014: A fuller analysis and more accurate statistics on the Psalm Proposal appear in my article “The Outlook on the Psalm Proposal,” in The Outlook, Sept./Oct. 2014, vol. LXIV, no. 5., published by Reformed Fellowship.)

Readers, thank you for your hearty response to yesterday’s post.  Not even a few hours had gone by since publishing when comments, emails, and Facebook messages started to pour in with helpful and supportive reactions to the Psalm Proposal from across our federation.

I’d like to follow up on yesterday’s post by exploring some specifications and statistics of the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal.  Due to my lack of time for detailed study, these figures are rough and possibly a little out-of-date (since the Psalm Proposal is undergoing continual revision).  Nevertheless, for the purposes of a general overview, I hope they will suffice.  As always, please comment or contact me to provide corrections.

For much of the following data I am indebted to the ever-helpful URC Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen, and to Rev. John Bouwers and the congregation of Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church (URCNA) in Jordan, Ontario.  Information on the Reformed Presbyterian psalters comes from a Geneva professor and the former director of my college choir, Dr. Robert Copeland.  See his essay “The Experience of Singing the Psalms” in the front matter of The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2009), xvi-xvii.

Size and scope

Currently the Psalm Proposal contains about 273 selections, a very respectable number compared to the existing Psalter Hymnal’s 310.  The distribution of psalm settings is slightly more balanced in the proposal than in the PsH, with most psalms receiving one to three versifications as opposed to the blue book’s pattern of giving “favorite” psalms four or five settings at the expense of less frequently sung psalms.  Besides the 22 songs assigned to Psalm 119, the greatest number of selections for a particular psalm is only four (for both Psalms 22 and 150).  Also, the Psalm Proposal utilizes the Reformed Presbyterian method of numbering, which adds a letter suffix to the number of each psalm (103A, 103B, &c.) rather than a sequential system.  Less literal arrangements are marked with the words “Partial” or “Paraphrase.”

Where the blue Psalter Hymnal fits in

Psalm Proposal Pie

URC members hoping to see a mere revision of the blue Psalter Hymnal may be unprepared for the extent of the Songbook Committee’s work.  Only about 45% of the proposed selections utilize psalm tunes from the blue book, and only 35% or so preserve the original tune for the equivalent psalm section in the PsH.  (Another 15% of the proposal’s tunes can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal’s hymn section.)  For the texts, conducting an accurate survey is much more time-consuming, but I think it’s safe to say that relatively few selections maintain the original wording of the Psalter Hymnal; for most songs the committee has either modernized the language of the 1912 Psalter or taken up entirely different (though faithful) versifications.

Examples: 1A, 32A, 51ph, 103ph

(Note that in order to access these links you will need the username and password for the digital Psalm Proposal, available by contacting the Songbook Committee chairman at derrickvandermeulen@gmail.com.)

Not burning the wooden shoes

The Psalm Proposal will offer United Reformed congregations a chance to preserve the rich psalm-singing heritage handed down to them from the Dutch Reformed tradition which utilized the 1551 Genevan Psalter.  At a glance I see no less than 23 Genevan tunes listed in the index of the proposal, of which at least four do not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  By and large the texts for these settings are derived from the Canadian Reformed Churches’ ongoing work on their own Book of Praise.

Examples: 42A, 51A, 98B

Scottish psalmody: welcome (back?)

ABERYSTWYTH, LLANGLOFFAN, TARWATHIE, LLEF—whence are all these extraordinary tune names?  One of the biggest sectors of the Psalm Proposal’s contents brings in selections of Scottish origin (along with their distinctly Anglo-Saxon tune names) from the Reformed Presbyterian Book of Psalms for Singing and more recent Book of Psalms for Worship.  Both songbooks have their origins not in the continental Genevan Psalter, but in the Scottish Psalter of 1650.

psalmodyflowchartA bit of historical background may be helpful here.  Recall that the CRC’s red and blue Psalter Hymnals derived their psalm settings almost exclusively from the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter, which the joint work of several Reformed and Presbyterian denominations (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post).  Although the Reformed Presbyterian Church initially contributed to the effort, this denomination objected to the United Presbyterians’ prioritization of good poetry over Scriptural accuracy, eventually withdrawing from the project to produce its own revision of the 1650 Scottish Psalter.  Further revisions of this psalter were made in 1929 and 1950, leading to the RPCNA’s production of the Book of Psalms for Singing in 1973 and the Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009.  The dichotomy between the poetic approach of the 1912 Psalter and the literal stance of the Book of Psalms for Singing / Worship is still evident today if one compares Christian Reformed psalm settings with Reformed Presbyterian versifications.

All of this is to say that the Songbook Committee’s decision to prioritize RP settings over our more familiar ones could be interpreted in one of two ways: unfaithfulness to our own psalm-singing heritage, or a much-needed return to the Scriptural accuracy upheld in the descendants of the Scottish Psalter.

Examples: 2046A, 98A

The fruits of our own labor

One of the most exciting marks of a new psalm or hymn collection is the presence of good songs that have arisen in recent years from within our federation itself.  Songbook Committee members have contributed their own talents to the Psalm Proposal by composing new tunes, creating new versifications, and writing new verses to finish formerly incomplete psalm settings.  Several selections from the proposal are mostly or entirely the work of URCNA members.

Examples: 36pr

As this brief exploration demonstrates, the Psalm Proposal draws from an incredible diversity of sources.  Of all the complaints that could be leveled against its contents, limited scope is not one of them.  However, there are many other considerations involved in the lengthy process of transitioning to a new Psalter Hymnal.

Lord willing, we’ll continue tomorrow by examining the strengths and weaknesses of particular Psalm Proposal selections.  Your comments, as always, are appreciated.

–MRK

Meet Your New Psalter (Part 1)

Hymnal Line-Up“So what’s happening with that Psalter Hymnal project, anyway?”

This week we pause URC Psalmody’s “regular programming” (if it can even be called that) to attempt to answer this question.  It’s been so long since the topic of the proposed URC/OPC Psalter-Hymnal has come up that even its dedicated page on this blog has grown out-of-date.  To minimize any misunderstandings regarding this multi-faceted topic, I’d like to start slowly—bear with me.

As always, a little background is helpful.  You may recall that the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) are currently engaged in a joint endeavor to produce a songbook containing complete metrical versions of all 150 psalms and a set of appropriate hymns.  Incorporating the separate mandates to produce a Psalter-Hymnal adopted by the URCNA in 1999 and by the OPC in 2006, this project represents what could become an historic manifestation of interdenominational unity.  Such unity in producing a songbook is probably unsurpassed since the creation of the CRC Psalter Hymnal’s predecessor, the 1912 Psalter, as a result of the joint work of several denominations: the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Church in America, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Presbyterian Church.  Today’s joint Psalter-Hymnal project is what OPC minister Rev. Alan Strange called “the ecumenical opportunity of a generation.”

Although unity is a beautiful thing, it also presents challenges in learning to understand each other’s differences—and music, of all topics, is most likely to excite heated debate.  Think about it: only ecclesiastically-minded members (may I call us “church nerds”?) care about the differences between the URCNA and the OPC with regard to synodical authority, for example, or the roles of office-bearers.  Yet the songbook that each denomination uses sits in the rack behind every pew, affecting just about every member of the church on a weekly basis.  And while extensive experience in the area of church music is rare, everyone has an opinion on it.

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

Even before the merger with the OPC’s efforts in 2012, the URC’s Hymn Proposal, released in the summer of 2010, generated heated and extensive controversy.  It was not long before the blogosphere erupted with a myriad of articles questioning the integrity of the collection, or even challenging the motives of the Songbook Committee itself.  As a rather opinionated fifteen-year-old with what I considered sufficient knowledge of Reformed hymnody, I began to collect my own thoughts and concerns regarding the Hymn Proposal, ultimately submitting an 88-page report to my own consistory.  Although my approach was almost certainly over-zealous, many other URC members shared my worries.  By the time Synod 2012 convened, its agenda had amassed five overtures and one appeal regarding the proposed Psalter Hymnal from two classes and one consistory.

The chief result of the musical deliberations at Synod 2012 was that the URCNA approved the proposal to merge efforts with the OPC.  First the URC’s Songbook Committee would work together with the OPC’s committee to adapt the psalm section the OPC had already almost completed; then the Hymn Proposal would be revisited.  Cognizant of the significant concerns expressed via the overtures to Synod 2012, Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen assured members in an October 2012 report that “this final hymn collection submitted to synod will be quite different from the Hymn Proposal previously distributed.”  In November 2012, reporting on their progress in compiling a Psalm Proposal, the Committee noted that it was “especially sensitive to maintain important continuity with the blue Psalter Hymnal.”  This desire to remain faithful to our churches’ rich heritage of psalmody and hymnody has remained evident in all of the Songbook Committee’s most recent communications to the churches.

This brief historical rundown brings us to the current status of the project.  After the OPC’s General Assembly met in June of 2013, the two Songbook Committees released a digital version of the complete Psalm Proposal at a website specifically created for the purpose, PsalterHymnal.org.  Shortly thereafter, the URC Songbook Committee sent a letter to the consistories of all United Reformed congregations announcing the availability of this website for any interested church members.

This is an excellent step forward, but I have some concerns as well.

While PsalterHymnal.org provides an email address to which comments and concerns can be sent (comments@psalterhymnal.org), the URC committee has not established any formal feedback process like the one utilized in the time of the Hymn Proposal.  Although this prevents reams of musically technical recommendations from being awkwardly assigned to synod’s deliberation, I fear that it has also inhibited much of the conversation that is not only healthy but necessary for the quality of the finished product.

And the period for feedback expires December 31st, 2013.

Noting that the URC-related social circles I’ve been observing have remained surprisingly quiet with regard to the proposed Psalter-Hymnal over the past few months, I emailed Rev. Vander Meulen to inquire how the feedback process was going.  His reply echoed my own concerns: “We’ve received some responses, but not a lot.  With you, I’m a bit concerned that the word is not getting out.”

Although the Songbook Committee is competent to provide us with a solid and Biblically-sound book of praise, the very nature of their work tends to obscure the needs and desires of the average congregation.  Silence from the churches forces the committee’s members to act without vital feedback on the Psalm Proposal—feedback, I should add, which they themselves have requested.

United Presbyterian PsaltersWith less than ten weeks left in which to submit comments regarding the Psalm Proposal, our congregations’ review process should have started months ago.  Needless to say, all of us have busy lives and plentiful commitments.  As a busy college student with civil engineering as a stated major, my schedule isn’t exactly free either.  But if you struggle to find motivation to carefully consider this collection of songs, remember that the decisions made now will affect the musical heritage of our churches ten, twenty, maybe fifty years from now—profoundly, if not irrevocably.

If the hymns under consideration for our churches’ use were an important matter, how much more critical are the psalms!  We have entrusted this committee of fallible men and women to provide us with accurate and beautiful versifications of God’s Word itself, the singing of which is a divinely-required ordinance in worship.  If we fail to interact with the Songbook Committee’s work now, not only do we insult the hard labor they have been faithfully been carrying out for nearly fifteen years, we also gravely disservice future generations.

Over the next week I’ll be attempting to evaluate various aspects of the Psalm Proposal, as I have time.  If you’d like to join in this review, I’d encourage you to contact Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Vander Meulen at derrickvandermeulen@gmail.com for the username and password required to access the digital version of the Psalm Proposal at PsalterHymnal.org.  The collection is password-protected merely to prevent abuse of the sheet music, for which copyright permissions have not yet been secured.  Feel free to leave your own comments here, as always; I’d love to see URC Psalmody fulfill its intended role as a discussion forum rather than a lecture podium.

Readers, we have the opportunity to make our federation’s new songbook the finest it can possibly be, for God’s glory.  With grace, humility, and plenty of prayer, let’s give it our best effort.

–MRK

URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal Update

Hymnological Math

Our local news station likes to pat itself on the back by calling viewers’ attention over and over to the fact that they saw a particular story “First on 12.”  Sometimes it’s a particularly boring piece of news that no other station could be expected to cover.  Then they’ll brag that it’s a story you’ll see “Only on 12.”

The update I’d like to share with you today is neither mundane enough to be something you’ll read “Only on URC Psalmody,” nor recent enough to be something you’ll read “First on URC Psalmody.”  Had I been unencumbered with a host of other obligations, maybe this post would have gone up a little earlier.  Nevertheless, here it is: a summary of the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee’s latest report.

Read the entire press release here.

If you’re not familiar with the URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal project, this page provides some helpful background information.  As of last November (the date of their last report), the committee had tentatively chosen settings for all 150 psalms.  This report of their March 5-6 meeting includes a substantial amount of overlap, but also some new information.

By now the committees have completed a provisional “Psalm Proposal,” which includes one full metrical version of each psalm (except for Psalm 119, which is divided into its twenty-two large stanzas).  “In all, there are about 235 complete metrical Psalm songs included in the proposal. In addition to these metrical versions, there are about 40 partial or paraphrase Psalm songs that have been agreed upon.  Most of these partial or paraphrased Psalms are from the blue Psalter Hymnal (PH), as a fair percentage of selections in the PH are either partial or paraphrased Psalms.”  This seems to indicate that the Psalm Proposal will be only slightly smaller than the psalm section of the blue Psalter Hymnal (with 310 psalm-songs), and it is my guess that the evaluation process will tend to add more selections to the list.

The URCNA committee reports:

Sensitive to issues of continuity and familiarity, our committees have retained many full metrical or partial/paraphrase selections from the PH in several ways: either as is, or with updated words (e.g. ‘thee’ to ‘you’), or with fuller or more scripturally accurate texts (e.g. a partial text in the PH has been converted into a complete metrical version).

One of the most controversial characteristics of the Hymn Proposal was its extensive modernization of the lyrics of the hymns; the committees will have to address this issue as they tweak the Psalm Proposal as well.  Whatever course of action they decide upon, there are bound to be strong opinions throughout our churches.  Thus, we ought to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for the committee members, especially as they try to sort out these sticky matters.  May the discussions and the final decision be to his glory.

Pocket Psalter HymnalI am very excited about the committee’s decision to expand some partial texts from the Psalter Hymnal into full ones.  One example they give is Psalter Hymnal #282, “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim.”  In the blue book this setting only treats vv. 1-7 and 19-21, but the report notes that it has been converted into a full versification in the Psalm Proposal.  Recently I even experimented with completing a setting of Psalm 63 in a similar fashion.  To me, this seems to be an excellent way to preserve the familiarity and heritage of our psalter, while also improving its quality and Scriptural accuracy.

Once again the committee emphasizes, “By retaining many well-known tunes as well as adding some excellent new ones, we hope that our churches will be able to robustly sing all of the Psalms in the collection.”

Now, what of the future?  It has taken the committees nearly two years to complete the Psalm Proposal; beginning this summer, they plan to begin work on a “new and improved” Hymn Proposal.  Meanwhile, the Psalm Proposal is expected to be released online sometime after the OPC’s General Assembly in early June of this year.  “There will be an online system for churches from both of our communions to submit feedback.  After considering this feedback, we hope to have the Psalm Proposal ready for recommendation in 2014 to both the URCNA Synod and the OPC General Assembly.”  Work will continue on the Hymn Proposal, which the committees hope to present to synod and the General Assembly in 2016.  “Upon approval, the final editing, publishing, and printing of the entire songbook would then commence in the Fall of 2016.”

I’ll be honest: I remain on the edge of my seat as I wait to see what’s inside the Psalm Proposal.  Collecting beautiful, singable, familiar, and (above all) Scripturally accurate psalm settings into a reasonably-sized psalter is an incredibly arduous task.  There’s no doubt there will be disagreement amongst the members of our churches regarding which songs should be included and how much they should be modified.  And, like anyone in the URCNA, I need to be prepared for the fact that the Psalm Proposal will probably omit a number of my personal favorites.

But should these objections be allowed to bring our sixteen-year project to a grinding halt?  I hope and pray it may not be so.  I pray that our discussions and feedback to the committee will be well-measured, well-grounded, and well-intentioned for the good of our federation.  I pray that God will grant wisdom and good judgment to the members of the Songbook Committee as they continue their work.  Most of all, I pray that our efforts would be seasoned with grace and Christlikeness—for all our singing is in vain if it is not to God’s glory.

–MRK

Featured Recording: The Depths of Psalm 88

O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

–Psalm 88:14, 15 (ESV)

Featured Recording

Let’s not kid ourselves: Psalm 88 is shocking.  It is a lament of laments.  Charles Spurgeon said of Psalm 88 that “this sad complaint reads very little like a song, nor can we conceive how it could be called by a name which denotes a song of praise or triumph; yet perhaps it was intentionally so called to show how faith ‘glories in tribulations also.’  Assuredly, if ever there was a song of sorrow and a Psalm of sadness, this is one.”

Lord willing we’ll consider the contents of Psalm 88 when we arrive at it in our progression through the Psalter.  Today, though, I’d like to ask a tough question: How do we sing Psalm 88?  How can a musical arrangement be crafted to adequately reflect the darkness and despair of this text?

The valuable vaults of the World-Wide Web give us a glimpse into historical attempts to set this psalm to music.  The Genevan Psalter of 1562 includes a sufficiently doleful tune in the Dorian mode, though I believe this recording is much too fast.  Of course, Psalm 88 was versified in a host of other historic Psalters, but recordings of the music used there are much more difficult to find.

What of our own Psalter Hymnal?  How does it treat Psalm 88?

About a year ago, a member of a United Reformed Church in Iowa and a friend of my co-author James Oord posted some thoughts on this psalm setting on her blog, Free Indeed.  Tierney lamented, and rightly so, that the version of Psalm 88 in the Psalter Hymnal is (or, at least, is often rendered as) “an atrocity.  How can you possibly sing words written from the depths of a soul so utterly desolate and torn apart, to a tune that belongs at a carnival—and really mean what you’re singing? It’s a musical lie, and borders on making a mockery of the text.”

Along with a few other readers, I commented on this post, and a thoughtful (and, I think, very profitable) discussion followed.  Both of us saw the same problems with this versification of Psalm 88—a weakly paraphrased text set to a jarringly jolly piece of music.  Tierney’s solution was to create a new and beautiful minor tune to be used to the words in the Psalter Hymnal; mine was to play around with varying harmonizations and stylistic approaches to try to redeem the original tune.  Along the way we shared thoughts about some of the notorious issues that plague any set of psalm paraphrases—scriptural accuracy, tune choices, and songbook loyalty, among others.  (If you’ve got a few extra minutes, I’d humbly encourage you to read the comments!)

That’s a rather roundabout way to introduce today’s Featured Recording here on URC Psalmody.  The very same day I commented on Tierney’s post, the Protestant Reformed Psalm Choir uploaded a video to their YouTube channel with a new arrangement of Psalm 88.  They had kept the original tune, IRVING, and they had kept its original harmonies—but it was the most hauntingly appropriate rendition of Psalm 88 I’ve ever heard.  As I re-listen to it now, the power of this recording almost transcends description.

I’d encourage you to give some thought to Psalm 88 and how it ought to be sung.  Does this rendition convince you as fully as it convinced me?  Do you instead prefer Tierney’s alternate tune, or maybe my own rather sloppy arrangement?  Your wisdom, thoughts, and comments are always appreciated.

As we conclude this post, it might be helpful to call attention to Spurgeon’s further words on Psalm 88.  He points to a single but permeating “ray of comfortable light which shines throughout the psalm.”  Whatever the troubles of the psalmist may be, he still addresses his prayer to the God of his salvation.  “The writer has salvation, he is sure of that, and God is the sole author of it.  While a man can see God as his Saviour, it is not altogether midnight with him.  While the living God can be spoken of as the life of our salvation, our hope will not quite expire.”  Indeed, even in the valley of the shadow of death, we can rest assured that the Lord remains our Savior.  It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that the Christian can sing Psalm 88.

–MRK

(Click here for our last Featured Recording, posted three weeks ago)

Psalm 140: Deliverance from Evil Men

Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men,
who plan evil things in their heart
and stir up wars continually.

–Psalm 140:1, 2 (ESV)

It’s been suggested that the order of the selections in the Psalter could be more significant than we might think, and considering Psalm 140 in the context of its neighbors seems to give credence to this claim.

By itself, this psalm is simply an individual lament in which David calls upon the Lord for deliverance from his enemies.  He expresses righteous hatred for the slander and violence of the wicked, while declaring his own complete trust in God.

To grasp the broader picture, we need to back up and consider the progression from Psalm 138 to Psalm 140.  All three of these songs were composed by David, possibly at the same time and probably under similar circumstances.  Psalm 138 is a song of thanksgiving and confidence: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me” (v. 7).  The personal plea of its last verse (“Do not forsake the work of your hands”) is expanded in Psalm 139, which extols the Lord for his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, as we considered a few weeks ago.  But Psalm 139 also contains a transitional passage which helps us understand Psalm 140 more clearly:

Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.

–vv. 19-22

Looking at Psalm 140 from this larger perspective, we can see in it echoes of the confidence of Psalm 138 and the personal assurance of Psalm 139.  “I say to the Lord, You are my God; give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord!” (v. 6).  Although the psalmist is grieved by the arrogance and cunning of his godless enemies, his eyes remain fixed on his own Protector.  At the end of Psalm 140, David declares:

I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.

–vv. 12, 13

291, “Deliver Me from Evil”

Turning to consider the Psalter Hymnal’s single versification of Psalm 140, I find myself sadly disappointed.  “Deliver Me from Evil” contains only a weak and wobbly imitation of David’s declarations and prayers.  As with many of these settings, the sense of righteous imprecation is almost totally lost.  Even the very first line is softened—“Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men” becomes simply “Deliver me from evil.”  Much of the content of this psalm setting needs beefing up in order to merit inclusion in any new psalter.

One asset number 291 does possess is the beautiful German tune MUNICH, commonly sung with the hymn “O Word of God Incarnate” and utilized in Mendelssohn’s Elijah to the words of Psalm 55:22, “Cast thy burden upon the Lord…”  It’s a simple yet moving melody which colors the theme of this psalm perfectly.

Psalm 140 is much more than a lament; it is a much-needed reminder that even when “our sworn enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh—never stop attacking us” (Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 52, Q&A 127), we have a Deliverer in heaven who will cover our head in the day of battle.

Let evil smite the evil,
And cause their overthrow;
The needy and afflicted
The Lord will help, I know;
Thy saints, redeemed from evil,
Their thanks to Thee shall give;
The righteous and the upright
Shall in Thy presence live.

–MRK


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