Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hymnody Review: Psalms

The Book of Psalms for Worship. Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2010. 590 Pages. Cloth. $19.00. www.crownandcovenant.com (H)

Abundance: Selections from The Book of Psalms for Worship.
Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2009. Audio CD. $15.00. www.crownandcovenant.com (H)

A Psalter for the 21st Century!

The newest American psalter offers many familiar tunes and new arrangements with language that is easily understood by the 21st century Christian, while remaining faithful to the Hebrew text. 

Contains all 150 Psalms in over 440 selections in multiple arrangements. Settings include traditional tunes, original tunes, and familiar hymn tunes. Translated from the original language into modern English meter for singing. Features 4-part music for each selection for singing. Also includes introductory essays on the practice and history of psalm singing and several indices.
(publisher's website)
Followers of John Calvin are famous for singing psalms. Yes, there are some who exclusively sing psalms, but that need not be the case among all Calvinists nor all Christians.

There is a need for the modern Church to sing psalms. 

The Psalter is our first hymnal. I love to think of singing psalms as "praying twice" as both Luther and Augustine have said. This is the prayerbook of Christ Himself.

I feel funny even having to say the obvious. The Psalms are Scripture! That's one of the best reasons overall. 

Lutheran Christians make use of psalmody as Introits, Graduals, and Offertories. They are an important part of Matins, Vespers, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. As LUtherans sing through this psalter, they will note many familiar hymn tunes, including those by Luther, Bach, and Mendelssohn.

This new American psalter was commissioned by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America in 1997. Over a decade of work has resulted in The Book of Psalms for Worship.

I am very pleased by what I see and hear in this resource. It is a resource to be used and a great model to imitate.

The psalms have been rewritten into hymn form and sung to hymn tunes. This kind of psalm singing could also be called "metrical paraphrase."

For example, 46C uses Martin Luther's original version of the tune EIN FESTE BURG to support a three-stanza metrical paraphrase of Psalm 46. 

God is our refuge and our strength, 
A present help in our distress. 
We will not therefore be afraid 
Though all the earth should be removed. 
Though mountains great be hurled 
In to the ocean's depths, 
Though seas may roar and foam
And billows take the shore, 
Though mountains tremble at their pow'r.

The psalms retain their typical numbers. Designations "A," "B," etc., are used to identify either different parts of a psalm or alternate metrical paraphrases of the same psalm set to a different hymn tune. (Psalm 119 gets all the way to "W.")

There are many creative combinations of texts and tunes. 
  • 22A presents Psalm 22 sung to VENI EMMANUEL. It works well! 
  • The tune TO GOD BE THE GLORY is put to better use in supporting 24A. 
  • 33C is sung to ASH GROVE. 
  • BEACH SPRING compliments well the text of 37C. 
  • EVENTIDE is a natural fit for 39B. 
  • 54B finds voice through EBENEZER. 
  • The majestic message of Psalm 67(C) is matched by the noble tune THAXTED. 
  • 150C is sung to HELMSLEY.

I have long searched for hymn versions of Psalm 95 for use at Matins. 95A covers verses 1-7. 95B sings 6-7a. Verses 7b-11 are found at 95C. 95D pairs a new tune with verses 1-7.  I now have options to choose between!

Textual accuracy necessarily trumps rhyme. There's nothing wrong with that. This is a psalter, not a hymnal.

According to the copyright page, "All versifications (psalm texts) in The Book of Psalms for Worship are copyrighted by The Board of Education & Publication of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Crown & Covenant Publications)" (559). There is a special exception specified at the top of the page to help "make the singing of psalms more accessible."

Indexes include tunes arranged alphabetically and metrically, composers, arranges, and sources, an index of first lines, a helpful index of Biblical topics, and an index of Psalm Usage in the New Testament. 

I would recommend a reverse of the latter index, with the New Testament references listed first in order to help plan psalm use according to what readings were used for Sunday worship (perhaps from a lectionary).  Such an update could be included on the publisher's website.

A list of familiar hymn tunes is already posted:

[Abundance is] The newest recording from Crown & Covenant featuring psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship. 18 selections: 37C, 14A, 42D, 42C, 72E, 41B, 7A, 5C, 38B, 62A, 114A, 107B, 96D, 95D, 28A, 117C, 110A, and 145D.
Ten passionate psalm-singers demonstrate eighteen settings from this new psalter.

The recording matches one's expectations based on seeing the full-color creatively designed CD package.  Fresh texts give new life to the familiar (or not-so-familiar) tunes. Good hymn tunes aid in memorizing Scripture! The texts are well-enunciated. Four-part harmonies are pleasing and individual parts are distinct and strong. 

The CD may be purchased or the mp3 files may be downloaded at a discount. I would recommend a whole series of recordings that cover most (or even all) the psalm settings of The Book of Psalms for Worship.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.