Must Psalms be sung in a specific metre?

Discussion in 'A capella Exclusive Psalmody' started by BayouHuguenot, Jul 29, 2015.

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  1. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    I'm not quite EP, but I am certainly DP (dominant psalmody). Is there a certain way to sing the Psalms that qualifies as EP/in line with the Confession, or are there other viable options?

    I understand the appeal of metre, since it is relatively easy for the congregation to sing, but some renditions sacrifice a lot in terms of word order, etc and some sound like "Psalms by Yoda."

    Chanting seems more natural in terms of word order, and the church has a long tradition and practice of doing that, but if you aren't in a stone-floored cathedral, but rather in a carpeted church with the A/C on, chanting can be quite difficult (though it was by means of chanting that Venerable Bede and John Chrysostom had the entire Scriptures memorized. And every ancient bishop had to have the Psalms memorized in order to be a Bishop).

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, many praise songs are actually versions of songs, albeit crude.

    So what is the criteria for choosing a medium of singing the Psalms that stays faithful to the Standards?
  2. Logan

    Logan Puritan Board Junior

    The short answer is no :)

    The Scottish psalter chose Common Meter (8 syllables, 6, 8, 6) for the reason that many of the tunes familiar to the lay-person were written in CM, or ballad meter. They could easily begin singing any of the psalms with the the tunes they already knew. This is a strong point, but I also think it is a weak point. Some psalms naturally have breaks that lend themselves better to other meters. Peter Wallace made some nice comments on his blog regarding the OPC/URC psalter translation and meters that were chosen, starting here.

    I personally do think putting it in meter makes it easier to sing and to memorize, but in the RPCNA psalter for example, there are some settings that have been taken directly from an English translation and set to music, and they work remarkably well. Notably it's for a couple of shorter psalms, I think that would be very difficult to do with a longer one without resorting to chanting.

    As far as what the criteria is, what you believe on that will largely determine what you think is a good translation. I think most agree that many selections in the 1912 "The Psalter" are paraphrases (i.e., inserting "Christ" for example). On the other hand, do you want a word-for-word literal translation, or is getting across the meaning more important? Or a mix of both? Obviously we don't want to be singing "The Message" set to verse, but neither is it ideal to be singing the "Interlinear Bible". The most important criteria is perhaps to sing with understanding.

    Another very important criteria for me is that the entire psalm be set to the same meter, or singable in one go, rather than broken up into segments.
  3. Jake

    Jake Puritan Board Junior

    Regarding meter, I'd rather sacrifice word order than make a more paraphrasic translation. Like you said, there's a wide variety of diversity among translations into meter. SMV 1650 tends to be very accurate, but maybe a bit more trouble understanding. Some more modern translations seem to come closer to being more fluid English while still being metrical, even if not the best they could be, such as SP 2003 and BPW 2009. That all to say, I don't know that we couldn't retain metrical singing while fixing certain issues, even if a perfect translation doesn't exist now.

    Regarding "praise songs," I think problems often come with arrangements which do not render the psalms in the same order they are in the text. I would have an issue with extensively stringing together verses from different places, skipping around, etc. I think just as with the reading of Scripture, with the singing of Scripture, we should generally use and sing a section. All of that said, I don't have a problem with simply using more modern tunes. I have used before a modern praise song tune that was C.M. to sing from the 1650 SMV.

    I would say that all three are potentially permissible methods of singing the psalms. I think metrical versions have a lot of advantages, but I appreciate advantages of chanting as well (fidelity to text, even using the same as the prose version). I think we should look more at other aspects and see how different modes of singing fulfill that. As I mentioned, I would have an issue with adding superfluous repetitions and greatly re-arranging Psalms to almost make a new composition, no matter if it were chanted or using a modern tune.
  4. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    Four-bar two-chord chants are actually fairly easy to sing.
  5. Jeri Tanner

    Jeri Tanner Moderator Staff Member

    Strightforward (unsyncopated) metrical singing or chanting seem the best musical forms for congregational participation. I don't know why chanting would be more difficult in a carpeted, AC'd room? I would like to see chanting make a comeback in Reformed churches, so that we can sing the actual texts. Jacob, interesting fact about Venerable Bede and John Chrysostom.
  6. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    Carpet and A/C muffle sound. I learned that the hard way when I preached in rural Baptist churches whose microphones didn't work. Earlier basilicas and the like were often acoustically perfect.
  7. Jeri Tanner

    Jeri Tanner Moderator Staff Member

    So you're concerned mostly with the acoustics or other quality of the sound of the voices? If so, I see that as a non-issue, really. My family visited a Lutheran church a few weeks ago where they chanted Psalms; it was a carpeted, cooled room and it was just thrilling to actually be singing a Psalm. The first time ever for me in a church service. :)
  8. timfost

    timfost Puritan Board Senior

    Interestingly, many of the tunes used during the Reformation were from drinking/popular song forms. My church has applied the concept of a more modern idiom and created melodies to many of the Psalms verbatim (using more syncopation and some light chromaticism in some of them). Since the melodies that we generate are not very repetitive, they are generally easier to memorize as there tends to be less mixing up of verses.

    In keeping with the OP, though, there seems to be a preference among Reformed churches for CM, LM or similar metric, non-chromatic, non-syncopated melodies. I assume for the reason that it too closely resembles the modern idiom, which seems counterintuitive when we consider the history of Reformed music in relation to popular song form.
  9. Jeri Tanner

    Jeri Tanner Moderator Staff Member

    Are you sure about Reformation tunes being from drinking/popular song forms? As I understand it, this belief is widely-held, but a myth. and Bar Song.pdf
  10. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritanboard Amanuensis

    No. The acoustics was just an interesting point.
  11. timfost

    timfost Puritan Board Senior

    I'm not saying that many of them were directly taken from drinking songs. Below I've quoted from a document put out by the Lutheran church:

    Also think "What Child is This" with "Greensleeves." It is the idiom I'm focusing on, not necessarily direct melodies. The idiom is at the heart of Reformed music, making it accessible to many, including the illiterate. I'm not suggesting we take Brittany songs and incorporate them into worship. ;)
  12. Philip

    Philip Puritan Board Graduate

    Certainly many of the hymn tunes used in our hymnals are secular in origin. Thaxted, the Ode to Joy, Danny Boy, the Austrian Hymn, Jerusalem (Parry), the Agincourt Carol, and a number of others have been used.
  13. Jeri Tanner

    Jeri Tanner Moderator Staff Member

    If we sing a capella ("in the manner of the church", ahem), we are cast on either metrical forms that work without the need for instrumentation, or chanting—either of which would greatly simplify the matter. :)
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