WHY DO WE SING THE PSALMS?

 

 

The Psalter is known among biblical scholars as “The Hymnal of the Bible.” Indeed, the history of church music begins with the Psalms. Some of the Psalms, as they exist today, were probably part of an ancient religious handbook, rather than poetry to be sung during worship services. Some indicate private devotional use, rather than public worship. But, clearly, many of the Psalms were written to be used in sacred processions that were a regular feature of Jewish worship ritual. Some were written for Jewish national festivals.

 

We know that music in the ancient Jewish temple was in the hands of a social class of singers and musicians belonging to the Levites. The body of worshippers probably sang only responses such as “amen,” “hallelujah,” or a short refrain. It is very obvious that ancient Jewish congregations may have simply repeated a refrain sung first by a choir.

 

During the Early Christian Church, the Psalms continued to be sung. Gregorian Chant held the field until after the Protestant Reformation. In England, Anglican Chant eventually replaced Gregorian Chant as the music most commonly used for singing the Psalms, a change that was synonymous with the translation of biblical texts into vernacular languages. In Protestant nations, church musicians considered Anglican Chant not as a replacement for Gregorian Chant, but, rather, as a development of Gregorian Chant. In fact, the earliest Anglican Chant came directly from Gregorian melodies.

 

The so-called Simplified Anglican Chant used in Episcopal churches in the USA beginning in the 1990s is an adaptation of Anglican Chant designed to be sung by an entire congregation, in unison, without the aid of a choir. In its simple form, it preserves the ancient Hebrew tradition of singing the Psalms in half verses according to their poetic form.

 

The tradition of singing Metrical Psalms evolved in the Reformed Churches. These hymns form the texts of the Psalms into metrical poetry so they can be sung to familiar metrical hymn tunes, most of which were originally written for the singing of Psalm texts. “Old 100th” is perhaps the best known example, but many more are preserved in modern hymnals: Old 22nd, 25th, 44th, 81st (77th), 104th, 107th, 112th, 117th, 120th, 124th, 134th, and 137th. The Metrical tradition of Psalm singing was more popular in the Church of Scotland than in the Church of England. Other Reformed traditions took Psalmody even more seriously. Metrical Psalms were the only form of hymnody used by the Pilgrims in New England. Even today, the hymnal of the Dutch Reformed Church is based entirely on metrical psalms and the texts of a limited number of ancient hymns that have their origins in the earliest Christian churches.

 

Many attempts have been made to replace the Psalms with other hymns. In the Anglican tradition, Myles Coverdale in 1531 issued the first English hymnbook, which was based on the German Wittenberg hymnbooks. The English called the Coverdale hymns dull songs of little appeal to English people. In 1546 the King of England put Coverdale’s dull book on a list of prohibited books. The Scottish, however, liked these dull songs and kept them. Few examples of Scottish Chant remain in other traditions, but the Anglican and Episcopal hymnals still include the Old Scottish Chant for the Gloria that survived even English objections to Scottish Chant. Why did this single example of Coverdale’s simple and dull hymnody survive? The answer is obvious to anyone who has sung it: It is good music, while being simple enough for a congregation to sing it without a choir. Nevertheless, John Knox, the founder of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, discarded the dull Scottish chants and replaced them with Metrical Psalmnody. With Knox, again, however, an effort was made to return the Psalms to a sing-able, poetic format

 

Ancient Christian hymns that have been equated with the Psalms include the Veni Creator, Venite, Te Deum, Benedicite, Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and the Lord’s Prayer. As early as 1561, these were included with the Psalms in hymnals of the Reformed tradition with instructions for singing the texts during worship services.

 

After centuries of neglect, hymnody in the Christian Church had a true rebirth within the Anglican tradition in 1861 with the first publication of “Hymns Ancient And Modern,” edited by Henry Williams Baker. This landmark collection of hymns won acceptance mostly because of its musical quality. In 1847, the older English Psalm Tunes were recovered from obscurity and church music was promoted along with choir music with great enthusiasm. Devoted and talented musicians produced new hymns. During this period, the Anglican School and the Oxford Movement gave hymnody its form and manner for years to come.

 

The content of hymnody in the English speaking world reached its peak with the publication of “The English Hymnal” in 1906, 1933 and 1963, and in the USA with “The Hymnal 1940” of the Episcopal Church. Other hymnals of note certainly include “The Hymnbook” of 1955, edited by David Hugh Jones for Presbyterian and Reformed Church in America congregations, and “The Pilgrim Hymnal” of 1931, 1935, 1958 and 1964. Since the publication of these epic denomination-specific collections, little of note has been accomplished in Christian Hymnody, musically or poetically, and singing congregations face a serious dilemma.

 

People who have little knowledge or interest in hymnody have produced the latest hymnal editions of nearly all denominations. Great hymns have been replaced by disposable, popular music of no lasting value. Texts of the few remaining great and familiar hymns have been changed in order to be more politically correct, or less gender specific, or more true to trendy, modern theological prejudices, and in most such cases the poetry has been ruined, making them awkward and annoying to sing. Modern translations of the Psalms in worship books during recent decades are the worst examples of careless editing. None show any sign of being written by literary scholars with a knowledge and respect for the poetry. Because of awkward language, some of these texts are nearly impossible to sing even with Simplified Anglican Chant. All are very sad examples of the uninformed, awkward, unpoetic, and unmusical age in which we live.

 

Clearly, the future of hymnody is at stake. Only the concerted efforts of the finest and most brilliant and talented musicians and literary and biblical scholars can possibly redeem hymnody from its current state of despair and dysfunction.

 

--Thomas L. Mowbray