Friday, April 17, 2009

Researching Psalter Editions

One of the great practices of the Reformed tradition that has fallen by the wayside in many denominations, especially in the last century, is the practice of singing the 150 Psalms in corporate and family/private worship. If Psalms are sung at all, it is usually a selected few that can be found in popular hymnals such as the Trinity Hymnal.

Personally, I do not find Scriptural warrant for rejecting all non-Psalm hymnody. I have great respect for the scripture-based hymnodic tradition that has developed over time since the 16th century. (This is another discussion for another day.) Yet I will readily agree with anyone that the Psalms should be our key resource for all types of worship. They should be prayed, sung, and meditated upon in our worship and throughout the day. Over the past few weeks I have been researching different editions of the Psalter that are currently in-print and I thought I'd share some of my findings as a resource for those who may be interested in the same.

By far the most popular Psalter on the market is "The Book of Psalms for Singing", published by Crown and Covenant Publications, a branch of the RPCNA denomination. From the C&C website, this Psalter is described as "the most popular English psalter because of its comprehensiveness and singability. The Book of Psalms for Singing has been used for more than 30 years.
Many psalm passages are set to multiple arrangements. Setting include many familiar hymn tunes, traditional tunes, some original arrangements and a few chants. Translated from the original language into English meter for singing. Over 425 selections include all 150 Psalms in their entirety. Includes 4-part music for each selection."

My personal experience with this Psalter has been positive. At WPC we use the Trinity Hymnal as our primary source for hymns and Psalms. However, when we use extra-hymnal Psalms they are drawn from "The Book of Psalms for Singing". Many of the Psalms are split into mulitple settings due to their length, and some Psalms in their entirety will have multiple tunes. Many of the tunes. Two congregational and personal favorites are Psalm 119X (the letter after the Psalm designates the progression of settings - like I mentioned most of the longer Psalms are split into different sections and set to different tunes.) and Psalm 148. Most of the tunes are familiar and the language of the verses is in the tradition of the KJV, but is not as archaic as the 1650 Scottish Psalter, for example. The settings for this Psalter are in 4 parts as noted above so it is not particularly suitably for chanting/singing the Psalms in unison.

Thus ends my current real experience with Psalters. Everything that follows is a result of my research and I haven't had the opportunity to get my hands on any of these other editions yet.

A text-only version of the Book of Psalms for Singing is also available, known as the "Trinity Psalter". What good is a words-only version, you say? I can think of a couple good uses. First, as a workbook for writing new Psalm settings. I have taken my hand to writing new settings for hymns before but I am almost invariably influenced by the existing tune on the page. Having a words-only resource would be helpful. Also, these are much less expensive than the music-and-words versions, so for budget-minded churches and families this could be a good option. A spiral bound music-and-words edition is available for accompanists. Finally, since many if not most Psalms are set in common meter or long meter, any number of tunes can be used to sing one Psalm. A words-only version would allow more flexibility with less confusion for those switching between tunes. However, for part-singing the lack of 4-part notation (or any notation at all for that matter!) could pose significant challenges.

Of all Psalter versions, the 1650 Scottish Psalter stands as one of the most significant and enduring despite the 17th-century language and often-stiff versification. There are a number of editions in-print such as the 1650 Scottish Metrical Version from Crown and Covenant, and The Comprehensive Psalter from FPCR. The Comprehensive Psalter is significantly more affordable and appears to be a sturdy volume. A words-only version of the 1650 Psalter is also available from C&C as The Psalms of David in Metre.

The Reformed Church of Ireland uses The Psalms for Singing: A 21st Century Edition. Unfortunately there are not many details available on the web about this version that I have been able to find. I would guess that the verses are directly based on the 1650 edition but with updated grammar and language.

The prominent Roman Catholic Psalm translation is called the Grail Psalms. This is simply a different translation from the Hebrew that is used primarily by the Roman Catholic Church. Here is an example of a Grail Psalm, Psalm 23. Unfortunately some of the versions are "Inclusive Language" (i.e. gender neutral where gender is specifically indicated in the original language). I need to do some more research before coming to any firm conclusions about the value of the following Psalters but they do look interesting if only for getting a full picture of how the Psalms are and have been sung throughout church history.

The Mundelein Psalter
The Abbey Psalter
Psalms: A New Translation, Singing Version (A non-inclusive-language Grail Psalter designed for chanting the Psalms)

The above "Grail" Psalters are designed to assist in praying/singing/chanting the Psalms on a daily schedule (kind of like a daily Scripture reading plan, except musical and restricted to the Psalms) - a Jewish practice carried on by the early church and a central part of Roman Catholic tradition that was abandoned by the Reformers. Rightly or wrongly, I have no opinion at this time.

If you're looking for a Psalter, hopefully this will point you to some good options. Like I mentioned earlier, the only Psalter I can currently recommend is Crown and Covenant's original Book of Psalms for Singing. I do, however, plan to obtain at least a few of these other Psalters at some point and intend to post on their quality after I've had a chance to review them. If any of my readers have had experience with any of these or other Psalters, feel free to share your thoughts!

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations." (Psalm 100, ESV)


Zack and Jess said...

It's not a Psalter and you only mentioned it in passing, but one of the problems with the red Trinity Hymnal is that the psalms are scattered throughout and finding them sometimes requires a second blessing! There's been talk of a new RPCNA Psalter in the works, as well as a Psalter by the OPC, but that's the extent I know. I've heard some nice things about the new edition of the split-leaf Sing Psalms: New Metrical Version of the Book of Psalms, published by the Psalmody Committee of the Free Church of Scotland.

There are lots of Psalters (some better than others). Better tunes is a more pressing need than new translations, as I see it. There are some great tunes e.g., in the Book of Psalms for Singing and a lot of great Genevan tunes. Many of the tunes we have, however, are simply not singable. We need tunes that can be sung by congregations of all ages, that come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and that are intended to be sung by groups and that reflect the tone of the psalm being sung. That’s a tall order. There will never be a perfect Psalter. The Genevan Psalter wasn’t perfect, but at least it was complete and it was “contemporary” for its time — but it included many older tunes as well as contemporary tunes. We can do the same thing. If we’re going to revive Psalmody we must do the same thing in our time that they did in theirs.

Jonathan and Chelsea Berkompas said...

I'm eager to see what the new RPCNA Psalter has to offer as well. I saw a few references to it over at the PuritanBoard but no real details yet. It will be interesting to see how much they change.

I'm with you on the need for new tunes. However I think that the more variety in meters/melodies we want to see, the more new versifications we may need. There is only so much you can do with Common Meter and Long Meter from a composer's standpoint. More unique tunes may require more unique verse meters. The vast majority of Psalm translations are in one of those two meters, or slightly altered, so it's not a great surprise that the range of tunes is also somewhat limited. It is nice to be able to choose alternate tunes for Psalms (split-leaf Psalters make this ridiculously easy) but that can have its disadvantages as well when the tune chosen is not a good match for the tone of the Psalm, as you point out.

Zack and Jess said...

Good points. I can (and will!) press for new tunes all day, but of course when things get too technical I have to plead musical ignorance!