Music Notes | Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

Official translations of the Scriptures into Western European languages, reasonably emphasizing content over form, have usually not attempted to render Biblical Hebrew poetry either in anything like its original verse-form, or in the verse-forms typical of those European languages, settling for as literal a translation as possible, and at most maintaining the more or less inescapable division of the Hebrew verses into pairs of parallel or contrasting lines.

English nevertheless has a very long tradition of poetic translation of the Psalms: one hundred of them (and perhaps all 150, one third being lost) were rendered into Old English alliterative stress-meter verse (of the sort familiar from Beowulf, and common to all Old Germanic verse), and there are several rhyming syllabic-meter verse versions in Middle English. This latter type of ‘metrical psalmody’, as it is usually called today, became even more popular in England and Scotland when the Reformation brought a renewed emphasis upon the use of the vernacular in not only private but also public religion, as the use of regular metre made the Psalms easily singable to familiar or to newly composed, but simple, tunes.

Metrical psalms were so popular (and the idea that only Scriptural texts should be used in worship was so prevalent) that they were practically the only things British congregations sang from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth. So important were metrical Psalms that the first book ever printed in British-occupied North America was not a Bible or a Prayer Book, but a metrical Psalter, the translation itself a new one made in the Massachusetts colony.

Many of these English metrical Psalms were not very good poetry, as they attempted as literal a translation as possible within the strictures of short-lined and rhyming verse. Dissatisfied with their quality, Isaac Watts, something of a prodigy who became a Congregationalist minister, set about improving upon them in the first half of the eighteenth century. He did so not only by virtue of his considerable talent, but also by taking more liberty in the translation, as in ‘O God, our help in ages past’ [680], based upon Psalm 90, perhaps Watts’s best-known psalm-paraphrase and one of the best and best-loved English hymns (helped of course by a sturdy tune with its many rising fourths and cascading thirds, reminiscent of church bells or clock chimes). Though his translations were less literal, his straightforward and vigorous language, at its best, in its own way captures the spirit of the Psalms perhaps more vividly than do the Latin Vulgate or the English Coverdale or King James Psalters.

Watts also in many cases deliberately Christianized the Psalms, and ultimately he moved beyond the Psalms altogether to create hymns more freely drawn from various parts of Scripture. His hymns and those of his followers, above all Charles Wesley, were ultimately so successful – first among Independents and Evangelicals, then in the nineteenth century among mainstream and High Church Anglicans – that they finally ended the hegemony of the metrical Psalter.

Metrical Psalms continued to be written, however. ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’ [410], based upon Psalm 103, was written around 1834 by Henry Francis Lyte, an Evangelical Anglican clergyman even better known for ‘Abide with me’. The Hymnal 1982 contains thirty-eight or so

metrical Psalms, and the Episcopal Church has published a complete metrical Psalter for singing to familiar hymn-tunes. No doubt they will always have an important place in English-language hymnody.

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