Metrical psalms: the words

Many people have come to west gallery music from folk music. There has been an understandable tendency to concentrate on music that is more exciting to sing or play, music that was probably always the preserve of quires. West gallery music though is not folk music in the sense that Cecil Sharp would have meant it. It was the ordinary music sung in church, that era's equivalent of Songs of Praise. Singing or playing west gallery music one can catch something of the flavour of what one day of the week was like for our ancestors, what church felt like for them. For those who believe, this is particularly vital, for these ancestors are our brothers and sisters. What they felt about the faith they share with us has something to give us in how we feel now. When the roll is called up yonder, we shall be with them. Even for those who are not sure what they believe, there is so much more to gain if it is possible to get even to a limited extent inside the minds and hearts of other people. It is a cliche that the past is a foreign country. Nevertheless, they indeed do things different there. We cannot visit them. There are no package tours to 1820. What they sang and how they sang it can help us make that journey in our imagination. And each time we manage even slightly to get inside the mind and heart of a stranger, it can give us an insight on ourselves, where we stand, the presuppositions on which we live our lives.

Until the early nineteenth century, it was the official assumption that only what was in scripture, the psalms and metrical versions of other pieces of sacred scripture like 'While Shepherds Watched', could be sung in church. Even though the Dissenters were not as strict on this, much of what Watts wrote was paraphrase of scripture. Common metre was chosen because it fits the English language, is easy to sing and provides plenty of tunes. For all that modern singers prefer lively fuguing tunes, for most ordinary worshippers, most psalms would have been sung either lined out or straight through.

Rather than to look at the music, the purpose of this article is to look at the words they sang. It is impossible to say anything more about this topic without expressing my appreciation for all that Rollo Woods has already written and done on this topic, and to recommend his Good Singing Still to anyone who has not already read it.

The problem with psalms

The problem with the psalms is usually thought to be that some are bloodthirsty, pre-christian and inappropriate for modern use. This only applies to a few of them, and even the presence in the book of Psalm 109 is a valuable warning against sanitised religion. The more serious difficulty is that they were written in Hebrew. As scripture, as the hymnbook of the Bible, there is a feeling that there is nothing quite compares with the psalms as being suitable for worship. However, Article 24 says that 'it is a thing plainly repugnant ... to have publick prayer ... in a tongue not understanded of the people'. The psalms do not translate directly into a form in which people can easily sing them in English. There have been three essential solutions to this.

First, one can translate them as prose and read them, either singly or together – often these days with the clergy and congregation reading alternate verses. For centuries the 'reading psalms' in the 1662 prayer book have been used this way. The modern version in the Alternative Service Book can be used in the same way. This reproduces in English a striking feature of Hebrew poetry that does survive translation, the practice of splitting lines into two halves, very often with a repetition or a contrast in the second half; thus Psalm 119:105

Thy word is a lantern unto my feet : and a light unto my paths.

The second option is to chant them as prose. Anyone familiar with the Church of England Morning and Evening Prayer as it was from the middle of the nineteenth century until about 25 years ago will know this may be excellent if it works, but it is difficult for congregations and can be horrible. Music versions of the 1662 psalter, and the standard version of the Alternative Service Book, have 'pointing', vertical lines and other markings, to try and make this easier but most churchgoers' knowledge of this is sketchy.

The third option is to translate the psalms into a form of metre that fits singing in English – in practice this means some sort of regular scansion pattern and rhymes. This produces an immediate difficulty that it inhibits the translator's freedom accurately to translate the words or reproduce those features of Hebrew poetry that can be replicated in another language.

For three centuries (four in Scotland) congregations were accustomed and expected to sing some metrical version of the psalter. A number of people tried to produce metrical versions, including Milton, but four versions are important. For practical purposes the rest can be ignored. Some phrases from these versions would have been as familiar to our ancestors as the cadences of the Authorised Version, the Book of Common Prayer or Hymns Ancient and Modern. Sung every week, they would have been part of every poet's childhood memories. They are unfamiliar to people now. One wonders what residue they have left, unrecognised, in our literary heritage.

To try to give the flavour of the various versions, I have chosen a standard verse to compare, Psalm 68:1. In the 1662 version this is:

Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered : let them also that hate him flee before him.

The Authorised Version, which has not been used for singing, is almost identical.

The Old Version –- Sternhold and Hopkin

Psalm 68 was a favourite of the Parliamentary armies, but one should not forget that it was an indelible part of the religious culture of the day. It would have been sung by the King's side as well. The Prayer Book version, though, is not the one they would have sung. When one reads of the soldiers of the Civil War advancing into battle singing psalms, it is a misimagination to think of them going into battle chanting Anglican chant. Almost certainly, they would have sung the words they would have known and loved:

Let God arise, and then his foes
will turn themselves to flight:
His enemies for fear shall run,
and scatter out of sight.

This is the Old Version of Psalm 68, by Sternhold. It is difficult to know entirely what it would have sounded like though probably it would be unlike anything we are familiar with today. Playford gives it an attractive 'proper tune' of its own and suggests St David's as a possible alternative. Whether his tune was the one generally associated with it in the Civil War, one cannot now say, though it is exciting to imagine that it might have been. It would have been sung unaccompanied, slowly and probably with some element of improvised harmony. The nearest sound equivalent might well be the Gaelic psalmody of the Western Isles.

The Old Version was produced at the time of the Reformation. It seems to have been (at least in part) a direct translation from Hebrew. The individual psalms were not a joint effort. Some versions indicate who translated which ones. It appeared in stages but was complete by some time in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was the standard version in England for some two centuries. It is simple, robust and earthy in style. It frequently verges on the doggerel, and contains many examples of uncouth phraseology to make words fit the metre. It has nevertheless been seriously argued in the past that it is a better translation than most others, including the prose versions. Hebrew is a language very economical in words, and the Old Version is shorter than any other metrical version. In some respects it is individual. For example, most modern scriptural translations are reticent at Psalm 78:67 – for example, The Good News Bible (1976) reads:

He [i.e. God] drove his enemies back in lasting and shameful defeat.

This is a reference to an episode in 1 Samuel 5 when the Ark of the Covenant fell into the hands of the Philistines. Among the consequences was that the Philistines were afflicted with what are in some versions described as tumours, and others more specifically. The 1662 version catches what appears to be an intentional ambiguity in the Hebrew,

He smote his enemies in the hinder parts : and put them to perpetual shame.

Hopkins is more explicit.

With em'rods in the hinder parts
his enemies he smote:
And put them unto such a shame
as should not be forgot.

The quality of the Old Version varies, and the changes in language mean that some psalms perhaps need alteration to scan in modern speech. Nevertheless, several people have commented how as one compares the various versions, and becomes familiar with them, gradually it is the Old Version that inspires the greatest affection. Many find a sturdy simplicity that later texts have lost. The rest of the Old Version of Psalm 68 is particularly good. The version of the Lord's Prayer in Playford's text is particularly attractive. There is a version of Psalm 50 in the unusual metre of 10,10,10,10,11,11 that is overpowering in the force with which it builds up. It is a pity modern congregations would appear to be precluded from singing it because there seems to be no modern tune available in that metre. This is verse 5.

I have no need / to take of thee at all
Goats of thy fold, / or calves out of thy stall:
For all the beasts / are mine within the woods,
On thousand hills / cattle are mine own goods.
I know for mine / all birds that are on mountains,
All beasts mine are / which haunt the fields and fountains.

Sadly, very few Old Version psalms have survived into modern hymn books, apart from the Old Hundredth, 'All people that on earth do dwell'. It is a pity.

The Scottish Psalter

It is just possible that some Parliamentary regiments may have sung:

Let God arise, and scatter-ed
let all his enemies be;
And let all those that do him hate
before his presence flee.

This is from the Scottish psalter, which was not originally Scottish. It was produced by Francis Rous, Puritan MP and Provost of Eton. It was adopted by the Church of Scotland to replace the Old Version, possibly because its author had Presbyterian sympathies, rather in the same way as the New International Version of the Bible is favoured by many evangelicals.

This may upset some Scots, particularly since they have remained faithful to metrical psalmody much later than anyone else, but it has to be said that this version is usually the least verbally successful. A problem for modern use with both the Old Version and the Rous version (which they share with Shakespeare and which the verse above demonstrates) is that English pronunciation has changed over the centuries. Verse from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often does not scan because the 'ed' on the end of words was pronounced as a separate syllable instead of being run into the previous one as it usually is now. Despite that, the Rous version contains more examples of grammar twisted and inverted to fit the metre than the other versions. For example, a few lines on from the extract above we come across:

God doth the solitary set
in families: and from bands
The chain'd doth free; but rebels do
inhabit parch-ed lands.

For a long time, much longer than the English, the Scots did not admit hymns or even accept the use of musical instruments in church. In Gaelic areas particularly this is often still the case. Until well into the nineteenth century there were only twelve approved tunes.

The Scottish Psalter has in more recent times been produced bound in with the Church Hymnary. Music versions have been printed in stable-door format. Copies are surprisingly difficult to find. I searched all the second-hand bookshops in Edinburgh but not even one specialising in religious books had a copy. I already had access to a borrowed nineteenth-century version but eventually managed to find a copy of a later edition in rural Norfolk. The pages in the psalter section are cut in half, with words on the bottom section and tunes on the top, so that one can easily turn up whichever tune is called for the psalm. By the 1929 version produced at the time of the reunion, some psalms are recommended as 'most suitable for public worship'. It is difficult to avoid inferring that the others are not.

There is a paraphrase section, containing other extracts of scripture. The Scottish version of While Shepherds Watched is slightly different from the English one.

The familiar version of the 23rd psalm, 'The Lord's my shepherd' seems to be the only psalm widely known outside Scotland that comes from the Rous psalter. 'Crimond' is the name of the familiar tune, not the words. Nor is it the only tune associated with that psalm in Scotland.

The modern Church Hymnary goes much further than the 1929 version. Like many hymn books, it groups hymns by topic. It has omitted the metrical psalter altogether, but included various favoured selected bits from it with the other hymns in each of the topic sections.

The New Version –- Tate and Brady

At the end of the seventeenth century, Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady produced the New Version. Tate was Poet Laureate. The style is more elegant, but less vigorous and, it has to be said, has less of the flavour of the original Hebrew. Our comparative verse, this time in Long Metre, reads:

Let God, the God of battle, rise,
and scatter his presumptuous foes:
Let shameful rout their host surprise,
who spitefully his pow'r oppose'.

By the end of the west gallery period, the New Version seems to have been the one in general use, but it took a long time, something like a hundred years, to gain widespread acceptance. For much of the eighteenth century, the Old Version seems to have been the usual, familiar, 'what's good enough for King David's good enough for me' version. The New Version continued to be bound into prayer books well up until the middle of the last century, though I have found a prayer book from as late as the 1840s with both versions.

Apart from While Shepherds Watched, 'Through all the changing scenes of life' is part of NV Psalm 34 and 'As pants the hart for cooling streams' is part of NV Psalm 42. There are though plenty of others whose eclipse one mourns. Particularly attractive are Psalm 139 in Long Metre and Psalm 148 in the metre customary for that psalm. Psalm 139 is almost lyrical. It starts:

Thou Lord, by strictest search hast known,
My rising up and lying down;
My secret thoughts are known to thee,
Known long before conceived by me.

The 148th psalm exults in creation. Verses 7 and 8 are rendered thus:

Let earth her tribute pay:
Praise him, ye dreadful whales,
And fish, that through the sea
Glide swift with glittering scales;
Fire, hail and snow,
And misty air,
And winds that, where
He bids them, blow.

This would sound excellent to Darwall's 148th, the tune used now for Richard Baxter's 'Ye holy angels bright who wait at God's right hand'.

Isaac Watts' version

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was dissenting minister, writing a generation after Tate and Brady. He put most of the psalms into metre, providing several versions of some of them, and also wrote a large number of paraphrases of other extracts of scripture and hymns. His version of Psalm 68:1 reads:

Let God arise in all his might,
And put the troops of hell to flight:
As smoke that sought to cloud the skies
Before the rising tempest flies.

Watts was much more relaxed than the others about fidelity to the original. This verse amends the reference to enemies, who one would imagine are more likely to be human, into 'troops of hell'. It drops 'them also that hate him', and includes part of the thought of the next verse. It is altogether more fluid. Indeed, many of his psalms are more like paraphrases, or even hymns inspired by a psalm. Other psalters very occasionally 'christianise' the Old Testament text. For example, the OV Psalm 2, for 'against the Lord, and against his Anointed', has 'Against the Lord and Christ his Son whom he among us sent', but this is unusual. Watts was far readier to do this or even to include thoughts which he felt suitable for christians even though they could hardly be in the original.

Thus several hundred years later at Ephesians 4:8, St Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, 'Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive ...' of Jesus' ascension. Inspired by this, Watt's expands Psalm 68:17-18 into four verses, headed 'Christ's Ascension, and the Gift of the Spirit', and includes a stanza:

Rais'd by his Father to the throne,
He sent the promis'd Spirit down,
With gifts and grace for rebel men,
That God might dwell on earth again.

For Psalm 67 Watts renders 'O be joyful in God all ye lands : sing praises unto the honour of his Name, make his praise to be glorious' as:

Shine, mighty God, on Britain shine
With beams of heavenly grace:
Reveal thy pow'r thro' all our coasts,
And shew thy smiling face.

This flexibility is a difference of approach that one either accepts or does not. Sometimes it works very well. Watts' Psalm 90 'O God our help in ages past' is still in every hymn book, though shortened, and altered. The original starts, 'Our God, our help in ages past'. 'Joy to the world; the Lord is come' is Watts' version of part of Psalm 98. The hymn (very popular in west gallery circles as New Jerusalem) 'Lo, what a glorious sight appears' is Watts' version of Revelation 21:1-4. The excellent hymn 'Jesus shall reign, where'er the sun' is actually Watts' version of part of Psalm 72. Excellent it may be as a hymn, but it would really be wrong to describe it as a metrical version of that psalm, or to sing it in lieu of a psalm. It should only be described as a hymn inspired by the psalm rather than a metrical version of the psalm itself.

The present day -- a personal note

It is a longstanding religious phenomenon for a beleaguered remnant to stand resolutely by a tradition which everyone else has abandoned. Churches stand up and are counted for the 1662 Prayer Book, but I have not heard of anywhere that still takes its position on Tate and Brady or Sternhold and Hopkins. I live in hope, but they have been out of print for many years.

Somebody did describe to me recently an experience which suggested they might have encountered a free church somewhere near Fort William that was still singing the Old Way in English, rather than Gaelic, about twenty years ago.

Unlike those that met west gallery music via folk music, I first encountered it when I was looking for ways of singing psalms in church that worked. Those that do not regularly go to church may not be aware that the last 25 years or so have seen changes in the style and flavour of church services as great as those of Hardy's time. There was very little change between 1870 and 1970. Since then, with new books, new hymns, the re-appearance of instruments (though not the same ones), and with the inability to maintain robed choirs, the abandonment of chanted psalms, the whole apparatus of late nineteenth century religious expression has withered away.

The reasons for the recent changes are fairly different but have some interesting cross-references to what people might have been experiencing at the end of the west gallery period. As ever, there is friction between some clergy and some members of the congregations, though it works both ways. There are clergy who are keen to push changes, with choirs and organists who resist. There are groups of enthusiasts in congregations who feel that their clergy have failed to catch the message and are sticking to dull habits. One thing that this demonstrates, is that it is oversimplification only to blame the clergy for the demise of the bands. They would not have been able to push through those sort of changes if they were not running with a tide which met the religious (or social) aspirations of a large part of their congregations. They could not otherwise have raised the money for the universal architectural restoration. Nor could they have recruited the organists and robed choirs that replaced the bands. If these changes had not struck a chord somewhere, people would have stayed away or turned to dissent. Some may well have done, but it is significant that no dissenting group has continued this tradition. Even when, later in the century, the Salvation Army appeared, its bands were nothing like the old church bands, and drew on a secular tradition that had developed meanwhile.

It also confirms a point which Rollo Woods makes. Where there is a band, each parish will have its own sound. To a large extent an organ makes a sound that is put in by its maker. With bands, each may pick up its style by watching what other churches do, but though the sounds may be similar, they will be different. A major contributant to this is that the instruments vary depending on what is available, who can play what, and even which instruments are being played by the stronger or weaker players.

There have been a number of modern attempts to produce new versions of the psalms. Just a few are excellent, but most have not worked. Some are appalling. One meets what is supposed to be 'from Psalm A' but turns out to be part of only one verse, repeated over and over again. That is all very well as long as people do not think that they have thereby sung Psalm A. If the inspiration behind the desire to continue to sing psalms is that they are as near as one can get to raw scripture, the more faithful to the original text that is compatible with singability, the better. It must be unsatisfactory the more the writer interposes his or her own thoughts, spiritual responses or perceptions between the original and the worshipper.

One appreciates the impulse that has produced modern metrical versions but it is a great pity that so few of them work. One is not even sure how widely modern hymn writers are even aware that complete metrical psalters already exist. Metrical psalms and their music were written to be used to worship God. As a west gallery enthusiast, it would be nice to see them sung for the purpose they were written, for churches to resume the use of one or other of the old psalters. One has to accept, though, that this may be difficult to achieve. As indicated above, even the Scots have 'decommended' some psalms and have now taken that process still further. Nevertheless, it would be encouraging if some of our material could find its way back into the churches from whence it came.