Psalter Design Principles

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Logan

Puritan Board Senior
I've cared about psalters for quite some time and some of you may remember that I reviewed quite a few of them a number of years ago. I see strengths and weaknesses with each of the psalters available (yes, with the 1650 as well as the RPCNA psalter!) and have thought for a while on what I would think the ideal guiding principles of a new psalter would be.

I've outlined my thoughts below and would welcome critiques, things to add, or your own list.

Psalter Design Guiding Principles
  • Accuracy (compared to the original Hebrew) should be of utmost importance
    • Word for word equivalence is preferable to thought for thought (e.g., if “Lord” is used twice in the original sentence, use it twice in the stanza)
  • The goal is to represent the Hebrew as well as possible in English meter. Rhyming should be the goal but not at the sacrifice of accuracy
    • There should be no refrains or repeating of the last line to fit the meter
  • There are many sources available that render an original translation from Hebrew unnecessary: translations such as the NKJV, NASB, ESV, CSB, and psalters such as the 1650, BoPW, Sing Psalms, and Psalm Singing in the 21st Century should be good resources to compare and get ideas from.
  • The language should be in the proper vernacular of the day as much as possible
    • Avoid archaic words
    • Avoid convoluted sentence structures
    • Avoid awkward or contracted words (e.g., “ne’er”)
  • Each psalm should be singable in its entirety with a single tune (exception of 119 where each part should be singable with a single tune). Therefore the entire psalm should be in the same meter.
  • The entire thought should be contained in the stanza. It should not be broken mid-sentence across stanzas
  • Prefer to have one tune “married” to each psalm rather than a mix and match as you will
    • With this in mind, a single page of music with words is preferable to a split-leaf, for ease of use and durability.
  • A single meter is fine if it does not make singing through each psalm too cumbersome (e.g., C.M. makes singing through some psalms overly tedious). This is desirable to some people so that they can sing through the psalter with one tune but:
    • Several meters would probably be preferable as it is doubtful all psalms fit naturally into one meter. Note however that too many meters could make it too complicated and unapproachable
    • If multiple meters are available to use, analyze the psalm to see what meter it most naturally fits into (e.g., average words/syllables per natural break or verse)
  • Readily approachable tunes are to be preferred, however, there are many aids to singing available so they shouldn’t be so simple as to become uninteresting.
  • Tunes should fit the mood of the psalm as best as possible, whether reverent, joyful, solemn, contemplative, sorrowful.
  • As much as can be done while still being faithful to the above principles, this should be a joint endeavor between multiple denominations (similar to the goals for the 1912 psalter but with a better outcome)
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
Short thoughts: Having worked on my church's psalter once and now redoing it, meeting all those things is very very hard. You will compromise on something at some point. Ours definitely transgresses the contractions repeatedly. Then there are the disputed translations; you have to pick one view (this is not common but its one issue). At least two Psalms have a mood shift and deserve two tunes.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
Another thing to add is to make inexpensive, non-music edition hard copies readily available so that people can easily buy Psalters for family worship. The RPCI's Psalter is the best one currently available, but they never made a non-music edition. Whereas the Free Church of Scotland did a non-music edition of Sing Psalms for about £5 each. You can also get non-music SMVs for a similar price. I have taken to singing from the SMV again in the morning devotions, and, while I will probably upset people with this observation, I really would not want to be using it in family worship. Sing Psalms does not appeal to me that much either owing to the difficulty of matching tunes with the psalms. I find myself constantly having to sing psalms to the tune of the German national anthem whenever I use it.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Short thoughts: Having worked on my church's psalter once and now redoing it, meeting all those things is very very hard. You will compromise on something at some point. Ours definitely transgresses the contractions repeatedly. Then there are the disputed translations; you have to pick one view (this is not common but its one issue). At least two Psalms have a mood shift and deserve two tunes.

Thanks Chris, definitely agree that those are hard (which is why I use terms like "goal" and "avoid" rather than "shall" and "shall not").

Good point on the psalms with the mood shift. I don't think that it's wrong to sing it to one tune only, but if it is broken into two tunes then I still believe it should be able to transition straight from one to the next (i.e., the same meter). I find that in practice, when psalms are broken up, we tend to forget that they actually are the same psalm and treat them as two that aren't connected.

On your church's psalter project, do you have a defined list of guidelines or has it been more of a mutual understanding?

Also, I know the OPC was working on a psalter a while back but I forget what came of it. Have there been any other psalters produced in the last ten years?
 

ChristianLibertarian

Puritan Board Freshman
Singability is an absolute must. Not everyone in church is a trained musician and when a psalter selection is unsingable it shows. The opc/urc psalter hymnal is a good example. Some of the psams are absolutely unsingable. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it's intentional but I rather suspect they simply had too many musicians on the committee who have no clue that most people in church have no musical talent.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Another thing to add is to make inexpensive, non-music edition hard copies readily available so that people can easily buy Psalters for family worship. The RPCI's Psalter is the best one currently available, but they never made a non-music edition. Whereas the Free Church of Scotland did a non-music edition of Sing Psalms for about £5 each. You can also get non-music SMVs for a similar price. I have taken to singing from the SMV again in the morning devotions, and, while I will probably upset people with this observation, I really would not want to be using it in family worship. Sing Psalms does not appeal to me that much either owing to the difficulty of matching tunes with the psalms. I find myself constantly having to sing psalms to the tune of the German national anthem whenever I use it.

Sing Psalms and the RPCI's psalter are probably my two top contenders for current best all-around psalter. I really like the former's words only (with the SMV included).
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Singability is an absolute must. Not everyone in church is a trained musician and when a psalter selection is unsingable it shows. The opc/urc psalter hymnal is a good example. Some of the psams are absolutely unsingable. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks it's intentional but I rather suspect they simply had too many musicians on the committee who have no clue that most people in church have no musical talent.

I agree, but I'm curious what you define as "unsingable". We've had a number of tunes that people have thought would be really hard, but once they've actually listened to and tried it once, becomes a favorite.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
Thanks Chris, definitely agree that those are hard (which is why I use terms like "goal" and "avoid" rather than "shall" and "shall not").

Good point on the psalms with the mood shift. I don't think that it's wrong to sing it to one tune only, but if it is broken into two tunes then I still believe it should be able to transition straight from one to the next (i.e., the same meter). I find that in practice, when psalms are broken up, we tend to forget that they actually are the same psalm and treat them as two that aren't connected.

On your church's psalter project, do you have a defined list of guidelines or has it been more of a mutual understanding?

Also, I know the OPC was working on a psalter a while back but I forget what came of it. Have there been any other psalters produced in the last ten years?
The OPC (2019?), Canadian Reformed (2014) and have new psalters or psalter hymnals. The CREC has an large psalter hymanal under way (in print yet; not sure?) as well; really too large from one opinion.
I'm no Hebrew scholar; a step above totally ignorant. But my one insistence with my co-worker in the project (the pastor, who does get around in the Hebrew) is we must get as close to the Hebrew as possible without getting far afield and guard against settings that require constant paraphrasing here to shortening or adding extra words there to lengthen to make the tune work. Long meter tends to be the main offender here and in our redo we are ditching the selections from the Canadian Reformed which tend to not only be harder to sing but tend to have those issues (too early to know if any will remain).

In the LPC Psalter we have Psalm 119 divided out but all to the same tune.
 

ChristianLibertarian

Puritan Board Freshman
I agree, but I'm curious what you define as "unsingable". We've had a number of tunes that people have thought would be really hard, but once they've actually listened to and tried it once, becomes a favorite.
I don't have a psalter in front of me at the moment but there are a few in the opc/urc that are taken from symphonies that are too complicated for the average person. There are also a few that go into multiple octaves which might be fine if you're trained but the overwhelming majority have no choral training whatsoever so the psalm becomes a mess when sung.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
I don't have a psalter in front of me at the moment but there are a few in the opc/urc that are taken from symphonies that are too complicated for the average person. There are also a few that go into multiple octaves which might be fine if you're trained but the overwhelming majority have no choral training whatsoever so the psalm becomes a mess when sung.
One that comes to my mind is Psalm 110A, which is set to the tune of Jerusalem. I could see how the rhythm and melody could be challenging. Fortunately, our congregation is filled with good singers. Psalm 110A is one of my absolute favorites. But, I also have a bachelor's degree in music and love English composers. :)
 

ChristianLibertarian

Puritan Board Freshman
One that comes to my mind is Psalm 110A, which is set to the tune of Jerusalem. I could see how the rhythm and melody could be challenging. Fortunately, our congregation is filled with good singers. Psalm 110A is one of my absolute favorites. But, I also have a bachelor's degree in music and love English composers. :)
I believe that's one I was thinking of.
 

iainduguid

Puritan Board Sophomore
One that comes to my mind is Psalm 110A, which is set to the tune of Jerusalem. I could see how the rhythm and melody could be challenging. Fortunately, our congregation is filled with good singers. Psalm 110A is one of my absolute favorites. But, I also have a bachelor's degree in music and love English composers. :)
It's certainly a better use of a striking tune than William Blake's original ode to British Israelism, "And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?" - to which surely the only possible answer is "No!" For British people of a certain vintage, the tune (and Blake's words) conjure up memories of endless school assemblies ("required acts of mainly Christian worship") in which the masses were safely vaccinated against Christianity by injecting them with the dead form, lest they contract the living version. It's not coincidental that it is sometimes sung at national sporting events, which might militate against it being a good psalm tune in a British context.

By the way, I once had an American insist that "British" actually derived from berit-ish ("man of the covenant") as proof of British Israelism. Had he known a smattering of Hebrew, he would have know that berit-ish actually would mean "covenant of a man", but hey, why let facts get in the way of a wild theory?
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Chris, on your church's psalter project, do you have a defined list of guidelines or has it been more of a mutual understanding?
 

Tom Hart

Puritan Board Senior
Rhyming should be the goal
I disagree with this. English poetry in general should have less emphasis on rhyme. In the psalter it is restrictive. I would like to see a psalter that drops the rhymes and keeps the thees and thous.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Hmm, "The Tom Hart Psalter" ;)

I think most people find the rhyming a great aid to memorization. At least that's been historically true of people who memorized vast quantities of poetry. Obviously it can be memorized without it as well, but that's the primary reason I include it (not for aesthetics, but for practicality).
 
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