Singing the Psalms Anew

Psalm 78: People of the Lord; Psalm 113: Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Praise the Name of the Lord; Psalm 148: Hallelujah! Sing Praise to Your Creator

This column is the oldest continuing column in Reformed Worship. From the first issue (RW 1, Advent 1986, then named “Hymn of the Month”), the column guidelines set a goal that “one (or more) should be a psalm or a setting of Scripture.” That guideline has been followed more or less over the years, but in this issue, we’re happy to offer all psalm-based songs as a way of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (1509-1564). It was Calvin who both inspired and shepherded the process of preparing the whole book of psalms for singing in the language of the people, a monumental and lasting gift of the sixteenth-century Reformed tradition to the Christian church.

Calvin did not continue the tradition of chanting the psalms, in which the exact words of Scripture were retained, using adaptable melodic formulas. In a way, that is surprising, considering his high view of Scripture and the great Reformation theme sola scriptura.

In the Western church, the chant tradition was over a thousand years old, but for most of those years the psalms were sung by monks and clergy in Latin, not by the people. Calvin wanted to give the people their own voice in worship. So instead of chant, Calvin turned to the kind of poetry and melody that connected with the culture of his day. He did this so that all people—men, women, and children—might sing together in their own language, in music that could become the heart songs of the people with melodies that arose from their own sixteenth-century culture.

People for generations sang these psalms not only in church but also at home. The psalm texts have continued to be translated and updated for singing to sixteenth-century Genevan tunes. Some Reformed communions still retain the entire set of melodies—for example, in Canada, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Hungary, and the Netherlands.

We could celebrate Calvin’s legacy with three songs from that Genevan Psalter of 1562, but instead we chose to follow in Calvin’s footsteps by providing three songs that reflect the kind of poetry and song that connects with our own times. And as this is a celebration, we have chosen to focus on songs of praise, although Calvin certainly encouraged the singing of not only praise but also psalms of lament, of wisdom, of history.

So in this anniversary year, let’s celebrate this wonderful Reformed tradition with lots of praise, in voices from Reformed Christians around the world.

People of the Lord (Psalm 78)

Our first example is a setting of the first seven verses of Psalm 78, a psalm that encourages parents to teach their children the wisdom from God’s Word, so that they in turn tell the next generation. This setting by Greg Scheer won the international competition sponsored by the Patronage Committee of the Jubilee Year to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. Check out www.calvin09.org to see this song printed not only in English, but also in Dutch, French, German, and Spanish; you can also listen to it there (under Quick Links on the right hand side of the web page). The results of an international sermon competition are also posted at that site.

Scheer’s melody was composed in the very unusual meter of 7/8. At first glance 7/8 might seem to be a very difficult meter, with groups of 2 + 2 + 3 notes in each measure. But the tune just dances, and it stands right in the sixteenth-century melodic tradition: the familiar Genevan tune for Psalm 42 (also sung to the text “Comfort, Comfort, Now My People”) similarly alternates between duple and triple beats (3 + 3 + 2 + 2).

Greg Scheer’s arrangement makes the tune very accessible by using an echo pattern that could be sung or played on an instrument. Try having the choir introduce it, if possible with children on the echo, which would be symbolic and delightful. Sing it in unison through the first eight measures, and then break into harmony. I find the last measure before the repeat sign a bit challenging; it’s great to keep the meter going, but it may be hard for the people to come in confidently on the first beat for each stanza. Instead, at the end of the introduction and between stanzas, experiment with playing one 4/4 bar with two strong half notes (for example, stretching the first 2 beats of measure 8 into 4 beats), then landing solidly on the first downbeat.

Greg Scheer is minister of worship at Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a music associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. He is also author of The Art of Worship: A Musician’s Guide to Leading Modern Worship (Baker, 2006). To find out more about his music, including many songs downloadable for free, see his website, www.gregscheer.com. When I asked Greg for some background notes on the song, he wrote:

The song can effectively be sung a cappella accompanied by light percussion (hand drum, tambourine, triangle) or with the keyboard accompaniment. One of the things I worked on the longest was deciding what to call the hymn’s tune; . . . it didn’t occur to me at all until someone pointed it out that I had just written a setting of Psalm 78 in 7/8 time. But that’s typical of life when you’re a composer—things take on a mysterious life of their own once they leave your pen.

Psalm 113: Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Praise the Name of the Lord

How fitting to use an Egyptian song for this setting of Psalm 113, since this psalm is the first of a set of psalms known as the “Egyptian Hallel” (Ps. 113-118). These psalms came to be used in Jewish worship especially during religious festivals. Psalms 113-114 were sung at the beginning of the Passover meal; Psalms 115-118 after the meal. Jesus and his disciples probably knew these psalms by heart and possibly sang Psalm 113 the night Jesus was betrayed.

Psalm 113 celebrates both the exalted God who reigns on high and the merciful God who reaches down in love to raise up the poor and needy. This setting is from the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt. The folk-like and very accessible tune was composed by Boulos Boshra, a composer and church musician from Cairo who leads a well-known worship team. He sometimes takes the team on tour and has written two books in Arabic: Fn Al-Tasbeeh (The Art of Praise, 1998) and Quat Al-Tasbeeh (The Power of Praise, 1993), published in Cairo by Fariq al-Tasbih (available at Calvin College’s library in Grand Rapids, Michigan).

There has been far too little connection between Christians in the Middle East and the West; this past January at the Calvin Symposium on Worship we sang the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic, composed by a woman from Lebanon. Someone mentioned afterwards, with tears in her eyes, that this was the first time she had ever heard the Arabic language in anything but the context of terrorism on Western news. It was profoundly moving for her to be reminded that there are many Christians in that part of the world—a fact so often forgotten by Western Christians. Both that setting of the Lord’s Prayer and this setting of Psalm 113 will be included in the forthcoming Global Songs for Worship, a song collection scheduled for release later this year by Faith Alive Christian Resources. For the first time, these songs, a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ from the Middle East, will be accessible to North American Christians.

The Presbyterian Church in Egypt, also known as “The Synod of the Nile,” shares a remarkably similar psalm singing history with the Christian Reformed Church in North America: both denominations began in the 1850s, and both sang only psalms in worship until the 1930s, when they also started to include hymns in public worship. I had the opportunity to worship with them in 2005, when I participated in their annual denomination-wide Prayer Festival. These people know how to sing! My memory of that event is of hundreds of people singing in full voice, often from memory with eyes closed, virtually drowning out the simple accompaniment by a piano or accordion. They sang in Arabic, of course, which, like Hebrew, is written from right to left. An earlier edition of their denominational hymnal even included music notation from right to left! The 2006 edition, however, has notation from left to right. The text is not written with the music but below, so that people can still read the text from right to left.

Consider singing this song at the opening of a worship service anytime. The recording online is taken from a set of CDs of all 518 songs in the Egyptian hymnal.

Psalm 148: Hallelujah! Sing Praise to Your Creator

At the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship, a group from Indonesia sang this joyful setting of Psalm 148, the psalm that invites anyone and everything to praise our God. The melody has stuck with me ever since!

The song, under its original English title “Sing the Lord a New Song,” is included in Sound the Bamboo, the most comprehensive collection of worship songs from all across Asia, with its many countries and cultures. I-to Loh (see RW 28) spent the better part of his life collecting, editing, and making available the rich diversity of songs from Asia in as authentic a way as possible. GIA Publications is nearing completion of his companion volume to Sound the Bamboo, which people across the world are eagerly awaiting! This song will also be included in the forthcoming Global Songs for Worship.

The Psalm text in Indonesian was prepared by Tilly Lubis in 1988. A new English versification to fit this traditional Indonesian melody was prepared in 2009 by David Diephouse, professor of history at Calvin College; he is a gifted musician as well as a text writer.

This psalm setting was arranged in SATB form by H. A. Pandopo in 1999, and provided with a simple keyboard accompaniment in 2008 by Christina Mandang, professor of worship at the Reformed Seminary in Jakarta, Indonesia. She wrote, “We usually use some djembes, maracas, wooden sticks, cabassa and some other percussion instruments to accompany that song.” Watching and hearing her lead this song was a delight. First she demonstrated with her Indonesian group, and then everyone sang together. They also moved to the music in ways that invited everyone to dance along.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.