Metrical psalter

A metrical psalter is a kind of Bible translation: a book containing a metrical translation of all or part of the Book of Psalms in vernacular poetry, meant to be sung as hymns in a church. Some metrical psalters include melodies or even harmonizations. The composition of metrical psalters was a large enterprise of the Protestant Reformation, especially in its Calvinist manifestation.
psalm tune, a famous hymn from the metrical psalters

Biblical basis

During the Protestant Reformation, a number of Bible texts were interpreted as requiring reforms in the music used in worship. The Psalms were particularly commended for singing; James 5:13 asks, "Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise." Colossians 3:16 states "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God."
In the preface to his edition of the Greek New Testament, the fifteenth-century Christian scholar and northern Renaissance leader Erasmus wrote:
The Reformers, taking their cue from these Scriptures and from Erasmus, shared a common interest in Scripture that would be singable.
Various Reformers interpreted these texts as imposing strictures on sacred music. The psalms, especially, were felt to be commended to be sung by these texts. A revival of Gregorian chant, or its adaptation to the vernacular, was apparently not considered. Instead, the need was felt to have metrical vernacular versions of the Psalms and other Scripture texts, suitable to sing to metrical tunes and even popular song forms.
Following the regulative principle of worship, many Reformed churches adopted the doctrine of exclusive psalmody: every hymn sung in worship must be an actual translation of a Psalm or some other Biblical passage. Some Reformed churches, especially the Calvinists, rejected the use of instrumental music and organs in church, preferring to sing all of the music a cappella. Even today, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and other Reformed churches of the Scottish tradition maintain this practice.

The psalters themselves

During the pre-reformation days, it was not customary for lay members of a church's congregation to communally sing hymns. Singing was done by the priests and other clergy; communal singing of Gregorian chant was the function of professional choirs, or among communities of monks and nuns. John Calvin, inspired by Erasmus's comments, desired singable versions of the Psalms and other Christian texts for the communal use of the Reformed churches.

The French metrical psalter

One of the greatest metrical psalters produced during the Reformation, the Genevan Psalter, was authored for the Protestant churches of France and Geneva. It has been in uninterrupted use to the present day by the Huguenot and other French-speaking Protestant churches.
The texts of the French Psalter were brought together from two independent sources: the poet Clément Marot and the theologian Théodore de Bèze. Marot and Beza's psalms appeared in a number of different collections, published between 1533 and 1543; in the latter year Marot published Cinquante Pseaumes, a collection of 50 psalms rendered into French verse. The full psalter containing all 150 canonical Psalms, plus the gospel canticle "Cantique de Siméon", appeared in 1562.
The French psalms were set to Gregorian and popular, secular, sometimes unpublished melodies that were harmonized and altered for congregational singing. Music for the Genevan Psalter was furnished by Loys Bourgeois and others like Guillaume Franc and a certain Maistre Pierre. The composer Claude Goudimel harmonized these melodies with great variation in the complexity of the music. In some cases each part matches note for note, while others are contrapuntal or even motets. Even more elaborate musical arrangements were composed in the seventeenth century by Paschal de l'Estocart and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.
An example of the Huguenot Psalter is Psalm 24 from the French Psalter:

The Dutch metrical psalter

A metrical psalter was also produced for the Calvinist Reformed Church of the Netherlands by Petrus Datheen in 1566. This Psalter borrowed the hymn tunes from the Genevan Psalter and consisted of a literal translation of Marot and Beza's French translation. The Dutch psalter was revised on orders of the Dutch legislature in 1773, in a revision which also added non-paraphrase hymns to the collection. This psalter also continues in use among the Reformed community of the Netherlands, and was recently revised in 1985. In 1968 a new metrical psalmbook appeared, which is incorporated in the Dutch hymnbook; Liedboek voor de kerken of 1973.

Metrical psalters in German

The Genevan Psalms were translated into German by Ambrosius Lobwasser in 1573 "Psalter des königlichen Propheten Davids" and were sung a capella to Goudimel's harmonies for over two centuries. The Lobwasser psalms are still in use in the Amish congregations in North America, who took them with the Swiss Hymnbooks to the New World. The music edition of 1576 was reprinted in 2004, which was a result of the International Psalm Symposion in Emden. In 1798 the German pastor in Den Haag Matthias Jorissen gave out his: "Neue Bereimung der Psalmen" which replaced the old-fashioned psalm book for nearly 200 years. The present Hymnbook of the Evangelical-reformed Churches and the Old Reformed Churches of Germany contains the complete psalter with many psalms of Matthias Jorissen and other authors. It was an important decision of the synods to retain the psalms in the hymnbook with the Genevan tunes. The need and interest in the complete Jorissen- Psalter led to different new editions in 1931, 1951 and 2006. The last one was given out for singing of the people and not for scientific use only. Today, psalms make up a quarter of the Protestant hymn book from 1998 in German Switzerland.
Another German psalter is the Becker Psalter.

Metrical psalters in English

Robert Crowley

The first complete English metrical psalter and the first to include musical notation was The Psalter of Dauid newely translated into Englysh metre in such sort that it maye the more decently, and wyth more delyte of the mynde, be reade and songe of al men. Printed in 1549, it was the work of Robert Crowley and was printed by him, Richard Grafton and/or Stephen Mierdman. Crowley's psalter is a rare example of two-color printing in this era, which makes it visually resemble medieval manuscript psalters. Crowley also included a calendar for calculating feast days as in the Book of Common Prayer, to which Crowley's psalter appears to be intended as a supplement.
The music provided in Crowley's psalter is similar to the Gregorian tones of the Latin Sarum Rite psalter, and it can be found in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. A single note is given for each syllable in each verse, in keeping with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's mandate for the reformed Edwardian liturgy. The goal was to emphasize simplicity and to encourage attentiveness to what was being sung by omitting complex vocal ornamentation. In addition to the Psalms, Crowley's psalter includes English versions of the canticles Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and Benedicite, as well as the Te Deum and the Quicumque Vult. These are the Cantica Prophetarium retained in the Book of Common Prayer from the Sarum psalter — key parts of the Divine Office.
Crowley's lyrics are mainly based on Leo Jud's Biblia Sacrosancta, which was in turn a fresh translation from the Hebrew that maintained fidelity to its lyrical arrangement. Crowley rendered all the psalms in simple iambic fourteeners which conform to the single, short, four-part tune that is printed at the beginning of the psalter.
From Crowley's rendition of Psalm 24:
For the sake of comparison, here is how the same text is rendered in contemporary English Bibles:

Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter

published his first, short collection of nineteen Certayn Psalmes between mid-1547 and early 1549. In December 1549, his posthumous Al such psalmes of Dauid as Thomas Sternehold... didde in his life time draw into English Metre was printed, containing thirty-seven psalms by Sternhold and, in a separate section at the end, seven psalms by John Hopkins. This collection was taken to the Continent with Protestant exiles during the reign of Mary Tudor, and editors in Geneva both revised the original texts and gradually added more over several editions. In 1562, the publisher John Day brought together most of the psalm versions from the Genevan editions and many new psalms by John Hopkins, Thomas Norton, and John Markant to make up The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Collected into English Meter. In addition to metrical versions of all 150 psalms, the volume included versified versions of the Apostles' Creed, the Magnificat, and other biblical passages or Christian texts, as well as several non-scriptural versified prayers and a long section of prose prayers largely drawn from the English Forme of Prayers used in Geneva.
Sternhold and Hopkins wrote almost all of their Psalms in the "common" or ballad metre. Their versions were quite widely circulated at the time; copies of the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter were bound with many editions of the Geneva Bible, and their versions of the Psalms were used in many churches. The Sternhold and Hopkins psalter was also published with music, much of it borrowed from the French Geneva Psalter. One setting from their collection that has survived is the metrical form of the Psalm 100 attributed to William Kethe, with the tune known as the Old 100th, often used as a doxology:
In 1621, Thomas Ravenscroft published an expanded edition of the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter; Ravenscroft's edition added many more psalm tunes, some of which had been composed, since the original publication, by leading late Tudor and early Stuart English composers such as Thomas Morley, Thomas Tallis, John Dowland, and Thomas Tomkins. Another musical contributor to this volume was John Milton, senior, the father of the poet of that name.
By any objective measure of circulation Sternhold and Hopkins's psalter was a success. As a separate volume, it was re-printed more than 200 times between 1550 and 1640; in addition, the psalms in this form were included in most editions of the Geneva Bible, and also in most versions of the Book of Common Prayer. They continued to be in regular use in some congregations until the late eighteenth century.
Literary opinion after the sixteenth century, on the other hand, was decidedly negative. In his 1781 History of English Poetry, British poet laureate Thomas Warton called the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter "obsolete and contemptible," "an absolute travesty," and "entirely destitute of elegance, spirit, and propriety." In 1819, Thomas Campbell condemned their "worst taste" and "flat and homely phrasing." Sternhold and Hopkins render the beginning of the 24th Psalm in this way:

Other versified psalms in English

During the period of the English Reformation, many other poets besides Sternhold and Hopkins wrote metrical versions of some of the psalms. The first was Sir Thomas Wyatt, who in around 1540 made verse versions of the six penitential Psalms. His version of Psalm 130, the famous De profundis clamavi, begins:
Sir Philip Sidney made verse versions of the first 43 psalms. After he died in 1586, his sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, the Countess of Pembroke, completed the translation of the final two-thirds of the psalter. Together they used a dazzling array of stanza forms and rhyme schemes—as many as 145 different forms for the 150 psalms. The Sidney Psalter was not published in its complete form until the twentieth century, but it was widely read in manuscript, and influenced such later poets as John Donne and George Herbert.
However, poetry remains a matter of private devotion unless given a musical setting for trained choirs or for congregational singing. Rather than iambic pentameter, in England and Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries, the overwhelming preference in rural congregations was for iambic tetrameters and iambic trimeters, ridiculed in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Nick Bottom and the other "rude mechanicals" obsess over the need for a prologue "written in eight and sixe". The three meters then in use: Common Meter, Long Meter, and Short Meter remain in widespread use in hymnals today.

Later English metrical psalters

Later writers attempted to repair the literary inadequacies of the Sternhold and Hopkins version. The Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the British colonies in America, was a new metrical psalter:
In the 1640s, the English Parliamentarians Francis Rous and William Barton both authored their own metrical paraphrases. Their translations were scrutinised by the Westminster Assembly and heavily edited. Rous's original version of Psalm 24 read:
After much alteration, a much-altered translation based on Rous's work was approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and published in 1650 as the Scottish Metrical Psalter, to be used throughout the Church of Scotland. This showed some improvements, but ballad metre remained ubiquitous:
One of the most widely known hymns in Christian worship, "The Lord's my Shepherd", originated from the 1650 Scottish Psalter, itself a paraphrase of Psalm 23.
Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate produced A New Version of the Psalms of David in 1696; their Augustan version shows somewhat more polish than the 17th century versions:
as did Isaac Watts, who at long last breaks out of the ballad metre in his 1719 The Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Apply'd to the Christian State and Worship, which, as the title indicates, was intended as an interpretation rather than a strict translation of the psalms:
But by the time better metrical psalms were made in English, the belief that every hymn sung in church had to be a Biblical translation had been repudiated by the Church of England. A flowering of English hymnody had occurred under writers such as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, but their hymns were freed from the stricture that each verse had to be a translation of a scriptural text. Attitudes towards the Biblical text itself had also changed, with closer emphasis being paid on its exact phrasing. This new regard for the letter of the Biblical text diminished the appeal of the psalters' previous versions; those who sang them no longer felt they were singing Scripture. The success of these newer hymns has largely displaced the belief that each hymn must be a direct translation of Scripture. Now, many hymnals contain Biblical references to the passages that inspired the authors, but few are direct translations of Scripture like the metrical psalters were.

Metrical psalter in Gaelic

The Scottish Gaelic Psalter was produced by the Synod of Argyll. By 1658, the first fifty psalms had been translated into ballad metre due to the work of Dugald Campbell, John Stewart, and Alexander McLaine. A manuscript of the final 100 psalms was produced in 1691 with the entire Gaelic psalter, with revisions to the 'first fifty' being produced in 1694. The Gaelic Metrical Psalms are used to this day in the Scottish Highland Presbyterian Churches where the practice of lining out is used, in accordance with the Westminster Assembly of Divines Directory for Public Worship. The corpus of tunes has shrunk over the years with only about twenty-four in general use.

Modern-day metrical psalters

Many churches continue to use metrical psalters today. For example, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America produced psalm books based on the Scots Metrical Psalter, with the intention of making the words more modern and the translation more accurate. These were produced in 1889, 1911, 1920 and 1929, 1950, and 1973 called . A further revision has been undertaken by the RPCNA, again for the purposes of making the words more modern, and also to replace some of the more difficult-to-sing tunes, such as Psalm 62B, with tunes that are easier to sing. The new edition, , was released in 2009.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, however, produced a split leaf version of the Scots Metrical Psalter, but with additional "Alternative versions" of the words included as the second half of the book. These were culled from a number of sources, including the RPCNA books mentioned above. Whenever a new version was necessary, they merely expanded their old book, without removing any of the old translations. One of these editions was produced in 1979. They were available in staff or sol-fa. A revised Psalter in more modern idiom was published in 2004 under the title The Psalms for Singing.
The Melbourne Congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia produced The Complete Book of Psalms for Singing with Study Notes in 1991. Music in staff format is provided in a variety of meters to mostly established tunes. The texts draw from the best of older versions but providing much new material with an emphasis on accuracy.
The Free Church of Scotland published Sing Psalms in 2003, being a completely new translation. It is available in words only, and in Staff and Sol-fa split-leaf formats.
The Canadian Reformed Churches have published and sing from , the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, containing English versifications for all the Genevan tunes. In 2015 Premier Printing published which consists of the 150 Psalms as found in the Book of Praise as well as the Ten Commandments and the Songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon.

Split-leaf psalters

A split-leaf psalter is a book of Psalms in metrical form, in which each page is cut in half at the middle, so that the top half of the pages can be turned separately from the bottom half. The top half usually contains the tunes, and the bottom half contains the words. The tune and words can be matched by matching the meter; each meter is a specification of line length and stressed syllables; if a tune is in Common Meter, any set of "Common Meter" words will go with it.


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