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The book of Psalms is a collection of 150 Hebrew poems which were sung as part of the regular worship of the Temple at Jerusalem. Formerly attributed to King David, they are now known to be the work of various writers over many centuries.

Such a collection, while it could easily be the source if much interest, could nevertheless be no more than a historical document. Yet the Book of Psalms is much, much more than that. It survives to this day in the worship of the Jewish Church, and it has always formed an intrinsic and considerable part of the formalised worship of the Christian Church. The seventh-century Rule of St Benedict provides for the whole of the Psalter to be read each week during the course of the daily Offices: the English Prayer Book of 1549 and 1662 provide for its entire recitation each month during Morning and Evening Prayer. It is clear that Jesus was familiar with its contents, as indeed he was with the whole body of Jewish Scripture: and today, two thousand years later, the psalms are as deeply embedded as ever, albeit in many different translations, in Christian worship.

Unusually, it is not the translation in the Authorized Version of 1611 that is familiar to English-speaking peoples (indeed, it is rare to hear the psalms read in that version), but the incomparable translation of Miles Coverdale, who translated the whole of the Bible in the sixteenth century - not from original sources, but from a variety of Greek and Latin versions. His translation of the psalms was the one incorporated in the Prayer Books if 1549 and 1662, and it remains probably the best-loved and best-known version, even if not perhaps any longer the most widely-used. While it can be faulted on grounds of strict accuracy, it remains true to the spirit of the original poetry in its own sense of poetry, its most wonderful command of language, and in its retention of the Hebrew device of parallelism, whereby the second half of each verse either reiterates the meaning of the first, or expands it, or contrasts with it (every verse is in two halves, separated by a colon).

Such psalms as the twenty-third, or the opening of the twenty-second, have gone deep into our cultural thought by virtue of their context and meaning - as well as by their utterance at the lips of Christ and their fulfilment in his life. One could quote numerous further instances (in fact the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations cites a large proportion of the entire psalter). Hardly less remarkable is the number of phrases which have seeped into our common language quite outside their original context. Rod of iron, clean forgotten, pain and grief, the twinkling of an eye, threescore years and ten - these are just a few examples, no less than three of John Buchan’s works take their titles from the psalms: The Moon Endureth, The Runagates Club (runagates, a corruption of renegades, appears in Psalm 68) and Streams of Waters in the South (Psalm 126, in a Scottish metrical version). This is not just the whim of an individual writer: it was generally assumes that readers would recognise such allusions. Present-day writers cannot assume such widespread knowledge of he Prayer Book: such a title as Devices and Desires no longer strikes a universal chord of recognition!

What is the secret of the Psalter's popularity, its continued use and relevance, and its special place in our affections? It is, surely, that the psalms cover the whole range of human feelings and emotions: praise, joy, trust, hope and love: but also contrition, sorrow, fear, despair and - there is no denying it - hate and revenge. In their refusal to duck issues or try to shelter from the dark side of human nature, these ancient poets have struck echoes in the hearts of worshippers down the centuries. And the emotions certainly run deep: “Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children: and throweth them against the stones” (Ps. 137 v.9, speaking of the exile in Babylon) is only one twist in a fairly constant thread of malevolence towards the heathen. And if Psalm 23 is the quintessential expression of total trust, Psalm 88 is perhaps the blackest expression of utter and unrelieved despair ever penned by mortal man. Yet, even if there is a general confidence that God’s judgement will mean the overthrow of one’s own particular enemies, and even if the periodic con-version of the heathen is very occasional and even more brief (normally just ne verse - Ps. 78 v. 35 and Ps. 106 v. 12, for example!), there are also nevertheless rare glimpses of a vision in which God’s rule extends to all peoples (Ps. 82 v. 8), and indeed visions of a life beyond this of a quality not often encountered in the Old Testament (Ps. 16, vv. 10 - 12). It is because of this complete portrayal of our human condition, not in spite of it, that the psalms form such an essential and living part of Christian worship. The enrichment they have brought to that worship cannot be overestimated.

Right from he outset, the psalms have been seen in a musical context: it is no coincidence that the word “psalter” means both the collection of the psalms and (as a corruption of “psaltery”) a plucked string instrument. The quantity of psalmody to be sung in the daily liturgy has always necessitated the use of some form of musical setting which covers the ground fairly rapidly (though this has never ruled out the composition of more elaborate settings of individual psalms for special occasions); and it was also necessary to devise some structure which accommodated the different length of each verse. In Christian times, plainchant became the accepted form early on, and it remains a valid and moving liturgical form, eloquent in its interaction with architectural space and expressive in its musical understatement.

It was but a short step from the plainsong tones to the slightly more rigid Anglican chant we know now: in fact of course an Anglican chant in its simplest form is little more than a harmonised version of the plainsong tones. But although isolated chants appeared in print at the end of the 16th century, it was not until 1750 that the first printed collection of chants appeared; 1808, that a printed collection first allocated specific chants to specific psalms - thereby exploiting particular expressive effects, and 1837, no less, that an edition first specified how the word were to be fitted, or “pointed”, to the music. It is evident that until about this time the pointing of psalms was all too often a free-for-all, individual singers going their own ways, even in choirs which should have known better.

Choice of chants for particular psalms has continued to be a rather personal matter, many foundations still using their own collections. The Victorian era saw prolific composition of chants: Elgar, in a characteristic moment of self-doubt, once opined that he would be remembered only for a single chant. (But a good single chant is harder to write than one would imagine! It is a measure of Elgar’s genius that in the course of just seven bars he succeeded in imprinting his characteristic stamp on one). Modern composers have continued to rise to the challenge, often with fine results, as this recording illustrates. The chants on this record inevitably reflect something of the “worship of Durham”. That to Psalm 123 is by Arnold Culley, Precentor and Organist from 1907 to 1932: that to Psalm 111 was composed for the Enthronement of Bishop David Jenkins by Richard Lloyd,Organist from 1974 to 1985: and that to Psalm 66 was composed during a sleepless night in Durham Castle by Lindsay Gray, Choral Scholar, exploring the musical potential of the Westminster chimes of the cathedral clock which was keeping him awake!

As well as straightforward single chants (repeated every verse) and double chants (repeated every two verses), other possibilities are illustrated. Barnaby’s chant to Psalm 24 alternates between unison and harmony, and between treble and bass tessituras. Nicholson’s to Psalm 101 keeps the four quarters of the chant equal (it is normal for the second and fourth to be longer the the first and third). A descant is added at climatic moments to the chant to Psalm 46 (itself an adaptation by an unknown hand of Martin Luther’s chorale tune to his German paraphrase of this psalm, Ein’ feste Burg). Lastly, a triple chant is used for Psalm 146, reflecting the structure of the psalm, which falls into sections of three verses each. Most of the psalms are enriched, supported and transported by the addition of organ accompaniment: two are left unaccompanied, and here again an understated eloquence is achieved by the absence of the organ. As is customary, the two sides of the choir, Decani and Cantoris, are heard in antiphony: here singing whole verses each, though it is also common for choirs to split each verse between the two sides. Every psalm is followed by the refrain Gloria Patri, sung after psalms since the fourth century.

As previously mentioned, there is bound to be a personal element in the choice of chants. Any shortcomings in this area on this recording must be my own; but I must also acknowledge a debit of inspiration to others, chiefly Richard Lloyd, Sir David Willcocks, Roger Lowman and Martin Neary.

© James Lancelot, 1991

Psalms.mp3

The Psalms of David Volume 3

PRCD 343

£10.-

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Joseph Barnaby

Psalm 24 The earth is the Lord’s

J. Lemon, E. Hopkins, G. Garett, A. Mann

Psamln 119, verses 73-104 - Thy hands have made me

B. Jacob, P. Buck, T. Walmisley, F.G. Ouseley, P. Hull

Psalm 18 I will love thee O Lord my strength

Edward Hopkins

Psalm 15 Lord who shall dwell in thy tabernacle

Adapted from a chorale by Martin Luther

Psalm 46 God is our hope and strength

Arnold Culley

Psalm 123 Unto thee lift I up mine eyes

Herbert Howells

Psalm 39 I said I will take heed to my ways

Richard Lloyd

Psalm 111 I will give thanks unto the Lord

H. Parry, S. Wesley, J. Turle (from H. Purcell)

Psalms 106 O give thanks unto the Lord

Sydney Nicholson

Psalm 101 My song shall be of mercy and judgement

John Rogers

Psalm 131 Lord I am not high-minded

Lindsay Gray

Psalm 66 O be joyful in God

Osborne Peasgood

Psalm 146 Praise the Lord O my soul

Charles Villiers Stanford

Psalm 150 O praise God in his holiness