Three months ago, I wrote of my decades-long effort to set the Psalms to verse so that they could be sung to their proper Genevan melodies. This began in the mid-1980s when I was around 30 years old. But I had already been inspired by Calvin Seerveld’s versification of Genevan Psalm 128 in the late 1970s, when I was studying at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. By the 1980s I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, and I was in the thick of writing and defending my dissertation and applying for jobs. As a member of the South Bend Christian Reformed Church, I occasionally tried out my versifications on the congregation during worship, using the arrangements of Dutch musician Hendrik Hasper (1886-1974).
Naturally, I could not focus on this project in a concentrated way. It could never be more than a sideline as I began teaching full time, eventually marrying, having a daughter, publishing books and articles, and occasionally travelling to the other side of the globe to lecture. Although my professional credentials are in political science, my childhood fascination with music and liturgy has stayed with me. Still, the process of setting the Psalms to verse went slowly, with more than 10 accomplished 15 years ago, during a dark summer when I suffered from the worst of depression.
Singing the Psalms
Ten years ago, I set Psalm 128 to verse the very day a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Given the optimistic flavour of that psalm, I immediately followed this up with a versification of Psalm 88, by far the darkest of the Psalms. While I was attending to the texts, I would also take on the music, coming up with my own quirky arrangements of the tunes, using basic music notation software on my computer. Given my status as an amateur musician, this took some time to carry out.
When I applied to the Stanford Reid Trust this past spring, my proposal indicated a projected target of 30 more psalm versifications during the next 12 months. I thought this a realistic goal, allowing me to continue with my other activities associated with my books and remote teaching.
At the beginning of June, I began working steadily through the Psalms. Thus far I had set to verse nearly 90 psalms, scattered throughout the canonical collection. I decided to begin with Psalm 3 (I had already done the first two) and take them in order. I kept a one-volume psalter, given to me by a close friend, before me at all times. I brought up an online resource called Bible Hub, which allowed me to compare multiple English translations verse by verse. I input the proper tune into my music notation software, rewording each line to fit the appropriate metre.
This more systematic method enabled me to work through the remainder of the Psalms at a faster pace than I had anticipated. Thus, by the middle of August, I had completed the remaining unfinished psalms, at last reaching 150, thereby exceeding the target I had set for myself in the Reid Trust proposal.
The result of my efforts is not literary elegance. Some of the Psalms are rhymed, but not all. In fact, reading some of them without the music will not suggest that we have crossed from prose into verse, but they definitely fit the Genevan tunes, conforming strictly to their somewhat irregular metres.
What will I do with all this? I hope to find someone to publish my collection so as to disseminate knowledge of the Genevan Psalter, not only among English-speaking Reformed Christians, but among other Christians unfamiliar with the liturgical use of the biblical Psalter. I pray that God will use my modest efforts to bring his inspired words to the lips of his servants as they worship together.