The Niagara Psalter
Ever since I was a young man I have been obsessed with the biblical Psalms. Perhaps it has something to do with sharing my name with the archetypal Israelite king to whom many of the Psalms are attributed. Or it may be that my love of music predisposed me to a book whose contents were expected to be sung from ancient times. Moreover, for nearly four decades my prayer life has centred on regularly praying through the Psalms, whose cadences express the sorrows, anger, joys and praise of God’s people.
Nearly 30 years ago I began setting the Psalms to verse to be sung to the Genevan melodies, having rediscovered this 16th-century psalter by way of the Canadian Reformed Churches. Since that time I have set to verse and arranged the tunes for 85 of the Psalms. I love the Genevan tunes with their irregular metres, syncopated rhythms and modal melodies. In these respects they stand in contrast to the monotonously regular metres of the 1650 Scottish Psalter, for centuries the standard for English-speaking Reformed churches.
However, the Genevan Psalms are not without their defects. To begin with, they were written for the French language, whose words have more feminine (i.e., unstressed) endings than do English words. Some of the rhyme schemes are artificial, and the stresses in the texts and music do not always match. This is true even of those languages into which the Genevan Psalter has been translated.
Furthermore, Hebrew poetry is characterized by parallelism, in which a second line repeats in different words what is said in the first. This is not easy to replicate faithfully using the Genevan tunes, some of whose stanzas have an odd number of lines. Finally, it is difficult to render into any metrical version the different numbers of lines per stanza found in the original Hebrew Psalms.
A little over a year ago I began a new psalter project which I have christened the Niagara Psalter. It began while I was going through a personal rough patch last year. During times of trial I instinctively turn to the Psalms, compulsively setting them to verse. This time I decided to compose my own tunes, whose names I have borrowed largely from place names familiar to me in Hamilton, Ont., and DuPage County, Ill., where I grew up.
In undertaking this project I have kept a few principles in mind:
I have tried as much as possible to preserve Hebrew parallelism in my texts.
I have started with versified texts and then come up with an appropriate tune to match the text. Obviously this is opposite the approach that one would take with the Genevan Psalms.
I have sought to come up with tunes that are easily singable by ordinary congregations.
But like the Genevan tunes I have used a wide variety of metrical patterns as seems appropriate to the natural rhythms of the prose texts from the English translations of the Bible.
Some of my texts are rhymed, while others are unrhymed, especially if a rhyming scheme is not suggested by the original or would do violence to it.
During this season of Advent I here present from the Niagara Psalter three stanzas of my own metrical version of Psalm 72, long acknowledged to anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world:
O give the king your justice, God,
and to his son your righteousness.
Now may he judge your people and
your poor with justice in distress.
May mountains bear prosperity
to all the people in the lands,
and may the hills in righteousness
bring bounty to us by their hands.
May he defend the righteous cause
of those among us who are poor,
delivering the needy ones
from those who would oppress them sore.
O may his life be like the sun’s
and with the moon ever endure.
May he be plenteous as the rain
that makes the grass of earth mature.
May righteousness and peace abound
until the moon has ceased to be.
May his dominion now extend
to river and from sea to sea.
May desert tribes before him bow,
and his opponents lick the dust.
May kings of Tarshish and the coasts
their tribute to the king entrust.
May all of you find reason to pray through the Psalms on a regular basis, and may everyone experience a blessed Advent and Christmas.
Learn more about his ongoing Niagara Psalter project here: genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca/niagara_psalter.