User:BarryJ/Proposed Category:Psalm-Tunes

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A proposed Category:Psalm-Tunes

By Barry Johnston, user:Bcjohnston523, last revised 2 December 2015.



Sacred music based on the Psalms and other Bible passages, written in three or four vocal parts, and designed to be sung a cappella without instruments, is categorized as psalmody by many authors. For example,

"The term "psalmody" is applied to that body of sacred song which is composed of metrical versions of the psalms, wherein they are adapted to modern methods of singing. It generally includes, also, similar paraphrases of other portions of Scripture.
The subject is an immensely large one of itself, and its literature most extensive. Julian, in his Dictionary of Hymnology, gives a list of three hundred and twenty-six separate publications, of substantially the entire Psalter, in English alone; besides about one hundred and twenty minor versifications. To these must be added, before exhausting the catalogue, similar attempts in other languages and also the vast number of songs ranking simply as 'hymns,' but virtually belonging to psalmody. . . It is a very large and serious question whether the displacement of psalmody by hymnody has not been extreme, and whether it may not be to the improvement of public worship and of the spiritual life to return more closely to former customs and give the 'Psalter' the place which it ought to hold in relation to the 'Hymnal,' a place original and supreme." (Breed 1903)

Psalmody began in central Europe and the British Isles in the latter part of the fifteenth century, and in New England from the early seventeenth century. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was the principal form of sacred vocal music in churches on both sides of the Atlantic – 250 to 300 years.
In English-speaking countries, "Psalmody rather than hymnody was the usage of America prior to 1800" (Julian 1907). Before about 1850 in America, and before about 1835 in England, the term hymn referred to a sacred metrical poem whose direct source was not a Psalm or other Bible passage; although many hymns have been inspired by the Bible. Hymns were usually written without music, both in original works (Watts 1706-1709, Wesley and Wesley 1739, Whitefield 1779, Newton 1779, etc.) and in compilations.
During that period, a psalm meant a sacred metrical poem based directly on a Psalm. A psalm-tune meant music designed to be sung with a metrical psalm. However, ever since the beginning of Psalmody in the fifteenth century, psalm-tunes were composed to be sung also to hymns. Some authors tried to distinguish between psalm-tunes and hymn-tunes, but for the most part psalmody and psalm-tunes applied to both metrical Psalms and hymns.
Almost from the beginning of psalmody, certain tunes were associated with certain psalms or hymns. Most church-goers in the seventeenth century could read the words of the psalms, but few could read the music, a situation which led naturally to a tune being permanently associated with a particular psalm or hymn.
In the early psalters (Sternhold 1563, Scottish 1564, Parker 1567, Este 1592, Ravenscroft 1621), tunes were printed with the psalms, and several hymns were added, as in this psalter from 1574:

Come, Holy Spirit (Veni Creator)
The humble suit of a sinner
We praise Thee, God (Te Deum)
The song of the three children
The Lord of Israel be praised (Benedictus)
My soul doth magnify the Lord (Magnificat)
Lord, because my heart's desire (Nunc demittis)
The creed of Athanasius (Quicunque vult)
The lamentation of a sinner
The Lord's prayer
The ten commandments
The complaint of a sinner
The twelve articles of faith

By the middle of the sixteenth century, sacred metrical hymns began to appear in books such as "The gude and Godlie Ballattes" (Wedderburn 1567).

Beginning apparently with the psalter of Este (1592), some psalm-tunes were named, such as Martyrs or Windsor or Dundie, so they could be used with other psalms or hymns of the same meter. In the second edition of the Bay Psalm Book, it was recommended that the metrical psalms in that book could be sung to tunes in Ravenscroft's (1621) psalter, which was very popular, and apparently widespread enough to have reached America.

Before about 1860 in America (1850 or so in Britain), a hymn was a lyric, usually metrical poem written on a Christian topic or as a paraphrase of a Bible passage. A few of the more famous hymn authors and books include:

  • Isaac Watts, 1674-1748. Hymns and Spiritual Songs, published in 1707 and following. Many editions.
  • John Wesley, 1703-1791 and Charles Wesley, 1707-1788. Hymns and Sacred Poems, published in 1739, editions in 1740, 1743, 1756.
  • Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751. Hymns Founded on Various Texts, published posthumously in 1755.
  • George Whitefield, 1714-1770. A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship, published in 1758.
  • Joseph Hart, 1712-1768. Hymns, etc., Composed on Various Subjects, published in 1759.
  • Anne Steele, 1717-1728. Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional, published in 1760.
  • John Newton, 1725-1827 and William Cowper, 1731-1800. Olney Hymns, published in 1779.
  • Benjamin Beddome, 1717-1795. Mostly published in collections between 1769 and 1787. Collected works published after his death in 1818.

A hymn can be defined as "a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper's attitude toward God or God's purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it" (Eskew 1980).





A psalm-tune is a sacred song, based on a metrical paraphrase of a Psalm, another Bible passage, or hymn (text) written in three or four vocal parts, for a cappella singing. Most psalm-tunes have lyrics associated with them: if a psalm-tune was written for a Psalm, then it has lyrics that go with it. In some cases, however, the tune was written to a specific meter, designed to be applied to any Psalm or other sacred text with the same meter.
Characteristics of psalm-tunes may include:

  • Link to a metrical version of one of the Psalms, or another Bible passage.
  • A fuging section, where the parts sing in alternation.
  • Written as a combination of specific music and lyrics.
  • Written before 1850, and for four-part a cappella singing.
  • Melody or air in the tenor part.
  • Harmony formed by the interaction of the vocal parts, rarely chorded.
  • Title referring to the lyrics, or a place name associated with the song.

Relationship to Category:Hymns

A hymn is a sacred song