Singing the Psalms: A Short History


Psalm 110 "The Lord said unto my lord" Block print by Charles Knowles. In The Psalm Book of Charles Knowles (New York: The Viking Press and Pinnacle Press, Inc. 1959, 1962).

©2001 by Elizabeth Liebert
San Francisco Theological Seminary
San Anselmo, CA  94960

Note:  Some of this material has been incorporated into John Endres and Elizabeth Liebert, A Retreat With the Psalms:  Resources for Personal and Communal Prayer (New York:  Paulist Press, 2001),  Chapter 2.

“Singing the Psalms,” though descriptive, is actually redundant.  The etymology of "psalm" reveals that word itself means "to make music."  As religious prayer and poetry, a psalm is, by definition, meant to be sung or accompanied by an instrument (Prévost 1997, 56).  John Wheeler (1993, 10) reinforces the essential musical nature of the psalms by making a far more sweeping claim:  "In Israel, as in ancient Greece, music was an integral part (italics his) of every sacred text," and here he is referring to the entire Hebrew Bible. 

To read the psalms "in one's head" or even to say them aloud reduces the psalm in a manner analogous to silently reading or reciting aloud the lyrics of a contemporary rock song or the oratorio Messiah:  we get a bit of the impact, but far from all of it.  Fortunately, an increasing number of resources can help us return to the full meaning of "psalm" as religious poetry played or sung.

Ancient psalms could have been played on a variety of instruments.  Harps, lyres, zithers and cymbals all existed in Mesopotamia from the third millennium, BCE, and in David's time singing involved accompaniment of lyres, harps, timbrels and possibly even wind instruments (Sarna 1993, 8, 144).  Today, we have pianos, organs, guitars, and a variety of string and wind instruments, as well as drums, cymbals and all kinds of other percussion instruments, both standard and improvised.  We even have entire orchestras, courtesy of modern recording and playback, if not the resources of each individual congregation.

Eventually, musicologists may accurately reconstruct what the psalms actually sounded like in ancient Israel.  However, the notations which appear at the head of the Psalm and the musical signs above and below the Hebrew text (te'amim) have proven notoriously difficult to interpret.  No one interpretation has, as yet, unanimity by scholars of ancient music, though the reconstructions by Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura have received considerable attention, especially since the cassettes are widely available.  But psalms have always been played and sung even without a living memory of the sound of the originals.  The sheer volume of psalm-settings throughout history is incontrovertible.  It is appropriate, then, that all musical resources can be brought to bear on the psalm in Sunday liturgical settings--indeed many of these same musical instruments are mentioned themselves in the psalms.  Even dance is appropriately part of this spontaneous prayer (Prévost 1997, 84).

Christian psalm-singing appears to date from its earliest days, when Christians continued their attendance at the synagogue.  The synoptic gospels (Mt 22:43, 26:30; Mk 14:26), Acts (2:25, 4:25), Paul (Rom 4:6) and other letters (James 5:13, Col 3:16; Eph 5:19) all attest to the singing psalms by the early Christian communities. The basic form of morning and evening prayer preserved and elaborated in the Divine Office grew out of this synagogue service, but as cultures and musical tastes changed, so also did the styles of singing the psalms.  Codification of much of the early centuries of sung worship is attributed to the leadership of Gregory the Great in the seventh century (hence called Gregorian chant), and it continued to be elaborated in the West long past the Protestant Reformation.  The Anglican chant tradition evolved somewhat separately after the Reformation, giving rise to its own rich tradition of similar but not identical ways of singing the psalms.

In the Reformed tradition, however, the Psalms truly became the congregation's prayer.  The Reformed tradition also spawned major departure from the way psalms had been rendered with the rise of metered hymnody.  In this style, the psalm text was translated with attention to poetic meter so that it could be sung in hymn-like tunes.  The simplicity of the metered psalm-hymns fostered the wide-spread memory and singing of the psalms, precisely the goal of the Reformers.  One major result of this "innovation" is the Geneva Psalter (1542), which was issued by John Calvin including metrical psalms of Clément Marot and musical settings of Louis Bourgeois.  In this psalter, each psalm had its own melody, resulting in a close affinity between text and tune.  The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and Worship III (1986) all contain a sprinkling of psalms from the Geneva Psalter, making a portion of it relatively accessible to contemporary persons.  In Anglican worship, metrical psalms were generally sung before and after the sermon, so made their way into the worship of a tradition which incorporated plain-chant renderings of the psalms as well (Holladay 1993, 198-201, 210).

In reformation Scotland, a second method of metered psalmody developed, the most notable example being the Scottish Psalter of 1650.  Here the psalms were translated into common poetic meters so that a variety of tune/hymn combinations could be used interchangeably.  In this case, the strictures of meter and rhyme burdened the translation, and various tunes skewed the interpretation in quite different, even contradictory ways.  Awkward syntax and "flattening" of the imagery of the psalms and distortion of the mood often resulted (The Psalter 1993, 12).  Two reactions to this "distortion" eventuated.  In the Bay Psalm Book, as it is commonly known (1640), and its long-lived successor, the New England Psalm Book (1651), the ministers were concerned to produce a rendering as close to the Hebrew as the meter would allow.  The other reaction moved toward paraphrases and hymnody that Christianized the psalms which had been their antecedents (Holladay 1993, 206).  With these paraphrases, it is difficult to know which part of Scripture is being sung, a thorny issue that arose while compiling the Index of Psalm Hymns (available on this web page).  How close does the allusion have to be to the psalm-text to be included as a psalm setting?

A great flowering of Protestant hymnody based, more or less closely on the psalms flowered from the eighteenth century on.  Two of the most important names from this era are Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.  Watts (1641-1748) deliberately Christianized his psalm paraphrases.  For example, from Psalm 72, he created "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun."  Psalm 98:4-9 became the beloved Christmas hymn "Joy to the World."  Charles Wesley drew less from the Psalms than from New Testament passages and from his own experience.  Hymnody was becoming less tied to the ancient tradition of psalm singing.  A few metered psalms from the past continue to be loved and sung today, but often their origin as psalms has been obscured.  They are seen simply as wonderful hymns among many wonderful hymns which share a common repertoire of biblical images (The Psalter 1993, 12-14).

Recent years have seen a resurgence of psalm singing.  After Vatican II, with the change from Latin to vernacular in the Roman Catholic Church, entirely new psalm-settings needed to be composed for use of the religious orders for whom the singing of the Divine Office comprised a major component of their lives.  But with the move to the vernacular, it also became possible for laity meaningfully to sing the psalms.  However, in order for lay psalm-singing to become a reality in the Roman Catholic Church, simple method which could be learned easily was needed.  Prior to Vatican II, in the early 1950's, Joseph Gelineau, a French Jesuit, had developed such a method, in which he sought to preserve the rhythmic structure inherent in Hebrew poetry.  The rhythm of the singing moves on the stressed syllables, a style called "sprung rhythm."  The sprung rhythm allows for the singing of unmetered texts such as the psalms without distorting the meaning by "packaging" them in poetic meter.  Gelineau based his tones on ancient psalm tones.  Sung antiphons, which could be elaborate or simple as the situation required, are added to the text, highlighting aspects of the psalm or sometimes a Christological interpretation.  (For a thorough treatment of Christological interpretations of the Psalms, see John Endres and Elizabeth Liebert, A Retreat With the Psalms:  Resources for Personal And Communal Prayer [New York:  Paulist Press, 2001], Chapter 10.)  English-speaking parishes sing these psalms in the 1963 translation developed by The Grail.  Generally a choir or cantor sings the psalm, and the congregation sings the metered antiphon as a refrain.

In the lineage of Gelineau, many contemporary composers continue to produce fresh and accurate renderings of the psalms.  Today the Christological reverberations around the psalms are often allowed to recede into the background of common biblical allusion.  The sprung rhythm easily accommodates contemporary translations.  However, metrical psalmody resides deep in some Protestant traditions, and it will always have a significant place in prayer and worship in these traditions.  Some of the newly composed metrical psalms are again consciously faithful to the biblical texts, and they have the same benefits today as in the time of the Reformers:  they introduce psalmody into the life of the congregation, make the psalms easy to memorize and pray wholeheartedly (The Psalter 1993, 13).

Singing the Psalms has a long and rich tradition within Christianity. Today so many new psalm resources are being produced that the whole continuum of Christian spiritual and liturgical traditions can find nourishing resources.   Every congregation can, if it so desires, step into the unbroken stream of psalm-based Christian hymnody.

Works Cited

Haïk-Vantoura, Suzanne, La musique de la Bible révélée.  Harmonia Mundi France, cassette (HMA 43989) CD (HMA 190989); Volume 2:  Paris:   Erato/Fondation Roi David, cassette (FRD 803-B); Volume 3: Paris:  Fondation Roi David, cassette (FRD 803-C).

Holladay, William L. 1993. The Psalms through Three Thousand Years:  Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses.  Minneapolis:  Fortress.

Lutheran Book of Worship.  1978.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg.

The Presbyterian Hymnal:  Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs.  1990.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.

Prévost, Jean-Pierre.  1997. A Short Dictionary of the Psalms.  Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press.

The Psalter:  Psalms and Canticles for Singing.  1993.  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox.

Sarna, Nahum, 1993.  On the book of Psalms:  Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel.  New York:  Schocken Books.

United Methodist Hymnal.  1989.  Nashville:  United Methodist Publishing House.

Wheeler, John.  1993.  "The Hebrew Old Testament As a Vocal Score."  The Hymn:  A Journal of Congregational Song.  44 (July): 10-15.

With One Voice:  A Lutheran Resource for Worship.  1995.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg.

Worship:  A Hymnal and Service Book for Roman Catholics.  Third. Edition.  1986.  Chicago:  G.I.A. Publications.

(Rev. June, 2001)

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