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Book review: “Psalms for All Seasons”

February 1, 2012

A new psalter, Psalms for all Seasons, features settings of the psalms from a wide variety of Christian traditions.

This psalter is intended multiple purposes:  the introduction indicates use for

  • corporate worship,
  • daily prayer (basic liturgies for morning, noon, evening, and night are included; the psalter’s introduction claims that its supporting web site has lectionary texts, although I have was not able to find them there.  There are numerous other web sites with lectionary texts),
  • personal and family devotions (the psalter boldly claims that “it belongs on pianos and music stands of those with musical abilities; the texts alone provide a treasury of material for daily contemplation and prayer”), and
  • as inspiration for composers.
  • Of greater interest to me was the idea that this work could serve as a commentary on the psalms:

This Psalter is a resource for bible study, particularly as an anthology for courses on the book of Psalms…. [I]t could function as a commentary on the book of Psalms.  Each musical setting of a psalm is, in its own way, a miniature sermon or interpretation of the psalm.  Comparing the range of approaches to a given psalm offers an insightful introduction to the challenges and possibilities of the biblical psalms in guiding the Christian life.

As I discuss below, I found this potential unrealized.

The core of the book is the psalter; for each psalm the psalter includes the NRSV translation”with alternating regular and boldfaced type for responsive readings and red markings that enable the chanting of the psalm”; a “Christian prayer that responds to a theme, imagery, or basic intent of the psalm”; a footnote that has a brief commentary on the psalm and suggestions on use in worship services; settings of the psalm (mostly musical settings); and in an appendix, detailed performance notes.

For example, for Psalm 1, the NRSV text is presented, pointed for chanting, and highlighted for responsorial recitation.  The Christian prayer states:

Lord our God, giver of blessing and judgment, your Son Jesus lived the only true life.
Because of him, we can know you, love you, and delight in you.
Keep us watered by your grace and rooted in your Spirit
so that our ears will hear your voice and our feet will follow your path,
giving glory to you alone.   Amen.

As you will note, the prayer is somewhat uninspired and rambling, and not apparently tied to a liturgical tradition.

The note on the psalm states:

Psalm 1 describes and contrasts two pathways:  righteousness and wickedness.  Such imagery recurs throughout the psalms and other parts of the Bible (e.g., Jer. 17:5-8).  Like Pss. 19 and 119, it celebrates the significance of God’s law as a source of wisdom and blessing.  Early church theologian Jerome called this “the main entrance to the mansion of the Psalter.”  Much of what follows in the Psalter either expresses or appeals to its message.  Use in Worship:  preparing for or responding to the reading and preaching of God’s Word.

This is then followed by six settings:

  1. The text from the 1912 (Presbyterian) Psalter (revised in 1985; so “The man is blest who, fear-ing God, From sin re-strains his feet,” becomes “The one is blest who, who fear-ing God, walks not where sinners meet”) with music taken from the Winchester Old Psalter (attributed to George Kirbye, 1592).
  2. A responsorial setting with the refrain taken from the (1986) Gia Psalms remainder of the text taken from the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
  3. A version in transliterated Thai (together with translation) set to a traditional Thai melody (including notation for finger cymbals).
  4. “A Litany for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows” that includes reference to Psalm 1 (and Romans 6:3-4) written by one of the editors, John D. Witvliet.
  5. A Spanish setting “Feliz la gente” (together with English translation) with words and music by Juan A. Espinosa (1990).
  6. John Bell’s 1993 Iona Community setting.

Among the genres and musical styles sampled in this psalter are (the terminology is that used in this psalter on pp. 1102-1103):

  1. Eastern Orthodox Chant;
  2. Gregorian Chant and other Medieval Traditions;
  3. 16th century Genevan Psalter;
  4. Lutheran Choral Tradition;
  5. 17th-18th century American;
  6. Afro-American Spirituals;
  7. Traditional Hymn Tunes from England and Continental Europe;
  8. English and North American Cathedral Traditions;
  9. Recently Written Responsorial Psalmody;
  10. Recently Written Hymn-Like Tunes for Metrical Settings;
  11. Settings from Contemporary or Popular Worship Music from the 1970s and 1980s;
  12. Settings from Contemporary or Popular Worship Music from the 1990s and 2000s;
  13. Settings from the Spectrum of Afro-American Gospel Music;
  14. Settings from the Spectrum of Jazz Styles;
  15. Settings from Contemporary Communities of Prayer and Renewal;
  16. Settings from Latin America and Southern North American Counties (Argentina, Brazil, Caribbean, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Puerto Rico);
  17. Settings from the Middle and Near East (Israeli, Hassidic, Other Jewish melodies, Pakistan, India);
  18. Settings from Eastern Europe (Czech [the psalter refers to the old country and misspells it as “Czeckoslavakia,” Latvia, Russia);
  19. Settings from Africa (Egypt, Ghana, Malawi, Swahili/Kiyana, Yoruba [Nigeria], Zimbabwe); and
  20. Settings from Asia (Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand).

A variety of foreign languages (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) are included:  Arabic, Chinese (, Dutch, Filipino, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Muscogee, Paraguayan (do they mean Guarani?), Portuguese, Punjabi, Shona, Spanish, Swahili, Taiwanese, Tamil, Thai, Urdu, and Xhosa).   There are also some settings especially for children.

In addition, there are additional settings (Michael Morgan’s “Trees,” Song of Zechariah [Luke 1:68-79], Song of Mary [Luke 1:46b-55], Song of Simeon [Luke 2:29-32]), brief services (as noted above), appendices (including general refains, guitar capo charts, a chord symbol explanation, guitar chord diagrams, the Revised Common Lectionary, a list of psalms in the RCL), and indices (copyright holders; authors, composers, and sources; genres and musical style; subjects and seasons; metrical index of tunes; tune names; and first lines and common titles).

The translations mostly drawn on for this work are Book of Common Prayer, Common Worship:  Daily Prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, The Message, NIV, NLT, NRSV, Psalter for the Christian People, and Voicing God’s Psalms (Calvin Seerveld)

I noted numerous errors in my printing; there are frequent misspellings in the text and it appears to have been poorly proofread.

The psalter is edited by Martin Tel (Princeton), Joyce Berger, and John Witvliet (Calvin College)  The psalter has its own web site, and is co-sponsored by by the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and Faith Alive Christian Resources.  This weekend there was a symposium supporting the new psalter, although very little of the program has yet been posted (perhaps the most interesting posting to date has been the program book.)

I cannot recommend this anthology.  I had hoped that this it would help shed light on reception of the psalms; but it is somewhat randomly put together and focuses too much on contemporary settings.  The editing is poor and insights are somewhat shallow.  The general lack of reference to classical Hebrew, Greek, or Latin settings of the Psalms makes it less interesting to me.  Given the wide range of academic, devotional, classical, and literary psalters of high quality, I was disappointed by this effort.  Perhaps there are people for whom this book would be a valuable resource, but for me, this book is of marginal value and I will probably donate it.

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