Tag Archives: Bay Psalm Book

For Additional Exploration – The Bay Psalm Book

Copies of The Bay Psalm Book are still in existence.  Once such copy resides in the Library of Congress and is available to see in a special digitized version.  Check out this national treasure:  Bay Psalm Book / Library of Congress

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6th Sunday after Pentecost – 8 Jul 12

Bay Psalm Book

Opening Voluntary: Variation on Wer nur den lieben Gott – Kurt Fiebig (1908-1988)

At the Communion: Andante – Friedrich von Spee (1591-1635)

Closing Voluntary: Variation on Wer nur den lieben Gott – Kurt Fiebig (1908-1988)

This week at St. Mary’s, we commence with the first installment of an occasional series on American Hymnody, beginning with what were likely the first “American” hymns, namely metrical psalmody.  With the advent of the Reformation in England, the use of Latin liturgy and hymns was discontinued and indeed prohibited.  Following somewhat the lead of continental reformers such as Martin Luther, various authors began re-translating the book of Psalms into metered, rhyming English versions that could be used more readily for congregational singing.  From the first, this was a controversial task, setting in opposition those of more Puritan sensibilities, who felt that fidelity to Hebrew originals was primary, against those of more Episcopal tendencies, who felt that the integrity of the verse in English was an equally, if not more important concern.  One of the very first English metrical psalters, that of Sternhold and Hopkins, became, unofficially, the “hymnbook” of the Church of England for more than a century until it was replaced by a more “poetic” translation by Tate and Brady during the reign of William and Mary. The Puritan pilgrims, however, brought to America not the de facto “official” version of Sternhold and Hopkins, but one from the early 17th century, produced on the continent for English separatists living abroad.  This version, however, was often difficult for English speakers and congregations, as the music was typically continental, particularly French in style, and its varied rhythms and meters made congregational use difficult.  Starting in 1630, clerics in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of New England began the process of the preparation of a new Psalter for their own use, culminating in the year 1640 with the publication of what is now known as the Bay Psalm Book.  This was, literally, the first printed publication of any kind produced in the North American colonies as well as the first hymnal produced and printed on what is now American soil.

Today, at the Psalm, we sing selected verses from Psalm 48 from the Bay Psalm Book version. Even by then-contemporary standards, the quality of the verse could not be seen as particularly high.

Psalm 48 – The Bay Psalm Booke, 1640 (selected verses)

1. Great is Jehovah, and he is

to be praiséd greatly

   within the city of our God

in his mountain holy.

2. For situation beautiful,

the joy of the whole earth

   mount Sion; the great King’s city

on the sides of the north.

3. God in her palaces is known

to be a refuge high.

   For lo, the kings assembled were:

they passed together by.

4. They saw, and lo they marveléd,

were troubled, fled for fear.

   Trembling seized on them there and pain

like her that child doth bear.

5. About the hill of Sion walk,

and go about her, ye,

   and do ye reckon up thereof

the tow’rs that therein be. 

6. Do ye full well her bulwarks mark,

her palaces view well

   that to the gener-a-ti-on

to come ye may it tell.

7. For this same God he is our God

for ever and for aye;

   likewise unto the very death

he guides us in our way. 

As the writers of the Bay book themselves wrote in their own Preface:

If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God’s altar needs not our polishings: Exodus 20. For we have respected rather a plain translation, than to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language…that we may sing in Sion the Lord’s songs of praise according to his own will; until he take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our Master’s joy to sing eternal Alleluias. – Bay Psalm Book

The Bay Psalm Book was, in its initial version, published without the inclusion of music, and the users of the Bay book were admonished to make use of “very neere fourty common tunes” that were in general use at that time.  Most of these tunes, used in both the colonies and England, were in a single meter, known sensibly as “common meter” and abbreviated in our modern hymnals with the initials “C.M.” This simple tune form consists of four lines of 8 alternating with 6 syllables to form a stanza. The dominance of this particular meter was to influence English-language hymnody for centuries to come.  By the time of the third revised version of the Bay book’s third edition of 1651, 121 of the 150 Psalms were in C.M. form.  Our present hymnal of 1982 includes 52 C.M. tunes paired with 72 different hymn texts constituting a full 10% of this hymnal and including such favorites as the tune NEW BRITAIN, the tune for the cherished 19th century hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

Today, we sing the selected verses of Psalm 48 to the tune known as CAITHNESS.  This tune first appeared in print in the harmonized Scottish psalm book of 1635. The tune was named after the most remote of Scottish counties at the extreme northeastern tip of the country.  Although initially paired with what our hymnal commentary characterizes as a “wild and barely literate” harmonization, it was to be revived with a new harmonization in Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1904.  It appears no less than three times in The Hymnal, 1982.

In addition to the Psalm, we pay tribute once more today to the tradition of metrical Psalmody in the tune for our non-metrical entrance hymn, #709, with another C.M. tune by the name of DUNDEE.  This tune first appeared in a 1615 Scottish psalter and was later  included in Thomas Ravenscroft’s English psalter of 1621.  It was very likely one of the “common tunes” that was referred to in the Preface of The Bay Psalm Book quoted above. Another “favorite” of the common meter tradition, The Hymnal, 1982 pairs this tune with a full three different hymn texts.


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