Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Lovely Gift of Music

By Robin G. Jordan

I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits… Martin Luther

I sojourn with a church that is very contemporary in its style of worship and uses contemporary Christian and praise and worship music almost exclusively in its worship gatherings. The church is primarily targeted at students attending the local university and young adults living in the community. It has recently launched a new ministry targeted at teenagers in high school and junior high school. The church has an excellent band of instrumentalists and vocalists and its performance of this particular style of music meets professional standards. Indeed the music is one of the church’s major attractions. A number of the band members have classical training, which may come as a surprise to some people. The band is composed largely of university students and a number of its members are majoring in music. In addition to the ubiquitous guitars and drums, the band’s instruments include electronic keyboard and have at different times also included an electric fiddle or violin and an electronically amplified upright piano.

The church’s steady diet of contemporary music has helped me to develop an even greater appreciation of more traditional forms of church music while at the same time allowing me to take note of the better songs in that repertoire. In the sphere of church music I am inclined to be eclectic, not only seeing a place for contemporary and traditional Western forms of church music in Anglican worship but also for non-Western forms of church music. While I lean toward the use of the small instrumental assemble using wind as well as string and percussion instruments and toward unaccompanied singing, I am a firm believer in taking a flexible approach, tailoring a church’s music to its circumstances, and making the best use of whatever musical resources are available to a church. A common mistake that small membership churches make is to attempt to imitate the music of larger churches.

This past weekend I listened to a medley of Psalm verses from Archbishop Matthew Parker’s The Whole Book of Psalms Translated into English Metre sung to the nine Psalm tunes that Thomas Tallis composed for them. They were sung a cappello by the Renaissance Singers.

At the time Mary ascended the English throne, Matthew Parker who was to become Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, was Master of Corpus Christi College, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and Dean of Lincoln. As a supporter of Northumberland and a married priest, Parker was deprived of his preferments. He would retire from public life and return to his native Norfolk. There he lived in obscurity and poverty throughout the larger part of Mary’s reign, pursuing his scholarly interests. He occupied his time in translating the Psalms into English and versifying them to “vulgar metres” so that they might be sung to metrical settings. He also wrote a treatise on the marriage of clergy, which he later published under the name of “Thomas Martin.”

The quiet life of a scholar held a strong appeal for Matthew Parker. When Elizabeth I ascended the English throne, she nominated Parker to the vacant see of Canterbury. Parker had served as her mother Ann Boleyn’s chaplain. Before her execution the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII had entrusted Elizabeth to his care. Parker displayed great reluctance to accept the post. However, Elizabeth and her chief minister William Cecil compelled him to take it.

Archbishop Parker’s psalter was published in 1567. Tallis provided four-voiced musical harmonizations for eight of the Psalms, as well as the hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost.” The tune Tallis composed for this hymn is now known as Tallis' Ordinal and is found in a number of hymnals. One of the eight Psalm tunes became the subject of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis . Most Anglicans and Episcopalians in North America are familiar with two other tunes from this collection Tallis’ Canon and Third Mode Melody.

Timothy Dickey provides us with the following description of Tallis’ nine Psalm tunes.

The poetical Archbishop himself offers the best summation of Tallis' music for these Psalms. He included a versified inventory of Tallis' Psalm Tunes: "The first is meek, devout to see/The second sad, in majesty/The third doth rage, and roughly brayeth/The fourth doth fawn, and flattery playeth...." And indeed, each of the eight Psalms contains its own character: the first (Psalm 1, "Blessed is the man") characterizes the righteous and devout Christian, the second (Psalm 68, "Let God arise") calls for majestic victory, the third (Psalm 2, "Why do the people rage") sounds a battle cry, and so on.

Tallis' music, as well, in all its simplicity, reflects something of these distinct characters. The first adopts a reverent minor mode, changing abruptly to major when discussing God's law, while the second takes a more direct rhythmic cast in duple meter. The third, the famous subject for Vaughan Williams' Fantasia, constantly oscillates between alternate chords, as if the issue of a battle remained eternally in doubt. Perhaps most poignantly, the fifth Tune, whose Psalm text (Ps. 42) compares the thirsty deer to the longing human soul, stretches and delays each cadence such that even within an extremely simple musical setting, the tone matches the pathos of the text.

Archbishop Parker’s rhythmic Psalter was one of the first produced for the use of the reformed Church of England. The metrical Psalter that would gain the most popularity and see the greatest use was Sternhold and Hopkins’ The Whole Book of Psalms collected into English Metre, also known as the Old Psalter. Elizabeth would authorize the singing of a Psalm before and after each service and before and after the sermon.

Elizabeth herself did not care for the metrical Psalms with tunes taken from traditional melodies, referring to these tunes derisively as “Geneva jigs.” However, the singing of metrical psalms was immensely popular with the English people. A crowd numbering in the thousands would on one occasion gather at St. Paul’s Cross to sing metrical Psalms for a large part of the day. The Elizabethans learned the metrical Psalms and their tunes by heart and sung them as they went about their daily activities, the housewife in her kitchen and the ploughman in the field.

The metrical Psalm would be the primary form of congregational church music sung in English parish churches until the early part of the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century they were supplemented by hymns written by Thomas Cotrell, John Newton, Isaac Watts, and Charles and John Wesley. It was not until the nineteenth century and the Oxford Movement’s suppression of the metrical Psalm and the village quire of local instrumentalists and singers in favor of the hymn, the vested boys’ choir, and the organ, the hymn would eventually supplant the metrical Psalm in the English parish church.

A diligent search of the Internet found that the entire text of Archbishop Parker’s The Whole Book of Psalms Translated into English Metre is on the Internet at the University of Virginia website. The URL is Like Sternhold and Hopkins’ Old Psalter and Tate and Brady’s New Psalter, which eventually replaced it, Archbishop Parker’s Psalter contains metrical versions of Prayer Book canticles and the Quincunque Vult as well as metrical versions of the Psalms and the hymn “Come, Holy Spirit.” It also includes a doxology for use with the Psalms. A number of editions of the Old and New Psalters also contain metrical versions of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Nicene Creed.

It is evident that Tallis’ nine Psalm tunes were intended for use with Archbishop Parker’s entire Psalter. In this regard Tallis appears to follow the precedence of the plainsong Psalm tones. Like the plainsong Psalm tones Tallis’ Psalm tunes are composed to capture the basic moods of the Psalms.

In singing the metrical Psalms in the Old Psalter and the New Psalter only a limited number of tunes were also used. Local musicians composed their own settings for these Psalms. These local compositions form the corpus of what is known as West Gallery music so named after the practice of constructing a gallery at the west end of the parish church from which the village quire would lead the congregational singing and perform special music.

Take a moment to listen to the Renaissance Singers’ rendition of a medley of verses from Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter to Thomas Tallis’ Psalm tunes. God has indeed bestowed upon Christ’s Church a gift of exquisite beauty and delight in the form of music.

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