Two thoughts inspired by Psalm 50

Cattle of a thousand hills?

The Psalm for yesterday evening was No 50.  The broad theme is that God cannot be appeased with sacrifices if we aren’t prepared to live faithful, committed lives. Indeed, without that response of the heart, our sacrifices are a lie. They disgust him. In this psalter, there appear to be three versions, though there are actually two. There are, though, three tunes.

First thought

The first thought is a reflection on something that to me is fundamental to this collection.  Not only should one see tunes as interchangeable. The psalms themselves are not monochrome. Using a different tune, one can catch a different aspect, a different flavour, of what a psalm might be about, or what it may be saying to an occasion.

Sternhold and Hopkins provide two versions of Psalm 50 and so do I. My version B is in Short Metre. My original offering would have stayed fairly close to the John Hopkins one in that metre. Playford suggests Southwell as the tune, a straightforward minor tune now often used for Lord Jesus think on me.  It can express well a wholesome awareness of one’s hypocrisy or spiritual complacency, one’s response to the words.

However, a few years ago, to accompany a sermon on Isaiah 1:10-20, I rewrote vv 1, 4, 7-10, 14-15. I persuaded the musicians to set it to Diademata, Crown him with many crowns. That is a much more exuberant major tune.  Used for this psalm, it shifts the focus completely. Rather than reminding us of our failings, it fixes our attention on God’s glory. ‘Do I need your sacrifices when I created all the animals in the first place? Oh! Did I forget to mention? And the hills they roam over as well.’

Eventually I concluded that having rewritten the words for that selection, it was time to provide less angular wording for the rest of the psalm. That is the version that now appears as version B. Either way, there is no reason why all the tunes used for a psalm have to express the same spiritual atmosphere.

Second thought

Meanwhile though, version A is the original unaltered Sternhold and Hopkins version in the unusual metre, 10, 10, 10, 10, 11, 11. It is by William Whittingham. Some printed versions set it out with a caesura after the second foot. It has really striking words. Here is part of v 4

          “I have no need           to take of thee at all
          Goats of thy fold,        or calves out of thy stall. 
          For all the beasts        are mine within the woods, 
          On thousand hills       cattle are mine own goods;”

The tune, Old Fiftieth, is also striking. It is dignified, in G Minor but modally fluid, with some sharpened 6ths and 7ths. It has an underlying drive that well expresses the words.

There is, though a problem. What does one do with the extra half foot at the end of the last two lines?

         “I know for mine        all birds that are on mountains,
          All beasts mine are    which haunt the fields and fountains.”

If there is a living tradition of singing that tune in English, I have not managed to find it. It may be that it was played exactly as it is written. One website played a sample that does that. If so, though, it is difficult to get the words to fit. That way, also, singing those two long lines straight through, it is not clear where one would have taken a breath. Somehow, I suspect it needs a rhythm that people might once have known because they were used to singing it, but which is now difficult to recover.

There seem to be next to no other tunes in the same metre. I did, though, find the same tune in a nineteenth century hymn book trimmed  to fit six ten syllable lines. As it is a Genevan tune, it is possibly it is still used in a non-Anglophone tradition somewhere. That may not necessarily help when it comes to using it in English.

So the second thought is a call to musicians everywhere. Do any of you know how this tune should be sung to an accessible and singable rhythm? Or are any of you inspired to make something of it without doing violence to the heritage from which it comes? Comments please.


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