Psalm 54 – Bryn Calfaria

Bryn Calfaria – my painting of the way of the Cross.

For some time, I have wanted to produce words that will go to the beautiful Welsh tune Bryn Calfaria. It is  quite a difficult metre to write to, 87 87, 4×3 (or 12), 77. I have at last done so, and I think, at the same time produced a way of replicating a characteristic feature of Psalm 54.

The words – Psalm 54

Psalm 54 is a psalm which very visibly is built round a chiasmic structure.  These are the words as they appear in the Common Worship prose version, set out so as to show how the chiasmus works. One can do the same exercise with any other prose translation.

“1 Save me, O God, by your name and vindicate me by your power.

2 Hear my prayer, O God; give heed to the words of my mouth.

3 For strangers have risen up against me, and the ruthless seek after my life; they have not set God before them.

4 Behold, God is my helper; it is the Lord who upholds my life.

5 May evil rebound on those who lie in wait for me; destroy them in your faithfulness.

6 An offering of a free heart will I give you and praise your name, O LORD, for it is gracious.

7 For he has delivered me out of all my trouble,  and my eye has seen the downfall of my enemies.”

The core phrase, and so the message of the psalm, is the verse that comes in the middle “Behold, God is my helper; it is the Lord who upholds my life”. The other verses centre on that. They are wrapped around it. Somewhat surprisingly, ‘the Lord’ in this verse is Adonai, and not the Sacred Name.

So the psalm starts with verse 1, a cry to God, and verse 7 gives the answer to that cry.  Verse 2 is a prayer, and verse 6 is the offering of thanksgiving that goes with that prayer. Verse 3 deals with hostile strangers, and v 5 with what  the psalmist wants to happen to them. Throughout all, the psalm remains symmetrically centred on the key message v4, ‘God is my helper. The Lord upholds my life”. That would have been instantly audible to ancient Hebrew speakers, as audible as having debating points recited to us by number, ‘first, second, finally etc.‘ is to us. Modern English verse does not use this format. English speakers cannot hear it.

I felt the tune of Bryn Calfaria fitted the theme of Psalm 54 rather well.  However, with its verses being quite long, the chiasmus could not be echoed by having separate verses for each verses of the original, as I have done with the Colossian Creed (see Book 6). Then it occurred to me that the answer was to turn verse 4 into a chorus and to make sure that it also occurred where it comes in the sequence. To add to the effect, I have taken an additional liberty. I am using as my excuse one of the differences between Hebrew and English.  This is the way the tenses in Hebrew work differently from English. Furthermore, the ‘is’ in ‘God is my helper’ only appears because English syntax requires it. The Hebrew is just ‘God my helper’.  So it occurred to me that if the phrasing of the chorus changed slightly, it could convey something of the progression of the chiasmus through the psalm, how verse 4 takes one from the cry in verse 1 to its resolution in verse 7.

So here are the words. They do not work without the tune. I have set them out slightly differently from usual:-

1. By you name God, save me and by ~ your strength bring justice for me.
2. Give ear, God, to my prayer, my cry,  ~  to my mouth’s heart-spoken plea.
Come to my aid x 3.
May the Lord sustain my soul, ~ God the Lord sustain my soul.

3. Standing against me strangers rise:  ~  ruthless scoundrels wish me ill:
Not holding God before their eyes; ~ and seeking my soul to spill.
4. God be my aid x 3.
Let the Lord sustain my soul, ~ God the Lord sustain my soul

5. Let rebound on my foes that thing ~ they planned on me to send:
In your faithful truth abiding ~ crush them; bring about their end.
God is my aid x 3:
And the Lord sustains my soul, ~ God the Lord sustains my soul

6. A sacrifice I’ll freely slay,  ~  your good name to praise O LORD:
7. You’ve saved me from distress’s sway ~  and I’ve seen my foes abhorred.
You are my aid x 3:
For the Lord’s sustained my soul, ~ God the Lord’s sustained my soul.

The tune – Bryn Calfaria

The ‘f’ in Calfaria is pronounced as a ‘v’ would be in English. Even without realising that, it is not difficult to work out that Bryn Calfaria means ‘Hill of Calvary’. The melody was written by William Owen ( 1813-93) Prysgol, but there seems to be doubt in some sources as to whether the settings now used  – or rather more accurately, which setting or any of them – is his original. If none are, as far as one can tell, they have probably evolved rather than re-set by anyone specific. Here it is in G minor, which is its usual key. The tune works as, then 4×3 working up to a crescendo then the final 7 line is repeated. In what seems to be the ‘Welsh’ version, the three repeating phrases are slightly fugal, the lower parts coming in two notes behind the top line. Particularly in the Welsh version, the first of the 7 syllable lines, the falling one, should be sung more slowly.  In some English versions the fugal element is omitted and the tune therefore simplified. The Welsh version is here

Bryn Calfaria in hymn format-v2-welsh-in-g
Bryn Calfaria in hymn format (Welsh version)

And here it is in four parts:-

Bryn Calfaria in four parts-v2-welsh-in-g
Brun Calfaria in four parts (Welsh Version)

Here is a link to Bryn Calfaria on the PsalmsandPsimilar Soundcloud pages.

This tune is redolent with hwyl, a tune with deep resonances of Welsh Revival. Before John Hughes’s Cwm Rhondda became the tune indelibly associated with those word, it was widely used for Guide me O thou Great Jehovah. In some countries it is used for Lord enthroned within heavenly splendour .

This is the simpler ‘English’ version, which probably will not eventually appear in the collection itself. It is also unlikely to be added to the sound samples.

Bryn Calfaria English Version in hymn format
Bryn Calfaria in hymn format (English version)

This is the second of the three Welsh hymn tunes to make this collection  which Vaughan Williams wrote Preludes inspired by. The others are Rhosymedre, which is one of the tunes for the C version of Psalm 126 in 148th Metre (6666 88)and Hyfrydol, in 87 87 D I will sing the wondrous story, and also sometimes Love Divine. That tune is probably too closely linked to those hymns to be able to make this collection as the tune for something else.

Let me know what you think of Psalm 54 to Bryn Calfaria.


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