3. Metre

Fundamental to using this collection is a simple understanding of metre. Most singable English verse is written in metre. It is the fact that it is not translated into metrical form which renders prose psalters unsingable by ordinary people.

Rhythm is dependent on the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables.  It can be quite a complicated subject, but is best learnt by becoming familiar with hearing it. In the most widely used English rhythm, the stressed syllable follows the unstressed one.  This pattern is called Iambic. It is important to realise that not all stresses or ‘unstresses’ are equal. Combinations of syllables that ought not to work, do and combinations that ought to work, do not.

The Three Standard Metres

The majority of psalms and tunes in this collection are written in what is called Common Metre (CM) or ballad metre e.g.  ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ and ‘there is a house in New Orleans’. Set out as poetry, this pattern is:-

˘ – ˘ – ˘ – ˘ –

˘ – ˘ – ˘ –

˘ – ˘ – ˘ – ˘ –

˘ – ˘ – ˘ –

The first two syllables often both carry a stress, known as a spondee.

For hymn tunes, the convention is to count the number of syllables in each line, for classification purposes ignoring the stress pattern. So Common Metre is 8 6 8 6.

If there are eight syllables in each line, that is 8 8 8 8 and known as Long Metre (LM) e.g. The Old Hundredth and Waly Waly.,

The pattern 6 6 8 6 is known as Short Metre (SM) e.g. ‘Blest are the pure in heart’.  It is thought originally to have been a dance metre.

An eight line tune which repeats one of those patterns twice is described as Double Common Metre (DCM), (DLM) or (DSM) respectively.  A typical double metre tune is Kingsfold, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’.  This collection has tried to source more of these than there are in most hymn books. Indeed tunes in DLM are fairly rare. In some DCM tunes, the tune changes flavour between first and second part. Vox Dilecti is an attractive example.

As a further example, a psalm with four lines of ten syllables, or tune to fit that pattern, will be described as 10 10 10 10.

To work as a hymn tune, the rhythm in the music must be a workable fit to the rhythm of the words. Curiously, though, too regular, too correct, a correspondence between the theory and practice of both metre and rhythm can be a bit dull to sing.

This will all be familiar to most church musicians. There are though other features of this that are less familiar, and less widely appreciated.

First, one surprising thing about fitting words to music is that what works as poetry does not always work set to music.  Likewise, hymns and metrical psalms are written to be sung.  What does not read well on the page as poetry, indeed, something at which accomplished poets may sneer, may work well when set to music. In addition, verse that is only intended to be read, and is not written to be sung, can handle much more flexibility as to the actual number of syllables than verse that is to be sung. Secular folk soloists can also handle this in a way that church musicians are not free to do. Their role is not a performance. It is to enable the congregation to sing.

Second, different metres work differently. LM has four lines of equal length. CM does not. The first and third line in each verse are a foot longer than the second and fourth. The usual convention with LM is that the last syllable of each line rhymes. In CM, usually only the second and fourth line need to rhyme.

A feature of CM that results from the length of the lines is there is a much more definite break between the second and third line than between first and second, or third and fourth. This is because notionally the ear hears and needs to experience the fourth empty foot at the end of the middle line in the verse. So Common Metre works better played and sung so that there is just a caesura, i.e. hardly any break, between the first and second line or between the third and fourth.  The first two lines should be linked, but the relationship between them and the third or the third and the fourth is more fluid. To some extent this is also true of SM even though the two halves of the verse are not the same length.

Thoughts can comfortably run over between those lines. This is known as enjambment. Indeed, it adds variety and stimulus to singing them if the caesura in thought does not always coincide with the caesura on the page. However, with CM enjambment does not work at the break at the end of the six syllable line, i.e. between the second and third line. The various writers of SH and TB seem consciously or instinctively to have known this.  The Roux (R) version breaks this principle fairly frequently.  The examples invariably demonstrate why this does not work.

This collection has adopted the convention of setting out CM psalms that way, with a ~ between the 8 and 6 syllable lines.   When, as often the case, that break comes before the penultimate note of the bar, it is likewise usually marked in the music as a ″ rather than by the insertion of a bar line.  That is how CM tunes are best played.  Treating a CM verse as four equally end-stopped lines with a full breathing space between each one is a bad practice, to be thoroughly deprecated.  Most musicians already instinctively know this.

LM works quite differently.  As each line is the same length, whether sung to a stately or a lively tune, though enjambment does work better between the first and second pair of lines than between the second and third, the lines are best treated musically as four distinct statements,

Third, and related to this, although there are many good tunes with 7 syllable lines, there are relatively few psalms or canticles in this collection written to them. Once one becomes used to writing six or eight syllable lines, it becomes surprisingly difficult to write seven syllable lines or to feel how to handle the spare syllable.

Fourth, modern fashion for verse dislikes unusual or distorted word order. So far as possible, the syntax of verse should be the same as conversational prose. This collection contains many altered versions of work written under different conventions.  Furthermore, just as those who use buildings designed by architects of past ages say one should live with, rather than fight against, their architecture, so one has to live with, rather than fight against, the rhythm of the metre in which one writes. One characteristic of most of these metres, is that they naturally place an emphasis on the words that rhyme. If that means the object of a verb has to be placed before a verb in stead of after it, then so be it.

Furthermore,  it is hard enough being faithful both to the meaning and the metaphor of the original text, and then rendering poetry in one language into singable verse in another.  Measured against those demands, trying simultaneously to meet a preference for syntactical order that is often out of sympathy with the way the metre works,  is well down the list of priorities of aspiration.

Other metres

148th metre. Not all the psalms in the collection are in the three standard metres. Psalm 148, for example, is in 6 6 6 6  4 4 4 4, often referred to as 148th metre,  The best known tune in that metre is the one now sung to Baxter’s ‘Ye holy angels bright’, but originally written for this psalm and known as Darwell’s 148th.

Six line metres. There are some psalms written to six line metres. With those it is important to recognise that not all six line tunes fit the sense of six line verses. It depends how the verse is constructed. Most six line tunes in modern hymn books are written on the assumption that the verse consists of three pairs of lines. However, there are several traditional psalms which are written in six line verses with the lines grouped as two batches of three lines each. Psalm 37 is an example. The text is set out so as to show this. The two preceding lines build up to the third line and the sixth line respectively. Since form follows function, it is not appropriate to sing six line psalms to a tune which has the right number of lines but does not fit the way the sense is constructed in the verse.

Chant. Should you really wish to do so, it is possible to chant many of these psalms to CofE style chants.  Since each verse is the same length, this would be monotonous for more than a few verses.