Metrical Psalms

The development of metrical psalms resulted from the Reformation, which introduced the then revolutionary idea that congregations should not only understand what was happening in a service, but actually take part in it. Psalm chanting was the province of professional choirs in cathedrals and the like, but then as now was considered too difficult for most congregations.

The singing of hymns in the 16th Century was regarded as being for private rather than public worship. So hymns such as Never Weather-Beaten Sail of Thomas Campion (1567-1620), sometimes heard in modern services, would have found no place in those of the 16th Century. Many clerics took the view that only scriptural texts of divine origin were suitable for singing. (It is not clear why it was acceptable for the spoken liturgy to be of human origin.) By the 18th Century, by which time hymn singing had become more common, the cleric William Romaine (1714-1795) complained thus:

"There is another thing relating to the Psalms, I cannot call it an abuse: for it is a total neglect of them. They are quite rejected in many congregations, as if there were no such hymns given by inspiration of God, and as if they were not left for the use of the church and to be sung in the congregation. Human compositions are preferred to divine. Man's poetry is exalted above the poetry of the Holy Ghost. Is this right? The hymns which he revealed for the use of the church, that we might have words suitable to the praises of Immanuel, are quite set aside: by which means the word of man has got a preference in the church above the word of God; yea, so far as to exclude it entirely from public worship."

The preference for scriptural texts explains why there are so many versions of While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. This text is a New Version paraphrase of Luke II 8-14, and was acceptable in church, while carols in general were not.


The Old Version (OV)

The history of the accumulation of metrical psalms which were eventually collected into the Old Version is well discussed in The Reformation in Rhyme: Sternhold, Hopkins and the English Metrical Psalter; 1547-1603 by Beth Quitslund (St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History, 2008). The author establishes that the Old Version, the first of the four collections widely used in Britain, though often referred to as “Sternhold and Hopkins” was in fact the work of at least eight poets. It was compiled over nearly half a century, which included the reign of Mary I, when outward signs of Protestantism were discouraged.

Quitslund shows that the texts were to some extent influenced by political events of the time. For example, in Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon …) verse 4 reads:

"Alas! said we, who once can frame
his heavy heart to sing
The praises of our living God
thus under a strange king?"

The Hebrew text makes no mention of any king, and this is considered to be an oblique reference to Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain.

The title page boasts that the psalms are “conferred with the Hebrew”, and in their efforts to be, in general, faithful to the scriptural text, the poets had to make use of considerable poetic licence. There is much inversion of the natural order of sentences, stressing of weak syllables, and added words. For example, in verse 2 of the same psalm we read “ We hang’d our harps and instruments the willow trees upon”; what instruments? The original mentions only harps, (if that is itself is an accurate translation.) The instruments are there only to make up the required number of syllables.

As with all four psalters here discussed, the majority of paraphrases are in Common Metre (8686). Indeed, it is believed that this verse form was invented for the purpose. There were also a number in what came to be known as Long (8888), Short (6686), Trumpet (66664444) and Peculiar Metre. I use the latter term to include all metres not covered by the previous four names. Some OV Peculiar Metres were not used in the later psalters, such as that of Psalms 111, 120 and 122, verses of six lines of six syllables. Some psalms were included in two separate versions, by different poets.


The Scottish Psalter (SP)

Those who dislike using the term “West Gallery” to describe our genre have a stronger case in relation to Scottish sacred music for amateur singers. The erection of a wooden singers’ gallery at the west end of a church was a largely English practice. The Scottish repertoire differs in several respects from the English. Rarely do you come across instrumental parts, suggesting that where no organ was available singing was either unaccompanied, or with a single bass instrument at the most. Consequently the music tends to be more straightforward than the English repertoire. Three part settings are common. And it is in this repertoire of music that you will find settings of the Scottish Psalter of 1650.

This psalter is similar in idiom to the Old Version, and borrows some lines and indeed whole psalms from it. It also borrows from the Bay Psalm Book of 1640, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is the work of several poets over some time, and more information about it is available at the website given below. It gives two versions of some psalms, but there is a Common Metre version of each one. Thus a choir of limited musical repertoire could always find a suitable tune.


The New Version (NV)

Unlike the two foregoing collections, the New Version was issued at one time (1696, revised twice in 1698) by just two authors, Nahum Tate (1652-1715), the Poet Laureate, who is best known as the librettist of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and Nicholas Brady (1659-1726), a cleric. This combination of poet and theologian produced an entirely new psalter, which eschewed the archaic language of its predecessors. It bore the specific approval of the head of the established church, King William III.

Tate and Brady are not thought to have been Hebrew scholars, and probably worked from the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. That bible’s ancestor was the "Bishop’s Bible" of 1568, in turn based on Coverdale’s translation, which again in turn was based partly on Luther’s German Bible. Thus the New Version had travelled some distance from the Hebrew text. The received opinion is that it is better verse than its predecessor, but less faithful to the scriptural originals.

The New Version includes only one version of each psalm. In the choice of metres the authors in one way showed more variety than those of the Old Version, making much more use of Long Metre. But in another way they were more conservative, using a smaller variety of peculiar metres.


Isaac Watts’ psalms (IW)

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) took a completely different path from his predecessors. He made no attempt to be faithful to the scriptural texts, but rather gave his metrical psalms a Christian, and in some cases a British interpretation. For example, in Psalm 47 the Book of Common Prayer has for verse 5:

“God is gone up with a merry noise; and the Lord with the sound of the trump”

and for verse 9

“The princes of the people are joined unto the people of the God of Abraham; for God, which is very high exalted, doth defend the earth, as it were with a shield.”

Psalm 47 was considered to be prophetic of Christ’s Ascension, and Watts incorporates this interpretation into his paraphrase of verse 5. As for verse 9, I leave you to form your own opinion. Watts’ paraphrases of these two verses are:

“Jesus our God ascends on high,
His heav’nly guards around
Attend him rising through the sky
With trumpets’ joyful sound.”


“The British islands are the Lord’s,
There Abraham’s God is known;
While powers and princes, shields and swords
Submit before his throne”


Watts’ choice of metres was more adventurous than that of the foregoing psalters. Several psalms exist in two or even three different metres. Often Watts chooses a particular set of verses for an alternative paraphrase. This said, for some reason no paraphrases at all of Psalms 28, 43, 52, 54, 59, 64, 70, 79, 88, 108, 137, or 140 appear. There may have been doctrinal reasons for these omissions.

Although Watts’ psalter is incomplete, it was widely used, and no other comparable collection was as well known. However, settings of metrical paraphrases by Joseph Addison (1672-1719), William Dodd (1729-77), Robert Grant (1779-1838), Phocion Henley (1728-64), James Merrick (1720-69), John Milton (1608-74), and others are to be found. Such authors usually made no attempt to paraphrase more than a small number of psalms.



This table shows the numbers of usages of psalm metres, as defined above, used in the four psalters.



Metrical Canticles

Skip this and the next paragraph if you know what canticles are. Certain passages of scripture, plus the ancient hymn Te Deum Laudamus, are regularly sung, (or sometimes said,) as part of the Anglican services of Mattins and Evensong. I use the term canticle loosely to apply also to certain passages in the Communion service, such as the Gloria. Non-conformist churches use the canticles rather little.

The Mattins canticles are the Venite exultemus Deo, (Ps 95), the hymn Te Deum Laudamus or its alternative Benedicite (Prayer of Azariah I :65 in the Apocrypha), and the Benedictus (Luke I: 68-79) or its usually preferred alternative Jubilate Deo (Ps 100). The Evensong canticles are the Magnificat(Luke 1:46-55) or its alternative the Cantate Domino (Ps 98), and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke II: 29-32) or its alternative the Deus misereatur (Ps 67). A surprising number of clergy are unfamiliar with the various alternatives sanctioned by the Book of Common Prayer.

All these canticles except the Benedicite have metrical versions in both the OV and NV. The SP has a version of the Magnificat, and Watts has versions of the three Lucan canticles. Those canticles that are psalms do not of course need a separate canticle version. The Benedicite is even longer than its alternative, and is rarely sung, but there exists a metrical version by James Merrick. It is in 888888 metre, and has 26 verses.

Other liturgical texts in metre include the Veni Creator Spiritus, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Gloria to be found variously attached to the OV and NV, together with a few hymns.

There is little evidence from manuscripts that metrical canticles were ever much sung in the West Gallery period. Quires that needed to sing a canticle had the alternatives of through-composed prose settings and chanting tunes, which are described in another article. But all three find scant place in manuscripts in comparison with psalms, hymns and anthems.


Metrical Psalms in Modern Use

There is an invaluable website which has the OV, SP, NV, and most of IW available in downloadable form. The American spellings need correcting, but then the texts are ready for use. There is also much historical information about the psalters.

Ministers are usually happy to have metrical psalms incorporated into a West Gallery service. They may occupy the place of the Proper Psalms in Anglican Mattins or Evensong. London Gallery Quire often sing them as a Prelude before the service, and a Voluntary at the end. Sometimes we use a setting suitable for congregational participation, often to a tune that may be unfamiliar.

As for metrical canticles, the fact that they seem not to have been much used in previous centuries need not discourage us from making full use of them nowadays. They offer an easy alternative to a prose setting, and as with the psalms may offer the congregation the chance to participate, which was of course their original purpose. Many ministers warm to this idea.

What is not so easy is to sell the idea of using metrical psalms and canticles in everyday services. Here we are up against two objections. Firstly, some ministers are unhappy with some psalms’ theology in modern use, and I am unqualified to comment on that matter. The other objection may be to the psalms’ archaic language. IW and NV are better than the older psalters in this respect; nonetheless, archaic they are.

One point worth making to doubtful ministers is that, often without realising it, they already sing several metrical psalms in modern hymn books. For example:

All people that on earth do dwell(Ps 100 OV)
As pants the hart for cooling streams(Ps 42 NV)
O God, our help in ages past(Ps 90 IW)
Let us with a gladsome mind(Ps 136 John Milton)
O worship the King, all glorious above(Ps 104 Robert Grant)
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want(Ps 23 SP)
Through all the changing scenes of life(Ps 34 NV)

and there are others.

In 2003 the Free Church of Scotland published the metrical psalter Sing Psalms in modern English. This uses a wider variety of metres than any of the old psalters, and has the usual Scottish split pages, so that any psalm may be sung with any suitable tune. It would be tempting to use such a psalter with West Gallery tunes, but there are probably copyright issues. I have yet to find a satisfactory solution to the problem of archaic language. It would be a pity if such splendid music as ours were let down by its texts.