Metrical Psalmody

is an Ancient Greek term for 'striking' or 'plucking', given to the verses of the Hebrew 'Book of Praises' (i.e. the biblical Psalms) by the translators of the Septuagint.

The numbering of the Hebrew text, followed in the Authorized Version and most other Protestant versions, differs from that of the Septuagint and the Vulgate. In the Temple, the psalms were chanted daily by professional singers (Levites), with instruments.

In the Eastern (Orthodox) churches psalms are seldom sung entire; in Western churches they are sung complete or a few verses of a psalm are sung in an antiphonal or responsorial chant.

Historical overview:

Up to the Edict of Milan (AD 313), the psalms were interspersed with lessons.

By the time of Gregory I (circa 600), the Mass and Office had assumed a fixed shape and antiphonal psalmody (the chanting of a psalm alternately by two choirs) and responsorial psalmody (when the congregation responded to a psalm sung by a cantor) were institutionalized.The distinction between these types later faded.

The stabilization of psalmody between Gregory I and the 11th century is known from the service book for Mass and Office, theoretical writings and the tonaries, which categorized chants by mode and specified the ending of the psalm tone for each antiphon. In Gregorian chant there are eight such tones, one for each church mode.

In the 16th century, Protestant churches encouraged congregational psalm singing by adopting metrical versions in the vernacular. An important early translation was Clèment Marot's, the basis of the Calvinist psalter. A repertory of tunes came into being; these were set in a simple chordal style in collections which included Loys Bourgeois's complete psalter (1563), widely recognized as a standard version.
Some later settings were more contrapuntal; Le Jeune and others dropped the tunes and composed what amounted to free motets.

In England, after the Catholic Mary Tudor's reign (1553-8), metrical psalms became popular, the standard psalter being that of Sternhold and Hopkins. Other metrical psalters included that of Archbishop Parker (1567), for which Tallis provided several harmonized tunes.
[In the Roman church only Italy, and to a lesser extent Spain, had any strong tradition in the 16th century of written psalm polyphony. Settings using two alternating choirs ('salmi spezzati'), by Jacquet of Mantua, Willaert and others, were in principle through-composed, permitting a more varied texture. Psalms were used as texts for the new motet repertory evolved by Josquin and his contempories circa 1500. Many settings treat them freely and cannot have been used as liturgical psalms; if sung in church, they must have served a function outside the liturgy. Collections such as Lassus's penitential psalms were probably used domestically as sacred madrigals.]
After 1600 the singing of metrical psalms continued in the reformed churches of northern Europe. More ambitious psalm composition in this period is largely confined to the motet and anthem, but some composers continued issuing psalm collections, notably Sweelinck who set all 150 psalms in French metrical versions for three to eight voices, using melodies from the Genevan psalter as cantus firmi. Schütz also set the complete psalter in German metrical versions, as well as composing some more elaborate settings.
[Among later psalm collections those of G.B. Bassani and Benedetto Marcello are noteworthy. Most subsequent psalm settings are for concert use, for chorus and orchestra, often with soloists; Bruckner's large-scale settings and Kodály's Psalmus Hungaricus are representative. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Penderecki's Psalmy Dawida are multi-movement works using psalm texts.]

(from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music edited by Stanley Sadie Macmillan Press Ltd., London.)

Is there metre in the Psalms? The Jews of the first century A.D. thought so. Flavius Josephus speaks of the hexameters of Moses and the trimeters and tetrameters and manifold meters of the odes and hymns of David. Philo says that Moses had learned the "theory of rhythm and harmony". Early Christian writers voice the same opinion. Origen (d. 254) says the Psalms are in trimeters and tetrameters (In Ps. cxviii); and Eusebius (d. 340), in his "De Praeparatione evangelica", speaks of the same metres of David. St. Jerome (420), in "Praef. ad Eusebii chronicon" (P.L., XXVII, 36), finds iambics, Alcaics, and Sapphics in the psalter; and, writing to Paula, he explains that the acrostic Pss. cxi and cxii (cx and cxi) are made up of iambic trimeters, whereas the acrostic Pss. cxix and cxlv (cxviii and cxliv) are iambic tetrameters. Modern exegetes do not agree in this matter. For a time many would admit no metre at all in the Psalms. Davison (Hast., "Dict. of the Bible", s. v.) writes: "though metre is not discernible in the Psalms, it does not follow that rhythm is excluded". This rhythm, however, "defies analysis and systematization". Driver ("Introd. to Lit. of O. T.", New York, 1892, 339) admits in Hebrew poetry "no metre in the strict sense of the term". Exegetes who find metre in the Psalms are of four schools, according as they explain Hebrew metre by quantity, by the number of syllables, by accent, or by both quantity and accent.

(from The Catholic Encyclopedia)

General information about Metrical Psalmody [Some of these links are not ready yet. Please check back later.]

French Metrical Psalmody

English Metrical Psalmody

Scottish Metrical Psalmody

American Metrical Psalmody

From Psalm to Hymnal (from an exhibit at the Yale Divinity School Library)

Metrical Psalm Tune Index

Precursors to Metrical Psalmody (Psalmody before 1530)

Contemporary Metrical Psalmody

A short list of historical Metrical Psalms and Psalm tunes you should know

Psalm 23 Comapred (various versions of Psalm 23 compared)

Explore some sites devoted to The Reformation:

Check out the 100 Hymn Tunes You Should Know

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Site last updated: January 17, 2007