Psalm Hymns: Volumes One & Two, Psalms 1-72, by L.L. Larkins
[Note: I received this book free of charge by BookCrash. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
This book is part of a series of three books (of which I have read the first two) which seeks to create a contemporary psalter. The psalter is a rather traditional form of approacing the psalms in which the biblical verses are set to familiar music in four-part harmony that correspond to the poetic conventions of Western poetry, frequently including rhyme as well as attention paid to meter that are not always present in ancient Hebrew poetry. Those who have sung traditional settings of hymns, especially those springing from the traditions of German Lutheran and Scottish Presbyterian psaltery, are likely to be somewhat familiar with this work and there are many people who will be familiar with some of the music that these psalms are being set to as well, although admittedly the editor of this collection has very broad tastes in music and there is a great variety in terms of the particular hymns that are created from the mixture of more contemporary music with the author’s setting of the first two of the five books of the Psalms.
This particular volume is almost 300 pages long and begins with an introduction and a brief discussion of the historical uses of the psalms in congregational singing. After that the author sets the first 72 of 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms to various tunes that range from the familiar (This Is My Father’s World and Come, Thou Almighty King) to vastly more obscure choices. The setting of the various psalms is as eclectic as the choices of tunes themselves, which include classical Christian songs going back to the Reformation period to a few Contemporary Christian tunes that I was not personally familiar with, and even Messianic Jewish songs. The poetry is at times compelling and at times somewhat stilted. At times, the author’s desire to make the verses of the Bible into more contemporary poetry makes the poetry particularly obscure, as is the case with psalm 29, when the editor sets the following lines: “The voice of the Lord will shower / In its splendor, in its power / Breaking trees of Lebanon, / Cedars scattered in a song! / Glo~~~ria / Strong in full respendence! / Glo~~~~ria / In His Holy Presence! (108), which is far from an isolated example of the opaque nature of some of the poetry that can be found here.
One of the things that the author does particularly well in this particular book is to point to the complicated source history of the tunes that he uses, specifying their authors and arrangers and where the tunes entered into the Christian music repertoire. Overall, though, these poems are a mixed bag. While there are a few of these songs that I could imagine myself singing or wouldn’t mind recording or hearing a recording of, a lot of the songs sound odd and the settings do not appear all that natural. In many ways, that is the force of habit speaking, given my own greater familiarity with psalters set by others (like, for example, the late Dwight Armstrong, whose hymns are extremely familiar, as well as more recent efforts by such people as Ross Jutsom and Mark Graham, among others). It is not entirely the fault of the book’s editor that some of the tunes are unfamiliar and that many of the settings just don’t ring true. That said, this is still a worthwhile effort even if the achievement of setting the psalms in such a way that this could easily become the basis for hymnals for contemporary churches appears to fall short of the ambitions of the work.
Am I correct in understanding that the author is trying to rework old poetry into modern musical compositions? I also take exception to the hymn “This is My Father’s World” because the Bible states very clearly that this is Satan’s world; he is the god of it. There is no scriptural poetry that claims otherwise.
Yes, that’s correct, although the author’s settings of the psalms are neither dignified enough to match the old Scottish Metrical Psalms of the 16th and 17th centuries nor modern enough to jibe with contemporary sensibilities. I have written an entire blog entry on my thoughts on “This Is My Father’s World,” but yes, that is it in a nutshell.