Landmarks in Scottish Church Music: From Psalms to Hymns

Douglas Galbraith continues his series ‘Landmarks in Scottish Church Music’ by taking us on the journey from Psalms to Hymns.

Of the 67 Paraphrases, only half were from the New Testament, little enough for a New Testament church to sing of the gospel. Also, restricted as they were to the actual words of Scripture, there was not much flexibility for allowing expression to the centuries of Christian experience since, not to mention in facing the social changes of the eighteenth century and the new industrial landscapes of the nineteenth.

In the last article we celebrated the poet Michael Bruce, one of the writers of the Scottish Paraphrases, born in what a later author unkindly characterised as a 'hillside hamlet of peat-reek and Puritanism' (Kinnesswood in Fife) close to the shore of Loch Leven. If we were to look for the dynamic that finally drove the church to accepting Christian hymns written by human authors, we might look no further than the people of this village. Might it not have been that as the people of such Scottish communities used their minds and their skills, as day to day they encountered hardship, as they shared what they had and showed compassion, as they sorrowed over loss, and found in Christ reserves of strength and love to bring victory out of defeat, the eternal out of the ephemeral and the transient, they wanted this experience, and this faith, to be the coin and currency of their worship?

However, as we saw from the action of the Corstorphine congregation at the end of the last article, the Church was not ready for such a step. Professor Donald Macleod, at a Spark (Greyfriars Kirk) symposium this spring [2015] observed (referring to how restricted Presbyterian worship had become in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) how reduction in worship practice led to concentration – not in itself a bad thing – and the example he gave was the emphasis on preaching. We might find another example in the psalms, in that these had to carry in a musical context all the feelings, emotions, convictions of a New Testament church virtually unaided. And yes, this led to concentration, a concentration on how to make psalms do almost more than their actual words could say.

Making the psalms go further

A result was an astonishing plethora of psalters as the eighteenth turned into the nineteenth century, and a glut of new tunes, some inspired, but others of rather dubious quality. (It is fascinating to read through the historic Musical Scotland, Past and Present by Scottish composer David Baptie and published in Paisley in 1894, where entry after entry of musicians working in Scotland shows that it was common for composers of popular Scottish song – the great craze of the time – also to produce psalm tunes.) A very common style was the 'repeater tune', where often the last line was sung twice, first in a gentle filigree perhaps taken only by two parts, or by the two sets of parts – soprano and alto, tenor and bass in sequence, this to be followed by a shattering and 'theatrical' repeat of the final line. Other versions of this saw a kind of counterpoint developing in the middle before all voices come together in harmony on the last line ('Desert' is an example – think 'Presbyterian Cat'). Inevitably this could result in a sacrifice of sense: 'and catch the flea-, and catch the flea-, and catch the fleeting hour' is one example often quoted. Now why all this drama? why – to quote Millar Patrick – were oratorios ransacked for melodies to be 'torn from their context and tortured into the shape of a psalm-tune' (Four Centuries of Scottish Psalm Tunes, p.186)?

The purpose was surely to insert feeling, drive, conviction into the only sung material at that point recognised by the Church, namely texts derived directly from Scripture. If congregations could throw themselves into singing, and sing with meaning and passion, then something of what was felt to be lacking might be recovered. To read the prefaces of these many psalters supports this. For example, the compilers of a psalter produced by Dundee East Church in 1841 (it was common for individual congregations to publish their own collections) speak of a desire to see the church's music rescued from the 'neglect into which it had been allowed to fall'. This would be done in founding a choir and arranging for regular practices between it and the congregation. Similarly the preface of the influential Scottish Psalmody of 1854, from the Psalmody sub committee of the Free Church's Education Committee, spoke of a 'very general desire throughout the country for improvement in Psalmody'. This volume was to be a definitive collection of tunes, compiled from lists sent from all over the country, intended to be adopted by congregations, musical classes, associations and schools, for 'singing cannot be decently performed without learning'. A denomination should have one single book, it explained, to unite congregations and to control quality. A later edition, in 1869, took the quality issue further: that the intention was to promote the 'stricter and purer kind of tune', to which end they had excluded 'the grosser instances of the florid and repeater' tunes.

Learning to sing with understanding

The didactic purpose of these publications was shown also in that typically they included a kind of 'teach yourself music' section: key signatures, beats in the bar, names of notes etc. To aid singing metronome markings could be introduced. Singers were to be helped to 'sing with sense' and, extraordinarily, there grew up a classification by which all psalms were put into 'meaning' categories: instruction, majesty, trust, comfort, petition and complaint. Tunes were classified in six emotional categories: grand, triumphant, cheerful, didactic, pathetic (no – not what we think but: petition, resignation, pity, desire), and, sixthly, mournful. Indeed, three 'moods' of practice verses (see previous article) were provided, a choice of plaintive, grave, and joyful, and each of these in three different metres!

One curious experiment underlines this desire to achieve 'expressive singing'. In 1868, The Scottish Psalmody was republished by an interdenominational committee, this time with the texts of every psalm and paraphrase rendered in a variety of typefaces to draw singers' attention to what was actually going on in the words: normal type for medium force, capitals to indicate loud and full, and italics for soft and subdued, thus making for 'intelligent singing'. Typical are verses 4-5 of Psalm 55 where all three moods occur within the same stanza:

Sore pain'd within me is my heart:
death's terrors on me fall.
On me comes trembling, fear and dread
O'ERWHELMED ME WITHAL.

It is also an example of what was known as a ‘cut book’, the pages divided horizontally so that one’s own selection of tune could be made for any given psalm and seen above the text. Oh, and the index gave the first line not just of every psalm but every verse of every psalm, again drawing attention to the content.

This momentum increased during the century. Thomas Hately (d.1867), Precentor of the General Assembly, attracted huge numbers to his classes round the country in the history and practice of psalm-singing, with 900 recorded on one occasion in Greenock. In the North East, William Carnie drew some 2,000 to a lecture on psalmody, resulting in the formation, in 1870, of the Choir of the Thousand Voices which held a weekly practice of psalms, hymns and anthems. The desire of these reformers was not only to improve the quality of singing but the quality of the music sung. People like Joseph Mainzer and his Association for the Revival of Sacred Music in Scotland saw to it that the great melodies of the sixteenth century were given their voice again, and at the same time the Rev. Neil Livingston published (1864) an edition of the iconic 1635 psalter. One tool in this renewal of church music which swept the country was the ‘tonic sol-fa’ method, particularly associated with John Curwen, when each note was designated by its place in the scale, a system which remained one of the standard methods for choirs to read music within living memory. (Sol-fa is being used again today, in the early training programme of NYCoS, the National Youth Choir of Scotland.)

Bowing to the inevitable

Another way of achieving variety was to clothe the psalms differently. As early as 1683, William Geddes’s Saints’ Recreation had found potential new psalm tunes in such melodies as ‘The bonny broom’ and ‘We’ll all go pull the heather’. Over a century later, in their Christian songs versified for the help of the memory, the Glasite sect [try Wikipedia!] made use of the melodies of such songs as ‘Bonny Jean’, ‘The Birks o’ Invermay’ and ‘Gala Water’ (Henry Farmer, A History of Music in Scotland, pp.193, 271) for their hymns. There were moves also to expand the repertoire, as in collections like R A Smith's Sacred Harmony (for St George's, Edinburgh) which contained sanctuses, doxologies and 'dismissions'. A surprising footnote is that later in the nineteenth century, Anglican chant emerged as a widespread way of singing the psalms, with all three Presbyterian strands before the unions of 1900 and 1929 having their own prose psalters, one of them commenting in its preface that ‘the practice of chanting has become so general that little detailed explanation of its principles is necessary’.

By this time, however, the Presbyterian Churches were gradually opening the doors to hymns – 'gradually', because the introduction of hymns to mainstream Scottish worship was more like a drip feed than a resolution of Assembly. There had been the five hymns published at the end of the Scottish Paraphrases of 1781, and by the middle of the nineteenth century individual congregations had broken ranks and made collections for their own use. The first authorised collection in the three Presbyterian denominations was by the United Presbyterians in 1852, with the Church of Scotland following in 1862 (a small collection, with its successor, the first Scottish Hymnal, arriving in 1870) and the Free Church thereafter (1882). Where all these hymns sprung from makes for interesting study, but perhaps the most interesting, and surprising, is the volume of Scottish authors who were encouraged by the climate of the time to capture their experiences of living the faith in fine and singable verses.

Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith worked in the Church of Scotland Offices between 1995 and 2006 running the former Office for Worship, Doctrine and Artistic Matters. He was founder-editor of the earlier print version of Different Voices. He is former Precentor of the General Assembly, Secretary of Church Service Society and Editor of the Church of Scotland Year Book. To discuss this article or further reading list in more detail, please email Douglas.