Monday 1 March 2021

Bringing back 17th century metrical psalms: a new edition of Ravenscroft's Psalter

Ravenscroft's Psalter
One of the ideas behind the English Reformation was that worship should be a communal affair, conducted jointly, rather than the congregation simply being a witness. It is difficult for us nowadays to get a real feel for what a pre-Reformation English service must have been like. But with the coming of all the changes, one thing that suffered and virtually disappeared was organised music making. In its place arose something rather different, psalm singing.

Congregational psalm-singing in England was something which developed out of both the need for music in a service which suited the new style of worship and for something that the congregaton could participate in. It seems to have become popular relatively quickly. It was a new type of worship, entirely inclusive and there was quite an appetite for it. 

To satisfy the desire for psalms, new metrical versions of the psalms were produced and each allocated a tune. The result might, in a humble parish, be rather more free-form than modern singing. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were generally no organs, the congregation sang the psalms with the parish clerk, he'd sing a line (from a printed psalter) and the congregation would sing it back, a mixture presumably of melody and harmony. In some churches, we can perhaps imagine the result coming rather closer to Gaelic psalm singing than to tidy, modern, organ-accompanied Anglican hymns.

Now, congregations and choirs have a chance to experiment and try metrical psalms for themselves, because a new complete edition of Ravenscroft's Psalter, originally published in 1621, has been produced by Andrew K Mulford M. Th. in conjunction with WritersWorld. The original text has had its spelling modernised, and the psalm melodies are in four-part harmony (with the tune in the tenor). 

The book is available via Amazon or from Hive.

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