Practice Verses for Psalm Tunes

Author: William Robb

Date: 1995

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 3 Spring 1995

The three-verse poem headed “Sayings” on page 51 of Ullans 2 (of which the two-verse poem on page 20 is a shorter version) is an example of a type of verse which was used to enable choirs of Presbyterian Churches in Scotland and Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries to practise the tunes of metrical psalms. The first Psalter used in Irish Presbyterianism was the Scottish Psalter of 1564. A revised version of this was published in 1650 which was used up to 1880, when it was replaced in Ireland by the Irish Psalter which is still current, although its use has now declined considerably because of the inclusion of a large number of metrical psalms in the current (Third) Edition of the Church Hymnary.

The First Edition of the Church Hymnary appeared in 1899. Up to that date psalms were the only musical component of public worship in Presbyterian churches, on the grounds that it was proper to sing only words taken from the Scripture. A “half-way house” between psalms and hymns appeared in the 19th century when a book of “paraphrases” ie passages of Scripture (other than the psalms) paraphrased into verse form was published. It should be noted that for many years the psalms were sung unaccompanied by an organ, again on the grounds that there was no Scriptural authority for the use of instruments. The controversy over the use of organs is, however, another story.

The strict view that only psalms should be used in worship was further emphasised by the view that the actual words of the psalms should be used only in Sabbath services and should not be used in choir practices for the purpose of learning the tunes. It is, of course, normal for choirs to learn new tunes by singing them to the word “la” until they know the tune well enough to fit it to the words. But the use of “la” throughout an entire choir practice would be very monotonous and so a number of “practice verses” were composed both in Scotland and in Ireland to enable choirs to learn new tunes. These verses varied from place to place: some were obviously of local origin, some were pure doggerel and some showed a considerable degree of humour.

The greater number of metrical psalms were written in what was known as “common metre” (the same as “ballad metre” in general poetry) ie in four-line verses with the accents 4, 3, 4, 3. Some were written in “long metre” ie 4, 4, 4, 4, while some were written in “short metre” ie 3, 3, 4, 3. Some practice verses were regarded as belonging to particular tunes, but, as there were probably fewer practice verses than the number of psalms (150), some must have been used for more than one tune. Here are some examples. It will be noted that these verses are mostly in normal English, which is perhaps inevitable (despite the common use of dialect) as the Bible itself was in English.

Sung to the tune “York”

The name of this tune is called York,

The reason I don’t know;

They might as well have called it Cork,

Carmarthen or Raphoe.

Sung to the tune “London”

Oh! London, thou art threatened sore

By France to pull thee down,

But Providence is thy defence,

Thou city of renown.

Sung to the tune “Dublin”

In Ireland doth fair Dublin stand,

The city chief therein;

And it is said by many more

The city chief of sin.

A verse from North Down:

There is a hill called Scrabo Hill

Which hides my love from me:

I’ll bore a hole through Scrabo Hill

And then my love I’ll see.

Some examples of humour:

As I was coming here tonight

A wonder I did see;

An ear(i)wig sat on a bush

And it threw stones at me.

Young man, your head I do compare

Unto a lemon skin

Which weather-beaten is without

And empty is within.

A saucy girl who had straight eyes

Came here our singing to despise;

She left her manners at the school

And came up here to play the fool.

Romance is not unknown among choir members:

Within this room I do behold

A maid of beauty bright;

And if I had ten thousand pounds

I’d share with her this night.

But it is not always reciprocated:

The fair one here of whom you sing

She values not your coin,

For if ten thousand more you’d bring

She would not with you join.

Based on Church history:

This is the tune the martyrs sang

When they were going to die,

When they were to the scaffold brought

The truth to testify.

Beneath the Alps Savoy doth stand

And Piedmont valley doth command;

There the Waldenses felt the stroke

Of Papal power and Papal yoke.

The poem to which I refer at the beginning of this article is an example in Scottish dialect. The first two verses are traditional: the third was written by Sir Hugh Roberton, the founder and conductor of the world famous Glasgow Orpheus Choir, who, to the tune “Desert”, made it a favourite item in their repertoire under the title “Mice and Men”.

The use of practice verses died out towards the end of the 19th century for a number of possible reasons. The introduction of a “Hymnary” with a large number of hymns in many different metres to pre-set tunes rendered the use of practice verses obsolete. Then there is the difficulty that only by practising a tune to the actual words to which it is to be sung on Sunday can a proper fit between words and music be achieved. Finally, there is no reason why music rehearsed by a choir on a Thursday evening cannot be sung in as worshipful a frame of mind (even if less formal) as at a Sunday service.

William Robb

• • • • •

Oul Saws

Richt wrangs naebodie.

Aabodie’s bodie’s naebodie’s bodie.



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