02 January 2011

Singing the Psalms: in German, Czech and Dutch

  • For Christmas this year my beloved wife gave me an antiquarian copy of the Lobwasser Psalter, a sturdy little volume that has weathered the centuries remarkably well. The Lobwasser Psalter was a German-language translation of the Genevan Psalms set to verse in 1573 by Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585), a Lutheran teaching law at Königsberg in East Prussia. His translation was based on the French text he had heard the Huguenots singing during his stay in the Berry region of France. Lobwasser intended his Psalter primarily for private use. This edition was published in Zürich in 1770, by which time it was evidently being used in public worship as well.

    Lobwasser Psalter


  • At age 21 during a visit to Prague (in what was then still communist Czechoslovakia) I purchased a Czech-language psalter and hymnal published in 1900 by the Unity of the Brethren, also known variously as the Bohemian Brethren, the Moravian Brethren and the Unitas Fratrum. I have now scanned and posted the psalter portion of this Malý Kancionál (Little Hymnal) for the benefit of those interested in a lesser known tradition of metrical psalm-singing. This Czech translation, to be sung to the Genevan melodies, was made by Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599), a minister in this church from Zábřeh in Moravia. Strejc studied in Tübingen and Königsberg and came into contact with the Lobwasser Psalter, which impressed him so favourably that he decided to model his own Czech versification on it, an undertaking he completed in 1587. Strejc is probably best known for his German-language hymn text, Mit Freuden Zart, familiar in English as Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above, the tune to which comes from the Bohemian Brethren's Kirchengesänge (1566) and bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Genevan Psalm 138.

    My thus far preliminary research has raised some intriguing questions worth further exploration. First, might Strejc have met Lobwasser personally in Königsberg and thereby come under his more direct influence?

    Second, given that the Kirchengesänge were produced by the same group of which Strejc was a minister, might this be evidence of a connection between the tunes for Psalm 138 and Mit Freuden Zart? To be sure, Strejc's versification of that Psalm came later, but might the Unity of the Brethren have become aware of the Genevan tunes earlier, and might it have been through Strejc? Tellingly, the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) ascribes the tune directly to the "Trente quatre pseaumes de David, Geneva, 1551." These two possibilities are probably mutually exclusive.

    Third, if Lobwasser based his translations on the French text of Marot and Bèze (for which he was criticized by his Lutheran colleagues), and if Strejc based his translations on Lobwasser's German text, how true are Strejc's texts to the Hebrew? Only someone conversant in Czech and Hebrew, and perhaps all four languages, would be able to answer this question satisfactorily.

    Czech Psalter

    Czech Psalter

    By the way, the city of Königsberg has been called Kaliningrad since 1945 and has been part of the Russian Federation. At some point there was talk of changing the name (Kalinin was a Stalin-era Soviet functionary) to honour its most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant. I would like to suggest as an alternative that it be renamed for either Lobwasser or Strejc. Or even both: Lobwasserstrejcgrad!

  • Those interested in becoming better acquainted with congregational psalm-singing in the Netherlands would do well to check out Ijsselm's Channel on youtube (short for Ijsselmeer perhaps?). Here one finds a number of recently-posted Genevan Psalms sung in the traditional 19th-century Dutch fashion characterized by four distinctive features: (1) they are sung at a slow pace; (2) they are often sung in isometric rhythm (i.e., every note having equal value), as opposed to the more syncopated rhythms of the original tunes; (3) the organist plays the initial note for a few seconds before the congregation joins in, leaving the impression that the congregation is lagging behind; and (4) the arrangements used suppress the modal flavour of the original tunes. Here is one example:

    I might point out that, amongst the Dutch Canadians I know personally, many dislike intensely this style of singing and their churches have thus altogether abandoned the Genevan Psalms for more contemporary fare. I find this tragic, and my own Genevan Psalter website is part of a larger ongoing project to recover the Genevan tradition and to make it more singable for younger generations of Christians in a variety of traditions.
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