Through all the changing scenes of life

(About music rather than language.)

Woke yesterday to a piece of shapenote music that I’ve heard but never sung: Psalm 34th (that’s the tune name; the text begins, “Through all the changing scenes of life”), as sung by Norumbega Harmony on their album Sing and Joyful Be. It has a nice rhythmic effect in the chorus that makes it memorable to me.

The liner notes are spare indeed:

Text: Brady & Tate, 1696
Tune: Joseph Stephenson, 1760

Through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still my heart and tongue employ.
The hosts of God encamp around the dwellings of the just;
Deliverance he affords to all, who make His name their trust.

Fear Him, ye saints,
and you will then have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight,
He’ll make your wants His care

This layout of the words conceals the organization of the song, as verse plus (fuguing) chorus, each part comprising two poetic lines. There are three of these pairs in the text above:

Verse: Through all the changing scenes of life, / In trouble and in joy,
Chorus: The praises of my God shall still / My heart and tongue employ.

Verse: The hosts of God encamp around/ The dwellings of the just;
Chorus: Deliverance he affords to all, / Who make His name their trust.

Verse: Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then / Have nothing else to fear;
Chorus: Make you His service your delight, / He’ll make your wants His care.

The verse and chorus texts rhyme in each pair (joyemploy, justtrust, fearcare). Metrically, the entire text is iambic tetrameter, with a rest for the final foot in the second line.

Here, from ChoralWiki, is the song in notation, set by Edmund Gooch (with a somewhat different text from the one above):

(See the note on p. 2 about which line is treble and which tenor.)

Now, the nice rhythmic effect, a result of a mismatch between poetic and musical meter in line 2 of the chorus (My heart and tongue employ in the first pair). In line 1 of the chorus (The praises of my God shall still), the two metrical schemes are aligned by having the first poetic foot (The praise-) split between bars of the music, so that the falls in a weak position both poetically and metrically and praise- falls in a strong position both poetically and musically; the continuation of the pattern requires that poetically weak of fall in a strong position musically (this sort of mismatch is quite common), but then the two schemes align perfectly on God and still.

Then, however, in line 2 of the chorus, the top voice, which repeats the first foot of this line (My heart, my heart and tongue employ), shifts to placing the heaviest musical accent on the third beat of the measure (My HEART, my HEART and TONGUE em-) rather than the first. That, too, is a common displacement, and not at all jarring, since the third beat bears some musical accent (though in shapenote singing performance the first beat is very heavily accented). But then the last syllable of the line gets the first beat of the next measure (rather than the third) — and the very heavy accent on that beat gives the effect of rushing the music, almost urgently. That sounds like a subtle effect, but I find it quite striking. It was enough to let me recognize the song, from across the room, as I was coming out of sleep.

Back to the song itself. It takes us back to the antecedents of American shapenote music in English sacred music traditions. The text came first. On Tate and Brady, from ChoralWiki:

Born: 1652; Died: 1715; Biography: Nahum Tate was Poet Laureate from 1690 to 1715, and wrote the libretto for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. He was the co-author, with Nicholas Brady, of A new version of the psalms of David, fitted to the tunes used in churches, which was first published in 1696. This collection’s title was usually shortened to ‘the New Version’. As such, it was contrasted with the ‘Old Version’, the metrical psalter based on the work of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, and published by John Day as The whole booke of psalmes in 1562: together, the ‘Old Version’ and ‘New Version’ were the main metrical psalters used in English parish churches in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. (link)

Born: 1659; Died: 1726; Biography: Nicholas Brady was the incumbent of St. Katherine Cree and a prebendary of Cork Cathedral. He was the co-author, with Nahum Tate, of A new version of the psalms of David, fitted to the tunes used in churches… (link)

And then the tune. On Stephenson:

Born: 1723; Died: 1810; Biography: Joseph Stephenson was a composer of parochial psalmody (West Gallery music) and clerk of the Unitarian congregation at the Hill Street meeting house in Poole. His first book, Church Harmony Sacred to Devotion (first edition 1757) included a commendatory letter of review from William Knapp, who was the parish clerk of St. James’, Poole and an established composer. (link)

The text is based on Psalm 34 in the KJV. The psalm begins:

34 I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul shall make her boast in the Lord: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.

They looked unto him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed.

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.

and then shifts theme, to fear of the Lord:

O fear the Lord, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him.

10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing.

11 Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. …

but returns in the last verse to trust rather than fear:

22 The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.

The Tate and Brady text uses only the trust portions of the psalm, and largely embroiders on the themes and images there rather than quoting the psalm directly.

(Parts of the tune of Psalm 34th appear in the 7-shape Harmonia Sacra (25th ed. 1993; the 5th ed. of 1851 was the first under that name and the first in 7-shape notation) under the name Wiltshire (117t.), with quite different words. The various tunes and texts related to Wiltshire look very complicated; I don’t know if a scholar of sacred music has sorted these things out.)

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