Vive la Différence

The previous post declared our solidarity with those distressed by racism. It’s also a time to rejoice, a time for ascent. Vive la différence, colours of the rainbow, tomahto tomayto, E pluribus unum, the spice of life, Bhinneka tunggal ika

Variety is frequently mentioned in these pages, especially regarding styles of psalm singing from Gregorian chant to massed choirs to bluegrass. Why all this variation? Because societies have developed their own cultural habits, expressions, music, even taboos.

People respond to familiar music with enjoyment, sometimes emotionally. Popular songs are repeated because they become well known. Tunes or cadences of symphonies are anticipated; and when they happen, just as expected, they produce pleasure or inspiration. But we also need to stretch our awareness. Here’s to crossover.

So now for something different. This post shines a light on a little-known style, the Gaelic psalm tunes peculiar to the Scottish highlands and islands of two and three centuries ago. Their style is certainly a world away from the example we have just reviewed for Psalm 116 for this Sunday, an extract from the Richard Smallwood song I love the Lord. Gaelic psalms are unique in some ways. In other ways, their close relatives are both the old French and Swiss psalmodies, as well as European melismatic plainsong.

The psalms were first translated into Gaelic in 1659. Collections published in Glasgow in the 1840s featured a few traditional tunes, with another half-dozen or so more ‘modern’ transcriptions of psalms as sung in Highland meetings. They are not metrical, so these ten or a dozen tunes can be used for all and any of the 150 psalms.

French foundations

Psalm 1 from the Genevan Psalter

Let us approach them from the first of these, the Genevan Psalter of the 16th Century. In gathering this psalter together during the 16th century Reformation, French theologian John Calvin (1509-64) included songs from earlier French collections.

Leaders of the reformed church movement in Scotland — including John Knox (1514-72) who spent time in Geneva and Germany when the Catholic régime at home became heavy handed — absorbed the theology and culture of the Calvinists, leading eventually to the Westminster Confession, a foundational document for Presbyterian Churches worldwide.

Some of the Genevan tunes thus found their way into the Scottish repertoire, and indeed those of many global communities. There’s even one tune called FRENCH. You may find it in your favourite hymn book. In Together in Song, for instance, Psalm 121 I to the hills will lift my eyes appears as TiS 76 with the annotation ‘Melody from the Scottish Psalter 1615′. (And yes, this is a psalm of ascent.) Here it is in the 1929 Scottish Psalter:

Roman roots

The similarity with Gregorian and related chanting and the melismatic plainsong tradition shows in two features. First, a cantor sings a line, the people responding with the same line. While we use this today to lead, engage and share, in early times it was more practical; printed texts were rare, and in any case few could read. They just repeated the cantor line by line.

A second feature is that the tunes became packed with decoration. In most modern liturgical chant, the general rule is one note or beat per syllable, and often many words on one tenor note. On the other hand, across Europe in earlier centuries, in both sacred and secular song, tunes often stretched a word over threads of many notes.

Allelujahs from the Solesmes Gregorian Missal. Four syllables sung over up to 15 notes.

Add local flavour and mix

Gaelic psalms are extended in this manner with each word given extended melody. In the edition by MacBean, we find that Psalm 116 from this week, I love the Lord, has been set to FRENCH, shown earlier in the more restrained Presbyterian hymn book. It’s not an easy task, but somewhere amongst the ornamentation in these lilting lines for the congregation can be found the same opening notes:

You had to be there but I can only presume that this example of Psalm 46 to a Gaelic tune, as sung by the band Capercaillie, gives a good taste of the style:

Let L MacBean’s pamphlet of c. 1900 have the last word:

The tunes need no word of commendation here. For two centuries they have given musical expression to the devotional feelings of the Highland people; and no one who has heard them sung by thousands on the heath in the day of solemn assembly can help admiring the power with which their wild sweet melody — now rising in a triumphant swell, and anon dying away in plaintive cadences on the summer air — expresses the deepest joys and sorrows of a religious race.


Fuinn nan salm Gaelic psalmody, Including the Ancient tunes & precentors’ recitatives. L. Macbean. Edinburgh, c.1900. IMSLP.

2 thoughts on “Vive la Différence

  1. Thanks Brendan. The psalm sung by Capercaille is pretty interesting but I think I like the SWUC melodies!

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