“Verse by Verse” – RPC Music Notes, Sun 15 Sep 2019

The adult Choir of Christ Church, Bronxville, offers Teach me, O Lord by William Byrd.

The verse, one of the parts into which a poem, a song, or a chapter of the Bible or other text is divided, is often a major organising structure in music. We take this familiar concept for granted much of the time, especially in church, where versified text runs throughout hymns, psalm settings and choir anthems. This week, let’s take a closer look.

Hymns and other songs have the most obvious verses found in church services – but those verses can have a variety of natures and origins (for example the verses of #431, Jesus, where’er thy people meet originate in a poem by 18th century English poet William Cowper, whereas those of #625, Karen Lafferty’s Seek ye first the kingdom of the Lord, are drawn from three seemingly unconnected sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew).

The ‘verse anthem’, of which both William Byrd’s Teach me, O Lord and William Mathias’ Lift up your heads, O ye gates are examples, takes a group of verses from scripture (usually the Psalms), setting them in different musical ways – with (Mathias) or without (Byrd) a ‘refrain’. As in the case of versified hymns the musical setting provides a heard structure that reinforces the verses of the original text. With this post on ideasaboutmusic.ca I’ve provided a link to a performance of Byrd’s setting, which alternates three treble solo, and three choir verses from Psalm 119, plus a doxology.

Why do we even have verses, rather than huge uninterrupted stretches of text? Put that way the question answers itself: verses help our limited brains to accommodate and organise large amounts of text more easily. Sometimes devices like rhyming and acrostic help further with cognition or memory (to say nothing of beauty).

“… verses can allow a text not just to exist,
but to progress.”

But the most compelling reason for me lies in story or other narrative arc: verses can allow a text not just to exist, but to progress. Returning to the hymns mentioned above, compare how on one hand Cowper develops the idea of a gathered community, prays for its engagement in worship, and affirms God’s power to make it happen – whereas on the other Lafferty more statically states well-known but unrelated sayings of Jesus.

Versification makes many contributions to larger texts – it helps us accept, understand, remember and appreciate them. But with Wes’ sermon today exhorting engagement rather than complacency, perhaps they can also help us think less about faith as something that is than something that happens.

-CD

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