Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Like as the Heart

Having given up “Alleluia” in the liturgy for Lent, our Alleluia before the Gospel is replaced at Grace Church by several verses of a psalm sung to plainsong. This is called a Tract. This comes from the Latin word “tractim,” which in this case may simply mean something sung without interruption or response – that is, there is no refrain. The original Gregorian melodies were more ornate than the simple psalm tones that are expedient to use here at Grace, but the words for the Tracts have always consisted of psalm verses from one psalm at a time, often more penitential than an Alleluia verse, but not necessarily sorrowful. Hopefully, the words of the Tracts are consistent with the themes of the readings, and enhance the surrounding scripture without impeding their flow. The objection to singing a hymn at this point, as some churches do, is that by the time the hymn is over one has been thoroughly distracted from what the previous scripture was, which detracts from the continuity of the readings rather than aiding it, unless a hymn can be found that is closely related to the Gospel.

For the Tract on the third Sunday of Lent, we normally use part of Psalm 42, “As the deer longs for the waterbrooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” In the old Coverdale psalter from the 1500’s, which was changed very little in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the psalm began:

Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks,
So longeth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God,
When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?

It is that translation which we sing for our Communion motet on that Sunday, in a twentieth century setting by Healey Willan of selected verses.
There are many psalms which emphasize the tribulations of the psalmist; this one, in contrast, emphasizes the soul’s passionate yearning for God. The poet is addressing God, but feels distant from Him, out of touch with the worship at the temple, and longing for God’s presence. While the poet is beset by tribulation and surrounded by enemies, it is the absence of God that troubles him the most. But verses 6 and 7 are more hopeful, and are also repeated at the conclusion to round out the psalm as a sort of refrain:

Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul,
and why art thou so disquieted within me?
O put thy trust in God,
for I will yet thank him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

This psalm has fared unusually well poetically and musically; there are many rhymed, metrical versions of it. One is in our hymnal at no. 658, sung to a simple early American hymn tune:

As longs the deer for cooling streams
In parched and barren ways,
So longs my soul, O God, for thee
And thy refreshing grace.

This is a modern adaptation of the version in the psalter by Tate and Brady published in London in 1698. It originally had many more verses, because the goals of these metrical psalters were to make each psalm singable in its entirety by the congregation. In fact, there was very little congregational singing in the Church of England at this period other than rhymed versions of the psalms sung to what we would call hymn-tunes. For linguistic colorfulness, though not for any other reason, I enjoy the version in the Scottish Psalter of 1633:

Like as the Heart doth breath and bray
the well-springs to obtain:
So doth my soul desire always
with thee Lord, to remaine.

Verses 10 and 11 are particulary striking:

For why? they pearce mine inward parts
with pangues to be abhord:
When they cry out with stubborn hearts
where is thy God thy Lord?


So soone why dost thou faint and quaile
my Soul with paines opprest?
With thoughts why dost thyself assaile,
so sore within my brest.

Imagine that with a Scottish accent!

Over one hundred years later, the English poet Christopher Smart became one of the few poets to make a complete rhyming version of all 150 psalms. His version of Psalm 42 has some very expressive moments:

Why do I drag this loathsome load,
Whence, O my soul, art thou oppressed;
And what are these the stings that goad
And wound my tortured breast?

One sea unto another calls.
As to the whistling winds they swell;
But at thy word the tempest falls,
And I am safe and well.

O trust in God his power to save
The cup of thankfulness fulfill,
He keeps thy head above the wave,
And is thy saviour still.

I recommend a wonderful recording by the British choir called The Sixteen, entitled “A New Heaven,” which is a selection of some of the best English anthems. This includes Herbert Howells’ twentieth-century setting of “Like as the hart,” verses from the Coverdale version of Psalm 42, which no CD library should be without. You can also find it on YouTube. It will enrich your life.

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