Music Early Modern British Metrical Psalmody (1535-1700)
Timothy Duguid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0103


The Book of Psalms has always played an important role in Christian belief and worship practice, but the 16th century saw a renewed emphasis on this book of the Bible. In Britain, the practice of singing poetic settings of the psalms has been traditionally connected with Presbyterian or Calvinistic worship practice, but British metrical psalmody was actually rooted in Lutheran devotional practice. The earliest editions of metrical psalms printed and circulated in both England and Scotland appeared in the 1530s and 1540s, and they were based on Lutheran texts. Within this context, Thomas Sternhold would begin to write versifications of the psalms. He printed a selection of these psalms in 1547, dedicating them to his employer, Edward VI. Although it contained only thirty-six psalms, this volume would have a dramatic impact on the future of British psalmody and, more broadly, English-language liturgical music. Modified versions of his psalms would continue to appear in print in England until 1828, and his texts popularized Common Metre (—a verse that continues to dominate English-language liturgical music today. After Sternhold died, his printer enlisted the help of John Hopkins to add to Sternhold’s psalms, and the resulting collection would become the most printed edition during Edward’s reign.

The reinstated Roman Catholicism of Mary I forced many Protestants to flee to the European mainland in the mid-1550s, where they edited and expanded the Sternhold and Hopkins psalters. In addition, the exiles introduced tunes that either originated in or were similar to the tunes from the Geneva psalters. After Elizabeth I succeeded Mary in 1558 and reestablished Protestantism, the exiles returned home with their modified psalters. While English and Scottish versifiers would produce complete editions of all 150 psalms in 1562 and 1564, respectively, Welsh versifiers would not complete a metrical psalter suitable for liturgical use until 1621. By that time, English—and to a lesser extent Scottish—metrical psalmody had undergone a significant transformation. Although the texts remained largely unchanged, the English sang their psalms to an increasingly consolidated set of tunes that featured newer Common Tunes, which could be paired with most of the texts in the psalter. As part of the English national church, Welsh versifiers focused their efforts on compiling a set of texts that could be sung in Welsh churches to these English Common Tunes.

The metrical psalms were not only the domain of the learned and godly but also were the songs of the people. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, literate and nonliterate joined together in singing them at home, work, school, and church. Although they were poetically unexceptional, these psalms were so engrained in society that Scots waited until 1650 to adopt a new psalter. The English would continue with the Sternhold and Hopkins psalms through the rest of the 17th century, when they slowly began to be replaced by the versions by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady. Therefore, the Sternhold and Hopkins psalms and musically related Prys psalms of Wales dominated early modern British metrical psalmody, providing the scope and focus of this article.

Background Studies

The best introduction to the musical, textual, and historical issues surrounding metrical psalmody is Temperley et al. 2001 as it considers the developments throughout Europe and how they influenced each other. In many ways, John Calvin’s Geneva probably had the most significant influence on British metrical psalmody. Garside 1979 introduces Calvin’s theology of music that influenced so many in Britain. Maxwell 1931 explores how these beliefs found expression in the liturgical practices of Calvin’s Genevan churches and how they influenced other Protestant exile communities throughout the European mainland. Calvin’s views also resulted in Les Pseaumes 1562 (cited under Continental), of which Douen 1878–1879 and Pratt 1966 offer helpful textual and musical examinations and analyses. The discussion in Weeda 2002 on the influence of the Geneva Psalter throughout France and the more general discussion about 16th century society found in Pettegree 2005 provide invaluable context for considerations of the impact of the psalters in Britain. These set the context for Leaver 1992–1993, as it considers the creation of the Anglo-Genevan psalters, the predecessors of both the English and Scottish metrical psalters.

  • Douen, Emmanuel Orentin. Clément Marot et le psautier Huguenot. 2 vols. Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1878–1879.

    Although some of its conclusions have been challenged, this was the first study to take a close look at the origins of Les Pseaumes 1562 (cited under Continental). Douen spends significant time inspecting the psalter’s texts and tunes and examined how later composers used these psalm settings in their own compositions.

  • Garside, Charles. “The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536–1543.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 60.4 (August 1979): 5–35.

    Garside studies the development of Calvin’s philosophy of music, challenging the commonly held belief that Calvin hated music. Garside’s article shows that Calvin distinguished between the simple musical forms that were appropriate for liturgical music and the more complex forms that were allowable for domestic use.

  • Leaver, Robin. “John Bale, Author and Revisor of Sixteenth‐Century Metrical Psalms.” Jahrbuch für Liturgik und Hymnologie 34 (1992–1993): 98–106.

    Apart from Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, William Whittingham probably had the most significant impact on the metrical psalms that would be adopted in England and Scotland. In this article, Leaver considers the possibility that Whittingham had help in compiling and creating the Anglo-Genevan Psalters.

  • Maxwell, William D. The Liturgical Portions of the Genevan Service Book. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1931.

    The foundations of Scottish liturgical practice were laid in Geneva and Frankfurt. Maxwell compares the Liturgies of John Calvin, Valerand Poullain, and the Frankfurt exile church.

  • Pettegree, Andrew. Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614613

    A study on Reformation culture, and the assimilation of Protestant ideas by the general populace. This is a general introduction that covers preaching, music, drama, art, print, philosophy, and theology.

  • Pratt, Waldo Seldon. The Music of the French Psalter of 1562: A Historical Survey and Analysis. New York: AMS, 1966.

    This melodic analysis of the tunes in Les Pseaumes 1562 (cited under Continental) was very much ahead of its time (See Duguid 2011, cited under Multinational Studies). Pratt places the psalter squarely on the divide between the modal compositions of liturgical music before 1500 and the tonal compositions that characterized music after 1600.

  • Temperley, Nicholas, et al. “Psalms, Metrical.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 2d ed. London: Macmillan, 2001.

    This general overview and history of metrical psalmody covers the France, Germany, and the Low Countries of the European mainland; England, Scotland, and Ireland in the Atlantic Archipelago; and various churches in North America. Also available online by subscription.

  • Weeda, Robert. Le psautier de Calvin: L’histoire d’un livre populaire au XVIe siècle (1551–1598). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002.

    A consideration of the genesis and eventual impact of Calvin’s Psalter on 16th-century Genevan and French life. He examines their role in liturgical, domestic, public, and educational experiences of people in Geneva and in various places throughout France.

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