America’s First Hymnal

America’s first hymnal (known as a psalter), the “Whole Booke of Psalmes”, was taken to the North American continent with Protestant exiles, who sought their religious freedom in the New Land, during the reign of Mary Tudor who was infamously known as Bloody Mary. Click on this page sample to view a copy of this psalter:

wholebookeofpsalmes

Recently a subsequent edition of this book of psalms, the “Bay Psalm Book” –regarded as the oldest printed book in America, was auctioned off and sold to David Rubenstein, a businessman and philanthropist, for the sum of  $14,165,000. He promised to loan it to libraries across the country. It was printed on “the Puritan minister Joseph Glover’s press, the first such device to make the journey across the Atlantic. Although Glover died during the 1638 crossing, his widow, Elizabeth, inherited the press and saw to its installation. She established America’s first print shop in a little house on what is now Holyoke Street in Cambridge.

While Stephen Day is generally credited with printing America’s first book, he was only the operator and overseer of Elizabeth Glover’s press. The press was nothing remarkable, and the crude materials and nascent talents of its operators are reflected in the blurred type and typographical inconsistencies in its surviving books, of which the Bay Psalm Book is no exception. Take, for instance, that most essential of words: ‘PSALM,’ which appears that way on the left-hand pages but is spelled ‘PSALME’ on the right-hand pages.

The colonists brought many Psalters with them to the New World, but they quickly found those printings lacking. The hundred and fifty Psalms were divided among ‘thirty pious and learned Ministers’ who labored to produce a verse translation that would be more faithful to the original Hebrew. Their efforts yielded the 1640 version that would become the Bay Psalm Book, which was then revised and reprinted nine times in the seventeenth century alone. The preface to the first edition, the one to be auctioned, states apologetically,

If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex. 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry in translating the hebrew words into english language, and Davids poetry into english meetre.

There already one sees the peculiar poetry of erratic spellings and capitalizations that makes the Bay Psalm Book so charming, so authentically early Americana.

Not surprisingly, as it prepared for today’s auction, Sotheby’s has displayed the book with its pages opened to the Twenty-third Psalm. Look to those familiar verses and you can see just how strange the translation is, even relative to the King James Version, which had been completed just thirty years earlier, in 1611:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads

To my ear, the shepherd is still caring and careful, but those ‘folds of tender-grasse’? Just down the street from where the Bay Psalm Book was printed is Harvard Yard, itself once a pasture for sheep and cattle. ‘Green pastures’ might well have been most familiar, but the Bay Psalm Book translator’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by the contemporary translation by Robert Alter, himself fiercely dedicated to rescuing the original Hebrew: he chose ‘grass meadows.’

One can scrutinize every verse of the Bay Psalm Book online. The text rewards such study, but it does not explain why the first book printed in America was a Psalter. Psalters are an unfamiliar genre for many, even those who worship regularly. Psalm-singing had for centuries been the demesne of a hand-picked choir, but the English Reformation invited the voices of the entire congregation. This printing of the Psalms in verse, set to meter, allowed them to be sung by all. Thus the Bay Psalm Book is a kind of hymnal.

Denominations still print original hymnals today, and every new printing marks time and documents tastes. Earlier this year, I interviewed a church organist who was retiring after more than sixty years of service. She did not measure those years in calendrical or liturgical terms, in Christmases, Easters, or even pastors, but hymnals. ‘I’ve played five different hymnals,’ she told me. After she said it, I calculated that my entire life was only three hymnals.

America’s history spans just a few centuries, but hundreds of hymnals. Colonists came seeking religious freedom, so the first book they printed was not a political tract or even a Bible, but a hymnal: a book to be used regularly in communal and even private worship. The intended use of the Bay Psalm Book tells us why it was America’s first book.” (America’s First Book – The New Yorker, Nov. 26, 2013)

On July 26, 2014, the Washington Music Festival will host its first Hymn Sing with organ prodigy, Gert van Hoef, and the editor of Majesty Hymns, Dr. Frank Garlock, leading the singing. Perhaps philanthropist, David Rubenstein, would be willing to lend the Bay Psalm Book for display at the event as well!

Bay Psalm Book Video Clip

Resources:

America’s First Book

America’s Hesitation Over Hymns

Early American Hymnody to 1835

Singing (and Translating) the Psalms

The Whole Booke of Psalmes

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The festival expands

After a successful launch this year, the Washington Music Festival will spill over into two weekends next summer. The 3rd weekend of July 2014 will feature various ensembles playing beautiful Baroque music and other popular music of George Washington’s day, and the 4th weekend in July will host an International Hymn Sing, featuring the Dutch organ prodigy, Gert van Hoef, on his North American debut.

DSCN7990

All of this music will be coming at the peak of the lavender season at Washington Lavender Farm and wildflowers that bloom in fields surrounding George Washington Inn. Don’t miss this exciting time. Why not make plans to be with us? The inn isn’t as grand as the Schonbrunn … but imagine the music festival in a setting like this, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and blue ocean waters.

The Dutch are coming!

Perhaps it’s still a dream, but we are really looking forward to next summer! We have been given the “green light” to plan for a world class organ concert here at George Washington Inn and Estate. The Dutch organ prodigy, Gert van Hoef, has accepted an invitation to come and put on a concert for the second annual Washington Music Festival, his first concert in the United States.

GertvanHoef

Just who is Gert van Hoef? Well, he got off to a late start when he started playing on the organ with his grandfather at the age of 14. (It’s great to see that the impact of his grandfather is still with him. He told me on the phone that he has coffee with him every week and is always challenged to “Keep up the good work!”)

Gert was inspired. Often he would practice from 5 to 12 hours a day. He made up for lost time and his dedication paid off when he won a national organ competition at the age of 16.

Just two years later, listen to his improvisation and performance of “‘Heer, U bent mijn leven de grond waarop ik sta”.

Here is a recent birthday party concert where he includes some incredible pedal-work for a very enthusiastic audience.

This fall he began his advanced musical studies at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. His concerts have taken him all over the Netherlands and into Belgium.

Here is his letter of acceptance for next summer’s concert here in Port Angeles, Washington:

“Dear Dan,

First of all I would like to thank you for your invitation. A concert trip to the US means a lot for me, and I am definitely willing to contribute to your music festival. The dates do not seem to be a problem, since your festival is planned during my summer vacation. My concerts might be slightly different from what people are used to. I usually reckon with 2 hours for an organ concert including a small break in the program. We can discuss your wishes for the program at a later stage…I hope that this message answers your questions for now. If you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to contact me directly. I am looking forward to hearing from you and wish you all the best in organizing the Music Festival.

Best Regards, Gert van Hoef”

We’re planning to have an Eminent Capella Concerto organ set up on the inn’s portico for Gert to use during the festival event. During his high school years he worked as a demonstrator for Eminent Organs in Voorthuizen, Netherlands. Of course he is partial to this fine Dutch electronic church and home organ!

Additional concerts are being planned while he is in the Pacific Northwest for his North American debut. If you are in the greater Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver areas and would like to host Gert for a concert, please submit the contact form, found below the links.

Links:

Gert van Hoef’s website

Gert van Hoef’s YouTube Channel

IMPORTANT UPDATE – February 5, 2014

Unfortunately we are going to have to cancel our Organ Concert with Gert van Hoef as planned for this coming summer! His 7 yr old sister (Marjolein) is fighting for her life with a form of leukemia and the family’s efforts have to be focused on her treatment and recovery. Gert has provided a statement. Your prayers would be appreciated. Here’s the blog that her family has begun: http://www.marjoleinvanhoef.nl/blog.html

Gert’s Statement: “We have decided to cancel the trip to America and the concerts over there. Our reason is that my sister has leukemia. It is too dangerous to come to America, because she is very sick and may not survive this. So we would like to stay home this summer. Again, thank you so much for the support and all the effort you have taken to plan these concerts for me. We really looked forward to it. We are very sorry that we are unable to come. I hope sometime in another year that we can still come.   Thanks for everything you have done to us.”  With kind regards, Gert van Hoef

Young Bach in his day

This young Dutch organist, Gert van Hoef, has amazing talent and has obviously focused over the years on his achievement as an excellent organist. I wonder if this is how Bach was in his youth? When talent is used for God it can accomplish great and lasting achievements. Bach’s focus in music was “Soli Deo Gloria” that drove him to write hundreds of cantatas with a passion that is still felt today. I hope this young man will capture that same vision and seek to bring glory to God alone. What a difference it will make in the days and years ahead!

One person aptly commented, “So young and so gifted …you are a positive inspiration in our confused and disorderly world.”

English Translation:
Lord, You are my life, the ground on which I stand.
Lord, You are my way the truth that leads me.
Your word is the path the road I go
As long as you give my breath as long as I exist,
I would not fear, for you are with me.
Lord, I pray thee, keep me near.