Psalters, Psalms and Fumths

Why Fum’th in Fight

Bristol Beacon, 4th July 2015

In 1567 the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, published a new Psalter: a translation of the 150 Old Testament Psalms into English metric verse, suitable for singing. The renowned English composer Thomas Tallis composed the nine tunes contained in this Psalter; the third of these tunes was printed with the words of Psalm no. 2, though the Psalter gave guidance on using each tune with a variety of the Psalms.

Tune number three is sometimes referred to as the Third Mode Melody, because it is written in the third or Phrygian mode (roughly speaking, a scale based on the white notes of the piano from E to E). Particularly striking is the tune’s free use of both major and minor tonic chords.

Sometimes Tallis’s arrangement is titled (and sung as) “Why fumeth in sight“; the discrepancy probably arises from the similarity in manuscript between an ‘f’ and a long ‘s’, still commonly used at the time. If you look at the original Psalter it does indeed look more like an ‘s’, but ‘fight’ certainly makes more sense in context; don’t forget that the same verse of Psalm 2 also became Why do the nations so furiously rage together? in Handel’s Messiah.

Tallis’s tune has also been used for a number of hymns, most notably Thou Wast, O God, written by clergyman John Mason and published in his Songs of Praise to Almighty God upon several Occasions in 1683. Gurt Lush’s arrangement of the tune uses the first pair of verses of Archbishop Parker’s metric psalm and two verses of John Mason’s hymn, contrasting the ire of former with the devotion of latter.

Much later, Ralph Vaughan Williams was working as Musical Editor on a new hymn book, The English Hymnal, first published in 1906. He was much taken with Tallis’s Third Mode Melody and decided to use it for Joseph Addison’s 18th century hymn When Rising from the Bed of Death. In fact he included two arrangements of the tune, one with the melody in the tenor part, as in Tallis’s original, and one with the melody moved to the soprano part. Gurt Lush use the latter arrangement.

A few years later Vaughan Williams used the tune again, this time for one of his most celebrated works, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Written for an expanded string orchestra, it was first performed in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, conducted by Vaughan Williams himself.