This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of our parish magazine.
According to the KJB, the words of the much-loved 23rd psalm are:
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Written by David, this is always likely to have been a song, and many composers have set it to different tunes. Everyone has a different favourite, which is likely to be the one they learned at school and grew up with. So it was for me. For at least three decades my personal “one true” version of this psalm is set to a tune called “Crimond“.
To be honest, it never made much sense to me as a child, as the words were massaged somewhat to fit the meter of the music:
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.
He maketh me down to lie
In pastures green. He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.
As far as I was concerned, The Lord was a shepherd that I didn’t want, and he made me lie down. What was all that about? The tune was lovely though.
That all changed in preparation for the visit of Nigel, former Bishop of Manchester, to our parish as part of his Run the Race pilgrimage. Jeremy introduced the ladies of the choir to the setting written by Maurice Greene (1695-1755), a duet for two female voices, performed on that occasion by Hayley Jackson and Sally Ogden (soprano) and Hannah Ogden and myself (alto). I’m fairly certain it was my debut as a member of such a small ensemble! The following summer, Jeremy suggested that Jennifer and I might like to sing something together, and she asked if we could do “that shepherd one”. She sings soprano and I sing alto, so what could go wrong? It turned out that whilst I had been practising the alto part at home Jennifer had inadvertently learned that too, and at that time she struggled to sustain the soprano part (which she didn’t know then) while I sang the alto part (which she did know).
A few years later, the full choir had a crack at the “Vicar of Dibley” setting, written by Howard Goodall. Jennifer sang the choir boy solos at the beginning and end, and Sally Ogden sang the solo in the middle. I think that for many, this is now the “one true” version of the 23rd psalm, thanks largely to a long-running BBC comedy! We enjoyed singing it too. Just on the off-chance that you don’t know it, here is a lovely recording on YouTube.
For me though, my current favourite setting is the Greene version. Jennifer and I rehearsed it to sing while my brother and his wife signed the register at their wedding in May 2014. The bride took some persuasion as she thought this a funeral song, probably because of the the line about walking in the valley of death. I interpret it rather differently though: it tells me that even when things seem to be at their darkest, I am safe, valued, protected, and above all, loved. However, we had too much music planned for the time they took to do the paperwork, and as it turned out this piece wasn’t needed. Maybe we’ll get to present it on another occasion some time soon.