The Lord's my Shepherd

The Lord’s my Shepherd

A warm welcome to Hymns for All Seasons.

To kick things off, we’re focusing on a perennial favourite, Psalm 23; with text by Francis Rous (1579-1659), and to the tune CRIMOND by Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836-87). Now universally popular with all denominations, the origins of both text and tune are firmly Protestant. The Lord’s my Shepherd.

The Lord's my Shepherd

Francis Rous

Francis Rous was a Puritan MP who rose to prominence during the interregnum of 1649-60. Born in Devon, he was elected to Parliament as Member for various West Country constituencies. He probably wrote his versified version of Psalm 23 around 1641; precisely the time when he was most actively opposing the High Church autocracy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. While it is tempting to reread it with this background in mind, Rous’s text is a straightforward versification of the King James Bible, with nothing of political subtext or innuendo detectable. Nonetheless the central theme of God giving protection to those who walk ‘within the paths of righteousness’ is particularly apposite. In 1644 Rous became Provost of Eton College. He rose to become Speaker of the House of Commons for five months during the brief Barebone’s Parliament of 1653, and took other offices in Cromwell’s Protectorate until his death.

Jessie Seymour Irvine

Jessie Seymour Irvine, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, is believed to have written CRIMOND as a musical exercise while still young – the tune is named after the parish to which her father was appointed in 1855, when she was nineteen. She took Rous’s text from the Presbyterian Scottish Psalter, where it had been since 1650, and wrote a tune to suit the Scottish tradition, which encourages the mixing of tunes and psalms with common metres. CRIMOND was first published in 1872 but erroneously credited to David Grant, who harmonised it; Irvine’s name was restored in 1929, over forty years after her death.

It is easily the most popular tune for these words, with BROTHER JAMES’S AIR (also of Scottish origin) running a distant second, and its lilting three-in-a-bar and Celtic overtones are perfectly suited to the comforting solidity of the text. Grant’s harmony, shifting around the three-chord trick of I, ii and V, is entirely dictated by Irvine’s tune, as shown by a tell-tale run on the supertonic major chord, creating an attractive secondary dominant for most of the second line.­

Here’s a particularly rousing version from Liverpool:

Only slightly north of that, here’s the Grimethorpe Colliery Band:

And from across the Atlantic, a soothing meditation on the tune:

In what will be a regular feature of these bulletins, we’re pleased to present an original and exclusive descant for choirs, with an alternative harmonisation for organists. It’s free to download and use, so please do so, and let us know how you get on. We’d be delighted to receive any audio or video of your attempts!

Crimond descant

If you’re using Rous’s hymn to teach Psalm 23 in Prayers or an assembly, you might want to consider the following points:

  • David’s background as a shepherd before he wrote the psalm;
  • The nature of a shepherd as opposed to a ‘Lord’ or ‘King’;
  • The idea of God’s provision and sufficiency: ‘I’ll not want’ and all of verse 4;
  • The idea of God’s protection and assurance: ‘yet will I fear no ill’;
  • The changing nature of the poem’s addressee: God is addressed directly, in the second person, in verses 3 and 4;
  • The use of metaphor throughout, and the rural setting: ‘pastures green’, ‘still waters’, ‘dark vale’.
  • A comparison to other settings of Psalm 23, in whole or part, such as ‘The King of Love my Shepherd is’ (Henry Baker), ‘The God of Love my Shepherd is’ (George Herbert), ‘In heavenly love abiding’ (Anna Waring), or ‘The Lord my pasture shall prepare’ (Joseph Addison).

So where does this hymn stand with you? Essential for a baptism, wedding or funeral? Perhaps the text has some special personal meaning. Or have you written your own musical arrangement? Do let us know your thoughts, and we’d be pleased to include a selection of them in our next email.

Nicholas Oulton


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