Hearing the sounds of the past: StFX postdoctoral fellow accessing historic meaning through song

Jacqueline Wylde
Dr. Jacqueline Wylde

Long forgotten English metrical psalms will be brought to contemporary ears on Feb. 8th thanks to innovative research underway by StFX SSHRC postdoctoral fellow Dr. Jacqueline Wylde. 

Dr. Wylde, supervised by Dr. Laura Estill, StFX English professor and Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities, is hosting a concert, “Hearing the Sounds of the Past: Metrical Psalm Singing and the Early Modern Soundscape,” in Halifax, NS in collaboration with the King’s College Chapel Choir. During the event, the choir will sing early modern psalms, which will be recorded. 

Dr. Wylde is researching digital ways of exploring the sound and cultural meaning of 16th and 17th century congregational psalm singing and how the psalms (which no one has sung regularly since the 18th century) change meaning when sung in different contexts by different people. 

“Dr. Wylde’s research promises to open new pathways for researching and teaching the English metrical Psalms by reconsidering them in secular contexts as they were originally performed: that is to say, as living and changing songs and texts that existed in multiple contexts,” Dr. Estill says.

“Hearing the Sounds of the Past” is an innovative event that will help us imagine how the Psalms were sung hundreds of years ago, Dr. Estill says. 

“Dr. Wylde’s research helps us rethink traditional interpretations by considering embodied singing practices. Her research is truly interdisciplinary, bringing together literature, music history, religious studies, cultural studies, and acoustemology, which, in turn, can help us draw new conclusions about these texts, which are often still sung, albeit in entirely different ways, today.”


Dr. Wylde says the event will feature a mix of explanation and original research about the psalms, a demonstration of different kinds of psalm singing by the King’s College Chapel Choir, and some choral experiments into some of the possibilities of psalm singing based on historical research. 

“We will also teach the audience some psalms to get everyone singing! It will be scholarly and interactive and, hopefully, fun.”  

The event will be organized around specific accounts of instances of psalm singing - diary entries, music texts, religious treatises, letters, dramatic and literary excerpts, and court documents that reference the sound or manner of singing of the metrical psalms. By using direct, historical references, she says they will be able to demonstrate the flexibility of the psalms’ sound and meaning in ways that are concrete and understandable to students and the public. 

“We will be singing examples of the different ways psalms could have been sung in church, in homes, and in public spaces.  

“The goal of the event is to at once demonstrate, with the King's Choir, my research into sound of the shifting meanings of the metrical psalms, but also to demonstrate to students and the public a kind of experimental research in action or embodied research practice. 

“For example, we have court records indicating that a young, drunk man was arrested for singing the 23rd psalm to a popular ballad tune. What would this sound like?  Can the words and the tune even fit together? What can this sound tell us about attitudes towards public singing, religious norms in the local area, or the justice system in that parish? Can we exonerate this poor young man on singing grounds if the words and the music can’t be sung together?”


In another example, Dr. Wylde says they have diary entries from Lady Margaret Hoby a young, religious, wealthy wife who writes about psalm singing regularly with people in her household. Lady Hoby doesn't directly indicate who she sang with, but it’s known that she often spoke of her maids, and a few widows regularly lived in her household. She had significant musical training and played instruments.  

“Would it have been possible for her to have sung four-part psalms arranged for domestic use with only women in her household? It seems likely,” Dr. Wylde says. “What would that have sounded like and how would it differ from the evening psalms that she sang every night with the entire household in the great hall? How, in a sonic project, do we contend with the space and silence in the records, especially when it comes to more marginalized voices, such as women, immigrants, the illiterate, or the working classes?” 

Dr. Wylde says she finds the psalms fascinating because there is a relatively stable text used in virtually every church in England – The Whole Book of Psalms – and everyone sang them weekly in services from the 1560s until the early 18th century, and yet it is clear from the research that while the text was relatively stable, there was a lot of variety in their sound and practice across the country. 

“They are a significant cultural experience of the period – everyone knew them well, including famous playwrights and authors like Shakespeare, and they have largely fallen so completely out of use that not even scholars of the period know too much about them. They must have sounded very different depending on time, location, composition of singers, political position, class; indeed, listeners and singers themselves hear them very differently depending on their own perspective.”

Dr. Wylde says she was drawn to the topic. Her PhD dissertation examined strategies of religious persuasion that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and how they may have changed communication strategies on the early modern stage in plays by writers like Shakespeare. One of these strategies of persuasion/conversion was the practice of metrical psalm singing. 

“I would come across jokes and comments about the ways they sounded - jokes that make no sense to a contemporary audience or reader because we have no access to the cultural meaning of their sound. How do we access historic meaning through sound? Also, I love to sing choral music. I am fascinated by how collective singing affects communities because I know the social, emotional, and physical power of singing with a group.”

Dr. Wylde came to research at StFX because of Dr. Estill. “I have conceived of this project as both live and ephemeral with the event, but also as an online project, where recordings of the psalms in different kinds of ways are organized by timelines and geolocation, as a way of showing their flexibility and changability in sound and meaning over time and space. Professor Estill is a specialist in both digital humanities and early modern studies. Her guidance in helping me conceive, organize, fund and execute the many online and offline facets of this project has been invaluable.” 

Funding for this event has been provided by the Royal Society of Canada-Atlantic and the Canada Research Chairs Program.