2015-10-17 Notes from the Bench

“All people that on earth do dwell” by William Kethe and Louis Bourgeois

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


One of the oldest metrical psalm texts that remain in continued use, the history of “All people that on earth do dwell” goes back to the beginning of the English Reformation in the sixteenth century. Based on Psalm 100, this hymn, along with its present melody, first appeared in an Elizabethan Psalm Book and is one of the few hymn texts that remains linked with its original tune. Time has not diminished the directness, simplicity, and universality of this text. William Kethe, a Scotsman, wrote this text to go with the French melody composed by Louis Bourgeois.



Few details regarding Kethe’s life are recorded. Documentation has survived that he was among a group of English and Scottish Protestants who lived in exile; Kethe lived in Frankfurt in 1555 and Geneva in 1557. Kethe was sent to do mission work in Basel and Strassburg in 1558 and returned to Geneva in 1559. While in exile, he was strongly influenced by the reformer, John Calvin. From 1561 until 1593, he served as the rector of the parish Childe Okeford in Dorset near Blandford. Different sources give his date of date as c. 1594 or 1608. While in exile, Kethe became familiar with the Genevan Psalter, the French hymnbook of the Calvinist Reformers. Kethe most likely used the Geneva prose translation of Psalm 100 as the basis for his verse. In fact, many of his metrical psalms were translations of French texts written to fit the tunes of the French metrical psalter. The first published appearance of Kethe’s text for Psalm 100 was in the fourth edition of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, issued in 1560, which contained 25 of Kethe’s psalm versions. This hymn has appeared in numerous other hymnals and psalters and today appears in almost all, comprehensive English-language hymnals.

The tune, Old 100th, is attributed to Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561), a French composer and music theorist. Bourgeois is best remembered for his work as compiler and music editor of the French-Genevan psalter from 1549 to 1550. The specific melodies of this psalter that were Bourgeois’s own creation remain a mystery. It is possible that the phrases of Old 100th were constructed from commonly known melodies of the time—there are parallels with the first phrase of Old 100th and other French, English, and Dutch psalm tunes, and the Lutheran hymn, O Herre Gott, dein gottlichs Wort. There are similar commonalities found with subsequent phrases. In 1551, Bourgeois fell from favor with local music authorities in Geneva amid controversies surrounding edits he made to well-known psalm tunes “without a license.” Following a brief imprisonment, Bourgeois eventually left Geneva to live in Lyon and Paris.

Old 100th quickly became popular among English-speaking Christians; its appeal being the simplicity and brevity of Bourgeois’s tune contrasted the longer, more complex psalm tunes in the Elizabethan Psalm Book. In 1560, Old 100th appeared with two texts: Kethe’s Psalm 100, and a short, metrical version of the Lord’s Prayer written by William Whittingham. Old 100th is the only psalm or hymn tune that was the basis of an English organ voluntary in the seventeenth century, one composed by John Blow, and the other by Henry Purcell. This melody as been used to sing a variety of other hymn texts, and in the United States, the melody is associated with the Doxology text, “Praise God from whom all Blessings flow” (# 380, vs. 3) by Thomas Ken.

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