Our Liturgy –11
Although John Calvin is known primarily for his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he is also rightly acclaimed for the Genevan Psalter, a project upon which he worked for twenty-six years, from 1536 until 1562. The impact the Genevan Psalter has had on the worship of Reformed churches cannot be overstated. Throughout the centuries the Genevan Psalter has appeared in many languages and in recent decades new versions have been produced even in Asia–in Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.
In the Geneva of 1536, to which John Calvin arrived, there was no singing in the worship service. The Reformers had rid the church of its clerical chanting but had not replaced it with anything for the congregations. Calvin and other ministers, concerned about a coldness of worship, petitioned the city council to introduce singing for the edification of the people. The proposal was not approved by the council.
In 1538, Calvin was expelled from Geneva and spent about three years in Strasbourg, where he served a French refugee congregation. There he experienced congregational singing. Everyone, men and women, boys and girls, sang the Psalms in unison in simple melodies under the direction of a cantor. While in Strasbourg, he began to develop a Psalter. In 1539, he published Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant, a songbook of nineteen Psalms and two canticles, the Ten Commandments and the Song of Simeon. As well a metrical version of the Apostles’ Creed was included. Six of the Psalms were from Calvin’s hand while thirteen had been composed by Clement Marot, the distinguished poet laureate of the court of King Francis I of France.
Three years later, Calvin was back in Geneva, where he continued to develop the Psalter. He and the other Geneva ministers pursued the matter of congregational singing and were successful. The following, dated 1541, was recorded in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances:
It will be desirable to introduce songs in order the better to incite people to prayer and to the praise of God. To begin with, the little children shall be taught, and then in course of time the whole church will be able to follow.
His perseverance resulted in several other editions (1542, 1543, 1551). Calvin prepared a preface for his Psalter in which he wrote:
As for public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists simply of speech, the other of song…. And indeed, we know from experience that singing has great strength and power to move and to set on fire the hearts of men in order that they may call upon God and praise Him with a more vehement and more ardent zeal. It is to be remembered always that this singing should not be light or frivolous, but that it ought to have weight and majesty…. Now, what Augustine says is true, namely that no one can sing anything worthy of God which he has not received from Him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, when we sing them, we are assured that God puts the words in our mouth, as if He Himself were singing through us to exalt His glory….
At last, in 1562, the Psalter was complete. It included 49 texts prepared by Clement Marot and 101 from the hand of Theodore Beza, scholar and professor in Geneva. Calvin had withdrawn his own contributions, deferring to these two superior poets. The Psalter was a best seller in Europe: thousands of printings rolled off dozens of presses. Calvin’s songbook was eagerly embraced by Protestants and even by many Roman Catholics.
The peculiar beauty of the Psalter is its extensive variety of meter, rhyme schemes, and tunes. It includes more than 100 stanza structures, more than thirty rhyme patterns, and 124 tunes.
The “Genevan tunes” were mostly new compositions by musicians such as Guillaume Franc, Louis Bourgeois, François Gindron, and an unknown “Maître Pierre.” Although it was Calvin’s wish that each Psalm should have its own unique melody, this goal was not attained and some tunes were used for more than one Psalm. Several tunes were borrowed from Gregorian hymns; e.g., Psalm 80 is based upon the ancient hymn, Victimae Paschali Laudes.
The rhythm of the songs is simple, consisting of two values, half and quarter notes. The pulse or tactus, falling on the half note, should be about the same as the resting heart rate of an adult. In the whole Psalter, there are only a few melismas.
Rather than the major and minor keys, nine different modes are used for the tunes. The most common mode is the Dorian, which is the scale “D” to “D,” using only the white keys.
Calvin intended the songs to be primarily for the congregation, not the choir. The intervals between the notes are small and each tune is within an octave. He insisted that the congregation sing in unison, and so the Psalter did not have the music in various voices. Harmonies were written for all the Psalms, notably by the French composer of Calvin’s time, Claude Goudimel. These were meant for home and choir use.
The Canadian Reformed Churches have published several English versions of the Genevan Psalter. The first complete edition appeared in 1972. Over the past several years, the versified Psalms were completely revised. The aim of the revision was to improve their literary quality and to bring them into greater harmony with the biblical text.
May our God be “enthroned on the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3) through the singing of the Psalms. To Him alone be glory, now and forever!