The best way to learn the Psalms is to sing them, which is why a group of Dutch musicians is mining their "Genevan Psalter" heritage to create arrangements that appeal to today's worshipers.
Eelco Vos’s five-year-old daughter often sings while she draws pictures. When she warbles, “My help comes from the Lord,” he feels as pleased as John Calvin probably felt 450 years ago when artisans and children sang Genevan psalms in their daily lives. The singing flows out of imaginations shaped by God’s words.
Dutch pianist and composer Eelco Vos founded The Psalm Project (TPP) to make ancient biblical psalms accessible to today’s worshipers. Though TPP musicians draw on their shared heritage, Vos says their main goal is “not to rearrange the complete Genevan psalter but to let people hear and sing the Psalms again.” Their versions are catching on with people of all ages in different denominations and countries.
At a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, Vos explained that early 16th century worship had no room for congregational singing. Instead, people listened to a capella singing by trained professionals. These ethereal Gregorian chants and Renaissance polyphonies expressed God’s glory in Latin, a language few worshipers understood. Martin Luther and John Calvin wanted worshipers to hear and sing Scripture in their own languages. Calvin said the Psalms are songs “God puts in our mouths…as if he himself were singing in us.” Luther’s German versifications inspired Calvin to translate psalms into poetic meter for French speakers in Geneva, Switzerland. Luther made aesthetic space for choirs, organs, chorales, and hymns. Calvin, however, focused on expressing “God’s beauty through the beauty of words and the beauty of participation,” Vos explained. “The goal was to teach peasants to sing together and memorize the book of Psalms. The Genevan psalter has very simple melodies and rhythms because people weren’t used to singing.” The Genevan psalter has been translated into Afrikaans, Bohemian, Czech, Dutch, English, German, Hungarian, Indonesian, and other languages. It’s been revised, harmonized, and set to organ. Vos received his first Psalmen from his grandpa on his fifth birthday.
The dozen or so members of The Psalm Project—most conservatory-trained musicians who live in the Netherlands—grew up singing and memorizing, or, at least, hearing Genevan psalms. “The ‘new’ Dutch psalter is from the 18th century but music has evolved in so many ways. We didn’t know if it was possible rearrange psalms so younger people will sing them and older people can recognize them. Our challenge is to ask what is the heart of a psalm and how can it be liturgically embodied,” Vos said. The Genevan-to-TPP process is like converting raw data files into finished digital photographs. The material is all there, waiting for artistic interpretation. Take Psalm 121, the one Vos’s daughter sings while drawing. The Genevan text has four rhyming verses in an ABBACC pattern, with no repeated phrases. The new version repeats several phrases but doesn’t rhyme. It crystallizes the psalm’s central question and answer: “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” The melody is based on the 1551 tune but is recast with syncopated verse, chorus, and bridge. Its “my help comes from the Lord” musical phrase echoes the third line of the original tune. “We feel very blessed. For evangelical, Baptist, and Pentecostal worship bands and youth teams using our arrangements, these are new songs. They don’t know the heritage. People from very conservative Reformed churches—where they sing so slowly you need oxygen—won’t play our versions in church with drums. But they will buy a CD and listen to it,” Vos said.
Except for Vos, a healthcare manager, and Reinhart Brandse, a human resources consultant who manages and finds funding for TPP, the people leading this psalm singing renaissance make their living in music. They donate their time to TPP because they want to see psalm singing flower into what they call “living the Psalms.” “Many worship songs are just praise and hallelujah, but Psalm 22 appeals to a lot of people, because we all have questions. Psalm 72 calls on God to give justice to the poor. We hope more attention to worship will bring more awareness to poor immigrants and urban issues,” Vos says. As Dutch churches shrink, people are more aware of being Christian by choice. “Maybe only 10 percent of the population goes regularly to church. In big cities, it’s less. There’s more emphasis now to do our faith and join with others. The Reformed churches have always emphasized the diaconie. So the idea of lament was always there. With the use of psalms we can revive that idea that everybody is a deacon,” Brandse says. Luca Genta, who plays many instruments, writes TV soundtracks, and records CDs, has arranged TPP psalms for piano, vocal, drums, strings, sax, or electronics. Singing psalms unites Christians across denominations. “We Christians are using free broadcast channels. There are ecumenical campaigns on ads, TV, and in newspapers to talk about coming to church and being Christians. ‘Love wins’ is a big emphasis,” he says.
The Psalm Project’s ten-day visit to Michigan in January 2011 let them test how well their psalm singing translates outside the Netherlands. They rehearsed and played with Calvin College students, staff, and graduates on campus, at local churches, and at the Calvin Symposium on Worship.
TPP leadsinger Miranda de Vlieger-Companjen tours Europe with Inside Out, a Dutch black gospel choir. She writes songs, conducts groups, and backs vocals on radio, TV, and CD projects. She wondered what people with less music experience could do with these new sung psalms.
In Michigan, she led worship with Calvin students who sang or played strings, guitar, drums, bass, and piano. They told her they’d be doing TPP’s Psalm 150 in an upcoming LOFT service (Sunday evening campus worship). Their ability to learn the music quickly and well “proves that it works,” she said.
Laura de Jong is a student worship apprentice who helps lead LOFT and weekday chapels. “The students at Calvin love good worship music. The Psalm Project has taken beautifully worded psalms with melodies that have been around for centuries and made them even more excellent,” she says.
While preparing for Symposium, de Jong says she’d “recognize a familiar tune and realize I had been singing this psalm all my life. It just took a different setting to make me appreciate it.
“One thing I've hugely appreciated about singing the Genevan Psalms, primarily as sung by The Psalm Project, is that I have now learned and memorized parts of psalms. When I'm planning a service or looking for an apt passage, I can mentally scroll through songs and say, ‘Psalm 134 is a great doxology’ or ‘Psalm 98 would be a great opening praise psalm.’ I can only imagine the depth of knowledge for someone who knows the traditional Genevan psalms well,” she says.
Worship resources coordinator Cindy de Jong says that after a final concert, TPP members treated local musicians to dinner and gave everyone a Psalms Unplugged CD and personal note. “They also said they wanted to write a song to premiere in a college chapel service. Eelco knew he wanted to do it on Psalm 85 and already had the chorus melody, ‘show us your unfailing love,’ in his head. We did a lot of emailing back and forth to finish the song,” de Jong says.
Vos explains why they didn’t use a Genevan tune for Psalm 85. “There are 124 Genevan melodies but only 35 or so are melodies we can ‘use’ to arrange the way we do. Some melodies are strange, even bad, like the song that says, ‘You’re my God, so good and kind’—on notes that sound sad. So there are many psalms we have to arrange in other ways.
“The Psalms are songs and prayers directly from the Holy Spirit,” Vos says. That’s why, for him, as for John Calvin, what matters most isn’t Genevan tunes but absorbing and living out God’s message of unfailing love.