A Reformed Approach to Psalmody: The Legacy of the Genevan Psalter
The Genevan Psalter is the most important source of metrical psalmody in the continental Reformed tradition.
One of the key phrases of the 16th century Protestant Reformation was sola scriptura, describing the emphasis Reformers like Luther and Calvin placed on Scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice. The Reformed tradition, more than any other, took that phrase literally when it came to congregational song. Metrical psalmody is the particular gift of the Reformed tradition to the broader Christian community. Singing the psalms in meter was at the heart of the communal prayer of God's people in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition. Even today, a few small denominations still sing only metrical psalms in worship.
The larger picture in churches standing in the Reformed tradition is no longer one of exclusive psalmody. In one communion after another, hymns were added, and psalms were often sidelined. My own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, retained exclusive psalmody until 1934. Today, most congregations sing mainly hymns.
When psalms are sung today in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches, they may or may not be in metrical form. And of course, many other Christian traditions sing metrical settings of the psalms. So is there anything distinctive about the Reformed tradition when it comes to singing the psalms? Or is a look at psalmody in the Reformed tradition simply an historical exercise? How and where does the Reformed tradition of psalmody come to expression today, in the 21st century, both in North America and beyond?
Those are large questions, more than can be addressed here. This article will focus mainly on the beginnings and the continuing legacy of the most important source of metrical psalmody in the continental Reformed tradition: the Genevan Psalter. The Genevan Psalter is the only complete metrical psalter from Reformation days still in regular use in more than one country, even now in the 21st century. It remains the crowning achievement of the Reformed tradition. There are other traditions at work in North America, particularly the English and Scottish Presbyterian metrical psalm traditions, but I will only make brief comments about those here.
Beginnings of the Genevan Psalter
It has always intrigued me that John Calvin, who held such a high view of Scripture, would turn to metrical settings of the psalms rather than singing them straight from Scripture, as Luther preferred. Calvin was convinced that the people needed to sing, and lamented the fact that church authorities in Geneva had thrown out all music in worship.
Calvin tried his hand at versifying some texts, which he withdrew later when learning of the superior poetic gifts of someone else. And here comes one of the ironies of church history. A court poet by the name of Clement Marot was entertaining royalty and the upper crust of society by versifying the psalms, of all things, which became quite popular. Calvin saw both great poetic gifts and great opportunity, and enlisted Marot's help in a project of preparing a complete metrical psalter for liturgical use. Marot was a sophisticated poet, and the psalter texts exhibit no less than 110 varieties of stanza structure and 33 different rhyme schemes.
I doubt that John Calvin was impressed first of all by Marot's virtuosity. In fact, Calvin's oversight of the entire Genevan Psalter project suggests quite another motivation. The principle was to reflect the mood, character, and structure of a particular psalm in the very choice of the meter. The idea was to present a faithful rendering of the psalm in a way that would both honor the psalm and give the people their liturgical voice. So, Psalm 81, for example, has short bright lines in a meter of 56 55 56:
Sing a psalm of joy!
Shout in celebration.
Let the tambourine
and the trumpet bring
praises to our King
for his great salvation.
Psalm 6 also has short lines (776 D), but ones that groan in lament, "LORD, chasten not in anger, / nor in your wrath rebuke me. / Give me your healing word.." In contrast, Psalm 51 stretches out the penitential pleas for mercy in long lines (10 11 11 10 10 11 10 11), and Psalm 89 expounds on the faithfulness of God in even longer lines (12 12 13 13 13 13).
[Example 1: Psalm 6]
Of course, the texts had to accommodate both meter and rhyme. So to be complete, the texts would need toadd words to the psalm. But the poet was not to pad the psalm by adding anything that was not there. Rather, additions were only to exegete the psalm so as to make the meaning clear.
Where did Calvin go for tunes? Of course, he found some already in Strasbourg, but when returning to Geneva, this systematic theologian took a similar approach to the tunes as he had to the texts, enlisting a gifted teacher, Louis Bourgeois, as the main composer and music editor. Some have suggested that he borrowed some tunes from secular sources. But there is little evidence to support that, and much better evidence to support the relationship to Gregorian chant. Genevan Psalm 129 is taken straight from the morning hymn for the feast of St. Benedict (see Example 2).
[Example 2: Morning Hymn for the Feast of St. Benedict; Genevan Psalm 129]
Calvin's theology of sung prayer comes even more clearly into focus when looking at the melodies, which were to have both the "weight and majesty" appropriate for singing communally in the presence of God. Since the texts were set in a wide range of meters, the melodies had to follow suit. The intent was for each psalm to have its own tune, also based on the character of the psalm. A particular tune could then bring a particular psalm to mind.
The result is a remarkably disciplined set of melodies: syllabic (only a rare melisma), in a range of an octave, and with only two note lengths, long and short, in groups of twos or lilting threes that seem almost syncopated to 20th century ears. The pulse was to be that of a quietly breathing adult, in other words, between 60 and 72 beats to the minute. The psalms were to be sung in unison (octaves) in worship. In short, the melodies were to serve and support the text in a way very similar to the chant tradition, never to draw attention to themselves, never to interfere with the liturgical purpose of sung prayer. The tunes are not as anonymous as chant, but they are humble, disciplined, and distinct.
The goal of one tune per text was not quite reached; the Genevan Psalter ended up with 125 tunes for the 150 psalms, with different modes chosen according to the character of the psalm. The melodies carried these texts, providing a way for countless Christians to memorize the psalms.
The psalms were first taught to the children, who then taught the congregation. Already in the Articles of 1537, Calvin had recommended that children, who beforehand have practiced some modest church song, sing in a loud distinct voice, the people listening with all attention and following heartily what is sung with the mouth, till all become accustomed to singing communally.
After coming out in installments, a complete metrical psalter-texts with tunes-was released in Geneva in 1562. The original publication of the complete psalter was a publishing phenomenon that broke all the records in those still early days of printing and publishing. Within just a few years, it was available in nine languages and in more than a hundred thousand copies.
The spread of the Psalter from Geneva was at the heart and center of the spread of Calvinism throughout Europe and beyond. By all accounts, Calvin's instincts were right that this particular kind of metrical structure would be embraced; the people sang them everywhere, in and out of church, in the heady exciting early days, and also in the painful times of struggle that soon came. The Genevan Psalter also inspired many composers who wrote countless polyphonic settings for use beyond the church.
Like the Lutheran chorales and many English psalm tunes, the rhythms gradually flattened out and the tempo slowed down after the 16th century. There are still some places where these tunes are sung that way, in all slow even note lengths. But the 20th century was no longer afraid of the sprightly rhythms. With musicological research as well as the influence of popular music and jazz, many Renaissance tunes-including Lutheran chorales, English and Scottish psalm tunes, and the Genevan tunes-have been restored to their original rhythms in many recent hymnals, helping to spark a revival of singing them after generations of singing slowly in all even notes.
One of the struggles in editing the 1987 Psalter Hymnal was deciding when to restore the original rhythms completely. We did for the most part, but there were exceptions as we considered the pastoral challenges of changing the entrenched slow even note singing everyone had grown up with. For example, GENEVAN 134, usually set to Psalm 100 and known as OLD HUNDREDTH, comes with a rhythmic surprise in the final line; for the Psalter Hymnal, we restored the original rhythm in all but the last line. Many people still sing this tune in all even notes, and almost no one sings it in the original rhythm.
Many North Americans like to sing in harmony, and most hymnals include harmony. Europeans still sing mainly in unison, and their hymnals for the most part include only melody. But many choral settings were composed from the beginning for use outside the liturgy. Claude Goudimel's setting of Genevan Psalm 6 (Example 1), for example, places the melody in the tenor, where melodies were usually found in the 16th century. After all, women's voices had not been heard much in church before. As a woman, I can hardly imagine the thrill of congregational singing in resonant spaces that released the voice of all the people in worship. Goudimel set the Dorian tune to this penitential psalm in a note against note setting. He actually provided three complete settings of the Genevan Psalter, once in this simple style, and twice more in more elaborate polyphonic settings.
Mentioning Psalm 6 as a penitential psalm brings up the question of liturgical use. It's one thing to describe the texts and tunes, which is as far as most history texts go. But how did the psalms function in worship and in the lives of the people who sang them in church and at home? How did they contribute to the identity of the people in the tradition called Reformed? What psalms were sung in worship? What psalms were set first, and why? My colleague John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, explores those questions in chapter 9 of his recent book Worship Seeking Understanding. For example, the early installments of Calvin's psalter included many wisdom psalms and psalms of confession, sung in worship following the prayer of confession. There were surprisingly few psalms of praise, at least in terms of our practice today. He writes, "For many years, Genevan spirituality was formed primarily by psalms of penitence and lament."
In 1549, the entire extant psalter could be sung every seventeen weeks. By 1562 [when the psalter was completed], twenty-five weeks were required, with the congregation singing upward of thirty stanzas per week. In this final form of the table, many psalms were divided into two or three sections and sung over the course of both Sunday services or at each service in a given week.. With exceptions only allowed for the Lord's Supper,.the only guiding principle in the formulation of these tables seems to have been the intent of singing approximately the same number of stanzas at each service. This liturgical data.tells us that singing was a discipline, a discipline of sung prayer.not entirely unlike that of Benedictine monasticism.
The Continuing Legacy of Metrical Psalmody
How do we assess the continuing legacy of the Genevan Psalter, in terms of texts, tunes, and liturgical use? Regarding the texts, new versifications are available. Regarding the tunes, with the recovery of the original rhythms, it is possible to sing them in the musically invigorating way they were first sung over 400 years ago. The psalm tables have long since ceased to function.
Genevan Tunes in North American Hymnals
One way to assess the legacy is simply to count the number of psalm texts still sung to Genevan tunes in most North American hymnals. There aren't many, because the English and Scottish traditions prevailed in North America, not the continental Genevan tradition. James Brumm tells the story of the 17th century attempt to combine those traditions in a way that effectively killed Genevan psalmody in North America for more than two hundred years.
Of the five Genevan tunes most frequently included in North American hymnals, only two are usually associated with the psalm or canticle for which they were composed. The five most common are:
1. GENEVAN 134, now usually sung to Psalm 100, known as OLD HUNDREDTH, or the DOXOLOGY. The change to Psalm 100 was made early in England. In fact, one reason this tune became so popular was that it is in long meter, a frequently used meter in English metrical poetry. As mentioned earlier, it is still best known in all even note values.
2. GENEVAN 42, one of the most beloved psalms in the Genevan tradition, is more often set to another biblical text in the Lutheran tradition, a setting of part of Isaiah 40, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" (and named Freu dich sehr after yet another German text). That text has quite a different character than Psalm 42. It is the Lutheran heritage of chorale and organ music on that chorale that has made it widely known in North America, not the psalm text. John Ferguson's sprightly setting of FREU DICH SEHR dances along, but Psalm 42 doesn't call for that kind of dancing.
3. GENEVAN 98 is now set in several hymnals to the actual text of Psalm 98, especially the setting by Erik Routley. That tune was used twice in the Genevan Psalter, also for Psalm 118, and for some reason, the tune name usually given is taken from the French incipit for Psalm 118, RENDEZ A DIEU, not the incipit of Psalm 98.
4. GENEVAN 12, also known as DONNE SECEURS, the French incipit for Psalm 12, is often set to Georgia Harkness' text "Hope of the World," written for the World Council of Churches meeting in the United States just over fifty years ago. That combination of text and tune was suggested by Austin Lovelace.
5. For a fifth example, the Genevan tune for the Song of Simeon, also known by the tune name NUNC DIMITTIS, is often sung to the Song of Simeon, as well as to the evening hymn "O Gladsome Light."
Of course, more examples are found in hymnals in the Reformed tradition: Rejoice in the Lord includes 14; the Presbyterian Hymnal has 16, and the Psalter Hymnal, which begins with a complete metrical psalter, includes 40 Genevan tunes.
Genevan Tunes Around the World
A second way to assess the legacy of the Genevan Psalter is to look for its presence in places beyond North America -not just the melodies, but their continuing connection to psalm texts. Here are some examples:
1. In Hungary, the entire Genevan Psalter has always been present in their psalter hymnals; the first 150 numbers are the 150 psalms.
2. In a recent visit to Japan, I learned that the Reformed Church in Japan was just finishing a translation of all 150 psalms to be sung to the Genevan tunes. Like Calvin, they released groups in installments as they completed them. I went there to speak at a church music workshop which began and ended with worship services in which we sang all Genevan Psalms, with gusto and enthusiasm, accompanied on a new tracker organ installed by a Strasbourg organ builder, Marc Garnier, in a (not equal) temperament well suited for congregational singing. They have released a wonderful recording with professional musicians led by Maestro Masaaki Suzuki, conductor of the famed Bach Collegium Japan. I was curious as to their approach to texts, and asked whether they used rhyme; the Dutch and Hungarian psalters preserved the same rhyme schemes, for example, but I learned that rhyme is not part of Japanese poetry. They had never sung the psalms systematically, but with the revival in psalmody happening everywhere, they turned to their Calvinist roots, and although it was brand new to them, made a decision to claim the Genevan Psalter for their worship. Here is a culture that respects tradition. Whether the singing of the Genevan melodies will take root among the young people, who are influenced in other directions, remains to be seen. But the leaders in the Reformed Church of Japan have taken a stand. Like most of what I learned about Japan, they are able to take a gift from another culture, make it their own, and offer it back to the larger Christian community wrapped in even greater beauty and strength.
3. In the Netherlands, the entire Genevan Psalter has always been and still is present in their hymnals.
4. Missionary activity as well as emigration from the Netherlands spread the Genevan Psalter especially to Indonesia, South Africa,
5. There are also isolated examples of Genevan Psalms in other places. A relief worker in Mozambique recently sent me a video of a Presbyterian worship service; to her amazement, one of the songs this African congregation sang that morning was Genevan Psalm 116. They sang unaccompanied, in four-part harmony; other songs in that service included translated English hymns and African songs, a delightful mix.
6. A colleague at Calvin Theological Seminary who spent some time in Indonesia told me about participating in an ordination service of some 300 elders and deacons; during the service they sang Genevan Psalm 42 in two part harmony. They sang unaccompanied, more out of poverty than principle. And they sang it in their own way. He wondered at the time about imposing music from the European Renaissance on such a different culture in Indonesia, but after witnessing their singing, he commented "In singing Genevan Psalm 42 in their own language, they had become more than they were."
That comment, "They had become more than they were," struck me as a helpful description for any community that appropriates the music from another time and place and makes it their own. After all, if we encourage North American congregations to sing songs from Indonesia and other parts of the globe, we don't need to apologize for encouraging the traffic in both directions, so long as we encourage every community to develop their own voices as well.
From a Unified Psalter to Hymnals including Metrical Psalms
These examples speak of a tradition tied to a unified body of tunes still identified with the psalms for which they were composed. That is the genius of the Genevan Psalter tradition; where the tunes have stuck, psalmody has stuck. That is also the great limitation of the tradition; the creative melodic work was completed in 1562. All that was left for creative development was choral and organ settings of those tunes.
In North America, as mentioned earlier, the predominant influence in congregational song has come via England and Scotland, not Geneva. Today that English and Scottish metrical psalm heritage is identified largely by "psalm tunes" originally composed for psalm texts; the texts have been updated long since. But does it make sense to speak of a psalm tune when it is set to a hymn? The genius of that heritage is one of fewer and simpler metrical structures, just a few, really, like Short, Long, and especially Common Meters. Few meters permitted easy exchange of texts and tunes. But therein lay the great limitation of the English and Scottish tradition: few tunes were actually needed. At first, psalm tunes were sung to the psalm texts for which they were composed. The early Scottish psalters adopted and adapted many Genevan tunes. But later, the number of tunes in use shrank; the 1650 Scottish Psalter didn't even include tunes. There was little identity of text with tune. To this day, many people in England and Scotland, and their descendents in Canada as well, are familiar with hymnals that are books of texts only.
I wonder if there is a single early English psalm tune left that is sung to the psalm for which it was composed. Probably the most ecumenically known metrical psalm today is "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." I submit that its identity with the tune ST. ANNE has contributed to its strength. But even that tune was originally composed for Psalm 42, not Psalm 90. At least most hymnals nowadays are attributing the text to the opening verses of Psalm 90, not just to Isaac Watts.
The lack of connection between text and tune contributed to the weakening of the metrical psalter tradition in England and Scotland. And the eventual move by Isaac Watts to Christianize the psalms led positively toward hymnody, but also contributed to the decline of psalmody. By the 19th century, when English and American missionaries went to other lands, they brought hymnals with them, not psalters. Two examples:
The Presbyterian Churches in Korea were established mainly by 19 th century American and English missionaries. However, the missionaries did not bring psalters; they brought hymnals that included the currently popular 19th century gospel songs. Psalm singing had all but disappeared. Consequently, the hymnal of the Korean Presbyterian Churches contains mostly translated 19th century hymn texts.
The same story is true in the Pacific Islands, where Congregational and Presbyterian missionaries came first from the London Missionary Society in 1797 and later in the 19th century from America. In 2001, at an international consultation on Reformed worship held in Geneva, Switzerland, the delegate from the Pacific Islands learned for the first time that psalmody was an important part of the Reformed heritage.
I wonder if Calvin were alive today what kind of a psalter he would propose. In the 16th century, he chose metrical psalmody as the most accessible cultural form of the day. So did the reformers in England and Scotland. But is metrical structure the most accessible cultural form of our day? It was not a form chosen for psalmody by the reforms of Vatican II that have had such an influence on Protestant worship, including churches in the Reformed tradition. Consider how many shorter forms are sung today, including music from the Community of Taizé; many songs from the Iona Community, both original and global; praise choruses; and the refrains of responsorial psalmody. Our culture is busy, in a hurry, and often impatient with the longer metrical form that may include lots of words and theologically rich concepts. Also, our culture is not a singing culture; we listen to music more than we make music. The cultural dynamics are very different now than they were in the 16th century.
The approach of Vatican II-to retain the exact words of Scripture while giving the congregation short refrains-does amount to a system of singing the psalms in distinction from hymns. For liturgical use, most often the psalms have been given a distinct place, connected to the recovery of more Scripture reading in worship. But giving a psalm one unvarying slot following an Old Testament reading is far too restrictive for the full-orbed role of psalmody from a Reformed perspective. So is limiting the voice of the congregation to a short refrain rather than the complete psalm. The Reformed approach to liturgy included psalms everywhere: for the opening praise, a sung prayer of confession, a response to the Word, at the Table, for doxologies. But it must be admitted that many psalms, particularly the psalms of lament, were too often ignored. The use of a lectionary has helped greatly to expand the repertoire of psalms sung in worship.
Calvin was interested in a distinctive psalmody. So was Vatican II, and more churches are singing the psalms than they ever have. Protestants and Catholics are singing a wide range of refrains: chant, refrain lines from familiar hymn tunes, praise choruses, global songs, and many newly composed settings in what could be called a "folk liturgical" style. There is much musical creativity surrounding composition of psalm refrains. Also many fresh new metrical settings of the psalms are available. Different settings can focus on different liturgical possibilities and greatly enrich our congregational song.
Perhaps the metrical structure can still support a vital psalmody, just as it continues to supports a vital hymnody. But individual metrical psalms are not the same as a system of metrical psalmody. The Genevan Psalter had a distinctive and unified set of melodies that rose out of a particular cultural setting. It remains a jewel of a psalter, a gift from the Reformed tradition to the larger church. The ethos of the Genevan Psalter helped retain psalmody as distinct from hymnody. That did not happen in England. But the simpler and shorter tunes of so much of English hymnody have an edge on the Genevan tunes, which are more challenging, though their quality commends many of them for our time.
I think Calvin might have been excited about the reforms coming from Vatican II, in which the psalms are once more treated as a distinct body of texts, this time straight from Scripture, and thereby honoring even more directly the principle of sola scriptura. What really matters is that in our own time and place, we continue to sing the psalms, to pray the psalms, to honor the psalms as the foundation of the song of the church, cast in musical settings that are winsome and accessible. That was the goal of the Reformed tradition of metrical psalmody, a goal worth working toward again today in every Christian tradition.
Emily R. Brink is editor of the quarterly journal Reformed Worship and Senior Research Fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan; she also edited three hymnals. In 2004 she was named a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada; she also served the Hymn Society as president from 1990-1992.