Before the Protestant Reformation a select group of performers generally sang the psalms during church services, not the entire congregation. John Calvin believed that the entire congregation should participate in praising God in the worship service and already in his famous work Institutes of the Christian Religion of 1536 he speaks of the importance of singing psalms. In the articles for the organization of the church and its worship in Geneva, dated January 16, 1537, Calvin writes: "it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love." For this reason he wanted to create a songbook of hymns based on the psalms in the belief that in this form these biblical text would become more easily accessible to people.
After being forced to leave Geneva in 1538, Calvin settled in Strasbourg, where he joined the Huguenot congregation and also led numerous worship services. It was in Strasbourg where he became familiar with the German versification of the psalms prepared by Martin Luther and others. Calvin shared these songs with his French congregation and also wrote some metrical versifications for them himself. Considering his own versions of the psalms not to be of sufficient quality, he turned to the French court poet Clément Marot, who had already versified most of the psalms in French during the first part of the sixteenth century.
In 1539 the first edition of Calvin's psalter was published. It bore the title "Aulcuns Pseaumes et cantiques mys en chant" and contained 18 psalms and hymns set to music, including 12 versifications of Marot (1, 2, 3, 15, 32, 51, 103, 114, 115, 130, 137, 143), six psalms of Calvin (25, 36, 46, 91, 113, 138), the ten commandments, the Song of Simeon and the Apostles' Creed. Most of the melodies therein were familiar tunes used in the German church in Strasbourg (Strasburg) at that time. Some were apparently composed by Wolfgang Dachstein or Matthias Greiter.
In 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva, where he published a new psalter in 1542. Guillaume Franc, cantor and music teacher there, contributed numerous tunes for this edition including those for Psalms 6, 8, 19, 22, 24 (this tune was also used for Psalms 62, 95 and 111), and 38.
Clément Marot moved to Geneva in 1543, where he created rhymed versions of another 19 psalms and the Song of Simeon. Although Calvin wanted him to complete the job, he left the city and went to Turin, where he died in the fall of 1544. His work was continued by Théodore de Bèze. The 1543 edition bore the title "La Forme des Prieres et Chantz ecclesiastiques". There was an argument with the City Council concerning its publication because of the presence in it of a rhymed version of the Angelic Salutation. The melodies for the new psalms were composed by Guillaume Franc.
This psalter appeared under the title Pseaumes Octante Trois de David. The supervising composer was Louis Bourgeois. It is not exactly clear how many of the melodies he actually composed, but it is generally assumed that most of the new additions were from his hand. This includes the first version of the hymn tune known as the "Old 100th", as a setting for Psalm 134.
Finally in 1562 a complete psalter was issued with rhymed versions of all 150 psalms. Some of the earlier melodies were replaced. The last 40 melodies are ascribed to a certain Maistre Pierre, probably Pierre Davantès. Many of the lyrics were updated or replaced and all of them were written by Marot and De Bèze.
Editions since 1587
In 1587, a light revision of the psalter was led by Théodore de Bèze and Corneille Bonaventure Bertram. The next editions of the Genevan Psalter followed this revised version, which was considered as official.
The Genevan melodies are still widely used in churches all over the world. In particular, the melody written by Bourgeois known as The Old 100th or "Doxology" is found in numerous hymnals everywhere. Most of the other melodies from the Genevan Psalter are still used in Reformed churches in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Scotland, Canada, the United States, South Africa and Australia.
In The Netherlands, Jan Utenhove and Lukas d'Heere had translated psalms using the Genevan melodies. In 1565 Petrus Dathenus published a complete Dutch psalter using the melodies of the Genevan Psalter. Eventually this psalter became the official hymnbook in all the Reformed churches in the country. Without the support of a choir or organ (both forbidden) the precentor had to teach and intonate the songs. The quality of the community hymn singing soon began to deteriorate, and the Renaissance melodies were sung with 'whole notes' only, removing the original rhythm from the music. This practice gradually disappeared with the exception of some very conservative churches who still sing them this way today. In 1773 a new text version was introduced, and again in 1967.
Many of the Reformed churches in North America were founded by the Dutch, who brought these Genevan melodies with them when they emigrated. Probably the only Christians in North America who still use the Genevan Psalter in its entirety are the Canadian Reformed Churches. They sing from their own Book of Praise, the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, containing English versifications for all the Genevan tunes. Dutch settlers in South Africa also founded Reformed churches where many of the Genevan melodies are still used today, especially with the Afrikaans versifications of the 20th-century poet Totius.
A complete collection of the Genevan psalm melodies can be found in the German hymnals of the Evangelisch Reformierte Kirche, and some of them are also found in the hymnals of other Protestant churches in Germany. They are even to be found in some Roman Catholic hymnbooks in use in Germany.
The Genevan Psalter is predominantly used within the Calvinist churches. One result is that most of the singing in Calvinist churches is done in unison. Harmonies and instrumental renditions were exclusively used within the home or for concert performances. Hence the number of musical arrangements based on the Genevan Psalm melodies is far smaller than those based on the church music of other traditions. The most well known harmonies based on the Genevan psalter are the four-part choral renditions composed by Claude Goudimel. Less known are the compositions of Claude Le Jeune from the same era and the arrangements of Clément Janequin and Paschal de l'Estocart. The Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck wrote motets for four to eight voices for all the psalms, some of them through-composed including all verses, as well as a number of psalm variations for organ. Anthonie van Noordt, another Dutch composer, wrote organ works in a similar style based on these melodies. Orlando di Lasso together with his son Rodolpho composed three-part renditions of the psalms by Caspar Ulenberg, whose melodies were mostly based on the Genevan melodies. In North-Germany, Sweelinck's pupil Paul Siefert composed two volumes of psalm motets.
The Polish composer Wojciech Bobowski, who later converted to Islam and took the name Ali Ufki, modified the first fourteen psalms to the Turkish tuning system, writing Turkish texts to fit the Genevan tunes. In Italy the Jewish composer Salamone Rossi wrote motets based on the Genevan melodies. A small number of Genevan psalms found their way into the Lutheran church tradition. Hence there are a number of these melodies in the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and others. More recent composers inspired by the Genevan psalter are Zoltán Kodály, Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger, amongst others.
Not quite a dozen years after the publication of the Genevan Psalter in 1573, the Lobwasser Psalter was published by legal scholar Ambrosius Lobwasser and found its way into the public worship of the Reformed Churches in, e.g., Zürich. The Lobwasser Psalter in turn served as the model for Czech and Hungarian versifications of the Genevan psalms.
A Czech-language edition of the Genevan Psalms was prepared by Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599), who was born in the Moravian village of Zábřeh and became a minister in the Unity of the Brethren, the ecclesiastical heirs of the ill-fated pre-reformer Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415). It was still being used as recently as the turn of the last century.
In Hungary Albert Szenczi Molnár versified the psalms in the Hungarian language, and they are still sung today in the Reformed Church congregations in the Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, including Hungary and parts of Romania and Ukraine.
In the complete edition of 1562 only 124 tunes were used for the 150 psalms. Of the tunes which are used repeatedly, 15 occur twice, four occur three times and one occurs four times, in the following combinations:
- psalm 5 and 64
- psalm 14 and 53
- psalm 17, 63 and 70
- psalm 18 and 144
- psalm 24, 62, 95 and 111
- psalm 28 and 109
- psalm 30, 76 and 139
- psalm 31 and 71
- psalm 33 and 67
- psalm 36 and 68
- psalm 46 and 82
- psalm 51 and 69
- psalm 60 and 108
- psalm 65 and 72
- psalm 66, 98 and 118
- psalm 74 and 116
- psalm 77 and 86
- psalm 78 and 90
- psalm 100, 131 and 142
- psalm 117 and 127
The Genevan melodies form a strikingly homogeneous collection. Besides the fact that the melodies were written over a relatively short time span by a small number of composers, they have a number of other characteristics in common. They are based on the so-called church modes; the melodic range is generally within one octave; the note values are restricted to half notes and quarter notes (with the exception of the final note); every melody starts with a half-note and ends on a breve (also known as a double whole note); regular meter and bar-lines are absent; and there are very few melismas (only Psalm 2, 6, 10, 13, 91, 138)
- Book of Praise, Anglo-Genevan Psalter, ISBN 0-88756-029-6
- Pierre Pidoux, Le Psautier Huguenot, VOL I/II
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