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The psalms as a mark of Protestantism: the introduction of liturgical psalm-singing in Geneva

  • Daniel Trocmé-Latter


It is widely believed that musical creativity suffered under the control of many sixteenth-century Protestant church leaders, especially in the Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran) branch of Protestantism. Such views are generalisations, and it is more accurate to say that music in Geneva and other Reformed strongholds developed in a very different way from the music of the Lutheran Church. The very specific beliefs about the role of music in the liturgy of Jean Calvin, Genevan church leader, led to the creation and publication of the Book of Psalms in French, in metre, and set to music. The Genevan or Huguenot Psalter, completed in 1562, formed the basis for Reformed worship in Europe and throughout the world, and its impact is still felt today. Despite the importance of the Psalter, relatively little is known about the precise liturgical musical practices in Geneva at the time of the Reformation, and little research has been carried out into the aspirations of either reformers or church musicians in relation to the Psalter. This article explores the significance of Calvin's interest in the Psalms as theological material, observing how this interest manifested itself, and outlines Calvin's views on music and the ways in which his plans for psalm-singing were implemented in Geneva from the 1540s onwards. After giving a brief explanation of the process through which the psalm melodies were taught and learnt, it also asks whether Calvin's vision for congregational singing would, or could, have been fully realised, and to what extent the quality of music-making was important to him. This article suggests that in the Genevan psalm-singing of the sixteenth century, matters of spiritual significance were most important.



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1 For information on the Reformers' knowledge of the ancient customs of the Church, see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Zurich, 1975), 101–80.

2 Although there is no shortage of literature on the Genevan Psalter, Calvin's role in its creation has only relatively recently been given significant scholarly attention. See Charles Garside Jr, ‘The Origins of Calvin's Theology of Music: 1536–1543’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 69/4 (1979), 1–35.

3 Le reste de l'Escriture contient les enseignemens que Dieu a enioints a ses serviteurs de nous annoncer: mais yci les Prophetes, d'autant que parlans a Dieu ils descouvrent toutes les affections interieures, appellent ou plustost tirent un chacun de nous a examiner soy-mesme, afin que rien de tant d'infirmitez ausquelles nous sommes suiets, et de tant de vices desquels nous sommes pleins, ne demeure caché. Guillaume Baum et al., eds., Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia (Braunschweig, 1863–1900) (hereafter COO), 31:16. Translation from Jean Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, based on the sixteenth-century translation by Arthur Golding, 3 vols. (London, 1840), 1:vi.

4 See the Appendix, lines 8–11.

5 Brief, il n'y a livre auquel plus parfaitement nous soit enseignee la maniere de louer Dieu, ou auquel nous soyons plus vivement solicitez à cest exercice de pieté. COO 31:20; Calvin, Commentary, viii.

6 I'ay accoustumé de nommer ce livre une anatomie de toutes les parties de l'ame, pource qu'il n'y a affection en l'homme laquelle ne soit yci representee comme en un miroir. COO 31:16; Calvin, Commentary, vi.

7 Joel R. Beeke, ‘Calvin on Piety’, in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge, 2004), 125–52, at 137.

8 Pitkin, Barbara, ‘Imitation of David: David as a Paradigm for Faith in Calvin's Exegesis of the Psalms’, Sixteenth Century Journal, 24 (1993), 843863, at 845 .

9 Ibid., 846.

10 See Macey, P., ‘Josquin's Misericordias Domini and Louis XI’, Early Music, 19 (1991), 163177 .

11 The analogy drawn between Orpheus and David in the Middle Ages is described in John Block Friedman, Orpheus in the Middle Ages (New York, 2000), 148.

12 Frank Dobbins, ‘Music in the French Theatre of the Late Sixteenth Century’, Early Music History, 13 (1994), 85–122, at 90.

13 Edward A. Gosselin, The King's Progress to Jerusalem (Malibu, 1976), 68.

14 Paul-André Gaillard, Loys Bourgeoys (Lausanne, 1948), 21.

15 Col 3:16: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God’ (New International Version).

16 Gaillard, Bourgeoys, 22. See also Garside, Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, 1966), 27–75; Markus Jenny, ‘Zwinglis Stellung zur Musik im Gottesdienst’, Schriftenreihe des Arbeitsreises für evangelische Kirchenmusik, 3 (1966), 36–9. On the rich background to this theological trope, see Wolfgang Fuhrmann, Herz und Stimme: Innerlichkeit, Affekt und Gesang im Mittelalter (Kassel, 2004).

17 See Walter Blankenburg (trans. Hans Heinsheimer), ‘Church Music in Reformed Europe’, in Protestant Church Music, ed. Friedrich Blume (London, 1975), 507–90, at 510.

18 Zurich and Strasbourg were on particularly good terms at the beginning of the Reformation. When Martin Bucer became Strasbourg's main reformer in 1524, he began implementing reforms which were strongly inspired by Zwingli. Indeed, the main distinction between the reforms in Zurich and Strasbourg at this time was the implementation of congregational song in the latter.

19 Gaillard, Bourgeoys, 26.

20 Ibid., 28. Calvin was translating into French, unlike Luther and Zwingli, for whom the vernacular was German, showing that the problem of losing (or at least modifying) meaning in translation was far from solved by the reformers who were, in essence, attempting to make the Bible more comprehensible to the masses.

21 Calvin, ‘Epistre’ (1543) reproduced in COO 6:165–72, at 167–8. NB: All translations are mine, unless stated otherwise. My emphasis on ‘bouche’. The ‘Epistre’ is also available in Peter Barth et al., eds., Joannis Calvini Opera Selecta (Munich, 1926–36) (hereafter COS), 2:12–18. Charles Garside Jr has translated the whole preface in ‘Calvin's Theology of Music’, 31–3.

22 COO 6:167–8; COS 2:14.

23 Garside, ‘Calvin's Theology of Music’, 8.

24 COO 6:169–70; COS 2:15. Emphasis mine.

25 COO 6:167–70; COS 2:15.

26 For more information regarding the views of the reformers on music, see Garside, ‘Some Attitudes of the Major Reformers Toward the Role of Music in the Liturgy’, McCormick Quarterly, 21 (1967), 151–68.

27 Matthew 26:30.

28 Léon Wencelius, L'Esthétique de Calvin (Paris, 1938), 251f.

29 COO 6:169–70; COS 2:15.

30 Parquoy nous devons estre d'autant plus diligens à la reigler, en telle sorte qu'elle nous soit utile et nullement pernicieusey. COO 6:169–70; COS 2:16.

31 les chants et mélodies qui sont composées au plaisir des aureilles seulement, comme sont tous les fringots et fredons de la Papisterie, et tout ce qu'ils appellent musique rompue et chose faite, et chants à quatre parties, ne conviennent nullement à la majesté de l'Eglise, et ne se peut faire qu'ils ne desplaisent grandement à Dieu. Calvin, Institution de la Religion Chrétienne (Geneva, 1545, 2nd French edn), book 3, chapter 20, verse 32, quoted in Pierre Pidoux, Le Psautier Huguenot du XVIe Siècle, 2 vols. (Basel, 1962), 1:XIV.

32 COO 6:169–70; COS 2:15–16.

33 Leslie Korrick, ‘Instrumental music in the early 16th-century Mass: new evidence’, Early Music, 18 (1990), 359–70, at 362.

34 Comme auiourd'huy en la Papauté les orgues ioueront d'un costé, on chantera à quatre parties de l'autre, il y aura tant de badinages que le simple populaire sera là ravi, et cependant nul profit. Thirty-sixth sermon on the Epistle to the Ephesians (1558–59), COO 51:702.

35 Robert Weeda, Le Psautier de Calvin (Turnhout, 2002), 25–6, referring to the Registres du Conseil in the Archives d'Etat de Genève (hereafter RC), 57, fol. 101r (17 August 1562).

36 Wencelius, L'Esthétique de Calvin, 255.

37 For example, Guillaume Fabri, cantor in Geneva in 1545, asked for a monetary advance with which to be able to learn to play the lute (RC 40, fol. 207r, mentioned in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:28, 171).

38 See Wencelius, L'Esthétique de Calvin, 257.

39 COO 6:171–2; COS 2:18.

40 Beeke, ‘Calvin on Piety’, 138.

41 Calvin was not unanimous about the use of music in worship throughout his career. Charles Garside Jr tracks the various stages of development of the reformer's opinions on music and prayer. See Garside, ‘Calvin's Theology of Music’.

42 Le Psautier de Genève: Images commentées et essai de bibliographie, ed. Jean-Daniel Candaux (Geneva, 1986).

43 See the Appendix, lines 11–15. Four issues of particular importance are mentioned in the Articles proposés par les Ministres: the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the singing of psalms, the instruction of youth, and marriage laws. Wulfert de Greef, ‘Calvin's Writings’, in McKim, ed., Companion to Calvin, 41–57, at 50.

44 William G. Naphy, ‘Calvin's Geneva’, in McKim, Companion to Calvin, 25–37, at 28. For information on the structure of government in Geneva at this time, see Clarisse Coignet, La Réforme Française avant les Guerres Civiles (Paris, 1890), 166f.

45 In 1524, the Mass was first celebrated in German, and communion was distributed in both kinds. Later in the year, printed orders of the Mass appeared containing psalm melodies to be sung by the people. See, among others, René Bornert, La Réforme Protestante du Culte à Strasbourg au XVIe Siècle (1523–1598) (Leiden, 1981); Robin A. Leaver, ‘Goostly psalmes and spirituall songes’: English and Dutch Metrical Psalms from Coverdale to Utenhove 1535–1566 (Oxford, 1991), 22–9; Gerrit Jan van de Poll, Martin Bucer's Liturgical Ideas: The Strasburg Reformer and his Connection with the Liturgies of the Sixteenth Century (Assen, 1954), 10–14.

46 Dès cinq heures du matin, on prêche dans les différents temples de la ville et on y dit des prières communes. A sept heures, la même chose a lieu; à huit heures, il y a sermon dans la cathédrale, accompagné du chant des psaumes traduits en langue vulgaire; le chant des femmes se mêlant à celui des hommes produit un effet ravissant. Gérard Roussel, quoted in Orentin Douen, Clément Marot et le Psautier Huguenot, 2 vols. (Paris, 1878–79), 1:272. Christian Meyer claims that there is a lack of evidence for congregational singing in Strasbourg as early as 1525. Christian Meyer, ‘Gesangbuch, darin begriffen sind … Martin Bucer et le chant liturgique’, in Martin Bucer and Sixteenth Century Europe: Actes du colloque de Strasbourg (28–31 août 1991), ed. Christian Krieger and Marc Lienhard, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1993), 1:215–25. However, Gerald Hobbs in fact highlights various sources of evidence for such singing. R. Gerald Hobbs, ‘“Quam Apposita Religioni Sit Musica”: Martin Bucer and Music in the Liturgy’, Reformation and Renaissance Review, 6 (2004), 155–78.

47 William Stanford Reid, ‘The Battle Hymms [sic] of the Lord – Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century’, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 2 (1971), 36–56, at 38.

48 Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant (Strasbourg, 1539). A facsimile of this edition is to be found in Richard Runciman Terry, Calvin's First Psalter (London, 1932).

49 These are as follows: 1, 2, 3, 15, 19, 25, 32, 36, 46, 51 (numbered 50), 91 (numbered 90), 103, 113, 114 (numbered ‘113 or 114’), 130 (numbered 129), 137, 138, 143 (numbered 142). It is clear from the discrepancies in numbering that the Roman Vulgate system had not completely fallen from use by this point.

50 Garside, ‘Calvin's Theology of Music’, 16.

51 Coignet, Réforme Française, 172–4.

52 Jean Gaberel, Histoire de l'Eglise de Genève, 3 vols. (Geneva, 1853–62), 1:333.

53 RC 35, fol. 237v (17 June 1541), mentioned in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:5, 171.

54 RC 56, fol. 210r (30 June 1561), quoted in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:121.

55 RC 51, fol. 58r (20 March 1556), mentioned in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:90, 173.

56 Gaillard, Bourgeoys, 55.

57 Such as Louange et Prière: psaumes, chorals, cantiques, répons liturgiques (Paris, 1939; repr. 1945, 1948, 1958, 1964) and Arc en Ciel (Lyons, 1988).

58 The New English Hymnal (Full Music) (Norwich, 1986), various hymns.

59 Louis Bourgeois, Le droict chemin de musique (Geneva, 1550).

60 François Jean Fétis, ‘Bourgeois (Louis)’, in Bibliographie Universelle des Musiciens et Bibliographie Générale de la Musique, 8 vols. (Paris, 1860–65, 2nd edn), 2:42. See also David Fallows, ‘Gamut’, and Jehoash Hirshberg, ‘Hexachord’, both in Grove Music Online, (accessed 23 April 2009).

61 Garside, ‘Calvin's Preface to the Psalter: A Re-appraisal’, Musical Quarterly, 37 (1951), 566–77, at 571–2.

62 l'usaige de la chanterie s'estende plus loing. C'est que mesme par les maisons et par les champs ce nous soit une incitation et comme un organe à louer Dieu, et eslever noz cueurs à luy. COO 6:169–70; COS 2:15–16.

63 Dobbins, ‘French Theatre’, 91.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid., 91f.

66 RC 54, fol. 26v (28 December 1557), mentioned in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:105, 173.

67 RC 38, fol. 243v (10 June 1544), mentioned in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:26, 171.

68 For more information regarding this (although no specific mention is made of the cantor in Protestant denominations), see Edward Foley, ‘The Cantor in Historical Perspective’, Worship, 56 (1982), 194–213.

69 E. William Monter, ‘Historical Demography and Religious History in Sixteenth-Century Geneva’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 9 (1979), 399–427, at 403.

70 Monter, ‘Women in Calvinist Geneva (1550–1800)’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 6 (1980), 189–209, at 189.

71 RC 36, fol. 34r (6 June 1542), mentioned in Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:11, 171.

72 Monter, ‘Historical Demography’, 400.

73 See Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, 2:122, 174.

74 McKee, ed., Pastoral Piety, 85–6.

75 For example, see Bucer's comment relating to the first Book of Common Prayer (1549): That it was an anti-Christian practice for the choir to be severed from the rest of the church, and for the prayers there only to be said, which pertained to the people as well as to the clergy; that the separation of the choir from the body of the church served for nothing else, but to get the clergy some respect above the laity, as if they were nearer to God than laymen are: that a pernicious superstition was thereby maintained, as if priests alone were able to procure God's favour, by reading and reciting a few prayers: that in the ancient times of the Church, their temples were built in a round form, and not in a long figure, as ours are; and that the place for the clergy were always in the midst of those temples (Vt enim choris sit tam procul seiunctus à reliquo templo, & in eo tantùm sacra repręsente[n]tur, quæ tamen ad omne[m] pertinent populu[m], clerumq[ue], hoc Antichristianum est. Chori tanta à reliquo templo seiunctio, eò seruit, vt ministi, qualescunq[ue] fide sint et vita, ipso tamen ordine & loco habeantur quasi Deo propinquiores quàm laici: et qui possint his placare Deum vi externoru[m] operum, quæ faciunt sibi propria, cu[m] sint totius populi Christi. Quòd verò in choro tantu[m] sacra illa co[m]munia peragu[n]tur, quia confirmatur eo superstitio illa perniciosissima, qua gratus Deo cultus putatur, legere, recitare, atq[ue] audire Scripturas & preces sine mente, sine intellectu fidei). Martin Bucer, Scripta Anglicana Fere Omnia (Basel, 1577), 457. Quoted and translated in The Works of… John Cosin, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1843–55), 5:436f.

76 In Strasbourg, unlike Geneva, the use of organs in church continued, at least sporadically. The organist would therefore have had some control over timing and pitch issues of the congregation. Second, church attendance was not enforced in Strasbourg, and so congregations would generally have been smaller and therefore more manageable for those leading the singing. On the use of organs, see Jean Happel, ‘Orgues et organistes en Alsace au XVIe siècle. Le rôle de l’orgue dans le culte protestant à Strasbourg', Cahiers et mémoires de l'orgue, 15 (1976), 37–41. On church attendance, see Lorna Abray, The People's Reformation, Magistrates, Clergy, and Commons in Strasbourg, 1500–1598 (Oxford, 1985), 194f.

77 It must be acknowledged that good quality church singing had been achieved prior to the Reformation. Take, for example, the simple but effective laude sung by large choirs of boys (fanciulli), which impressed Girolamo Savonarola in Florence in 1496. Patrick Macey, Bonfire Songs: Savonrola's Musical Legacy (Oxford, 1998), 98. It may be that reformers such as Calvin and Luther had heard of such events, and were hoping to achieve something of a similar standard and scale. The fanciulli, though, had the advantage of being both willing and organised, something that Genevan congregations, judging by the cantors' prefaces, did not always seem to be. In terms of their success in singing together, there was of course the cantor, who may well have given a visual lead from the front in order to help keep time. This would only have succeeded, though, if enough people were willing to watch him (unlikely, given that the psalms were often unknown). It can be argued that today, many large groups manage to sing together in time without the help of a conductor. Equally, however, many small untrained groups fail to keep time, even with a conductor.

78 la musique sans musique est non seulement ridicule, mais facheuse & presque brutalle, sans loy, sans ordre, sans harmonie. … le desordre en ce chant de Pseaume étoit si grand, qu'à ce bout on chantoit un verset, à cétui-cy un autre. Florimond de Raemond, L'Histoire de la naissance, progres, et decadence de l'Heresie de ce siecle (Paris, 1610).

79 ceus qui ne entendent rien en musique, & qui toutefois veulent estre ouis par dessus tous les autres… se contentent d'escouter les autres & d'apprendre en silence, iusques à ce qu'ils puissent accorder auec les bien chantans. Bourgeois, Advertissement, touchant les chants des Pseaumes, in Pseaumes Octantetrois (1551). The full text is reproduced and translated in Daniel Trocmé-Latter, ‘“May those who know nothing be content to listen”: Loys Bourgeois's Advertissement to the Psalms (1551)’, Reformation and Renaissance Review, 11/3 (2009), 335–47, at 343–6.

80 For information regarding the melodies of the various editions of the Psalter, see Pidoux, Psautier Huguenot, vol. 1.

81 Laurent Guillo, ‘Quarante-six psautiers antérieurs à 1562’, Psaume: Bulletin de la recherche sur le psautier huguenot, 2 (1988), 27–34. This article contains a list of all known Huguenot Psalters between 1539 and 1562, along with their locations.

82 Pidoux (‘Introduction’, in Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze, Les Psaumes en Vers Français avec leurs Mélodies (Geneva, 1986), 28f.) writes that the Psalter was not always printed with care, because of the enormous competition between printers to be the first on the market. This often resulted in mistakes that were then transferred from edition to edition, not just in Geneva, but also throughout Huguenot churches in France.

83 Joseph Herl, Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation and Three Centuries of Conflict (Oxford, 2004), 15–16.

84 Factae cantilenae et canuntur propter vos, ut hic canatis et in domibus, sed sedetis hic ut die klotze. Ideo oro, ut discatis has cantilenas a pueris et simul canatis, Ut Paulus docet. Joachim K.F. Knaake et al., eds., D. Martin Luthers Werke: kritische Gesamtausgabe, 65 vols. (Weimar, 1883ff.) (hereafter WA) 20:546, quoted in Herl, Worship Wars, 14. The complaint was renewed in 1529 (WA 29:44). See Herl, Worship Wars, 15.

85 Octanteneuf pseaulmes (Geneva, 1556).

86 Vallette, ‘Epistre’, in Octanteneuf pseaulmes.

87 nous congnoissons par experience, que le chant a grand force et vigueur d'esmouvoir & enflamber le coeur des hommes, pour invoquer et louer Dieu d'un zele plus vehement et ardent. COO 6:169–70; COS 2:15.

88 For example, Douen describes Calvin as ‘sobre jusqu’à l'excs, froid, chagrin, austère, ennemi de tout plaisir et de toute distraction, même des arts et de la musique', in Clément Marot, 1:377. Richard Taruskin's section on music in reformed Geneva is in places incorrect; The Oxford History of Western Music, 6 vols. (Oxford, 2005), 1:754–5.

89 This view is very much based on humanistic thinking, and is one that was especially popular in France at the time. See Garside, Calvin's Preface, 576–7.

90 Garside, ‘Calvin's Theology of Music’, 6.

91 Ceux qui apprenne[n]t d'eux mesmes à chanter les Pseaumes sans auoir autre aide que la note de Musique… sauent asses combien il est long & difficile d'appliquer la dite note du seul premier couplet pour s'en seruir à chanter tous les autres du mesme Pseaume. Davantès, preface to Pseaumes de David, mis en rhythme francoise par Clement Marot, & Theodore de Besze (Geneva, 1560), fol. a.ii.r.

92 Or voya[n]t que persone ne satisfaisoit à ce mie[n] desir, ie me suis mis moy-mesme apres ceste recherche, pour contenter mon esprit affectionné de soulager ceux (dont i'en ay apperceu plusieurs) qui se trouueroyent empechez à chanter les Pseaumes. Davantès, Pseaumes de David, fol. a.ii.v.

93 facile à retenir en memoire : en quoy estoit requis qu'elles feussent en petit nombre, & desia en quelque commun vsage, à fin que par la pluralité d'icelles on n'entrast en confusion & obscurité, ou par leur nouueauté en trop grand labour de les apprendre, & grande procliueté d'estre incontinent mises en oubly. Davantès, Pseaumes de David, fol. a.iii.r.

94 apres l'intelligence doit suivre le cueur et l'affection, ce qui ne peut estre que nous n'ayons le cantique imprimé en nostre memoire pour ne iamais cesser de chanter. COO 6:171–2; COS 2:17.

95 George Arthur Crawford, ‘Clement Marot and the Huguenot Psalter’, Musical Times, 22 (1881), 285–7, 346–8, 404–6, 450–3, 505–8, 554–5, at 452.

96 Weeda, Le Psautier de Calvin, 87.

97 Bourgeois, quoted in Weeda, Le Psautier de Calvin, 87. Recommending vocal music for instrumental use was not uncommon in the sixteenth century.

98 For details on the spread of the Genevan Psalter throughout Europe, see Weeda, Itinéraires du Psautier huguenot à la Renaissance (Turnhout, 2009).

99 Stanford Reid, ‘Battle Hymns’, 42.

100 E. Brooks Holifield, ‘Peace, Conflict, and Ritual in Puritan Congregations’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 23 (1993), 551–70, at 564f.

101 Jean-Michel Noailly, musicologist and expert on the Genevan Psalter. Private correspondence.

102 Luther's preface to the New Deudsch Psalter (Wittemberg, 1528) (WA DB [Die Deutsche Bibel] 10I:99–105; Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther's Works (St Louis and Philadelphia, 1955–86), 35:253–7).

103 Calvin's ‘Epistre’.

104 Ses chants ont manifesté l'unité de notre foi, animé nos cultes, soutenu la piété des isolés, fait rayonner la beauté de l'art chrétien dans les camps, réconforté les prisonniers, consolé les exilés. Marc Boegner, ‘Préface de la deuxième édition’, in Louange et Prière, four-voice edition (Paris, 1948, 3rd edn), xii.


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