Volume 11, Issue 5: Musica
When musicians think about great church music, the qualifier “reformed” is not usually the first that comes to mind. More than likely they may think about the Lutheran chorale, or the Anglican anthem, or even the great Renaissance polyphony that adorned the motets1 and the ordinary2 of the Roman Catholic Mass. But reformed? Hardly. This is mostly the case because of reformed Christians’ mistaken understanding of Calvin’s theology of music. Often falsely cited as disdaining music, Calvin desired that music, in particular the Psalms, should have a major role in the liturgy of the church. To that end, he directed the assembling of perhaps the greatest single hymnal or psalter ever published in modern church history.
Calvin oversaw the development of the Genevan Psalter over the course of 23 years. Several incomplete Psalters were published, but the final completed version appeared in 1562. Within a few years all of Europe was singing the Psalms to Genevan tunes. What caused the Genevan Psalter to be so successful? For one thing the melodies are great music in simple form. But its success was also largely due to the work of Claude Goudimel, musician, publisher and Huguenot. Goudimel did not write a single melody for the Genevan Psalter, but he did harmonize the whole psalter twice and was in the process of writing motets on many of the Psalms when he died. It was through these published harmonizations, to be used in the home, that the Genevan Psalms were primarily disseminated.
To the best of our knowledge Goudimel was born in Besançon, France, somewhere between 1514 and 1520. His first published composition (1549) was a chanson written while he was a student at the University of Paris. Two years later he became a proofreader for the newly formed printing company of Nicolas Du Chemin. Thereafter Goudimel became his music editor and partner until 1555, bringing great success to Du Chemin in the music publishing business.
Goudimel’s musical output during these years and into the mid-1560's was tremendous and included four of his five masses, three Magnificats, nineteen Chanson spirituelles, dozens of chansons, eight books of psalms set in motet style, and two complete harmonizations of the Genevan Psalter.
The first of Goudimel’s psalters was published in 1562 in Paris by Le Roy and R3. Ballard and at first contained only 83 psalms. The melodies were taken from the Genevan Psalter of 1551. With the completion of the Genevan Psalter in 1562, Goudimel was able to finish this psalter and harmonize all 150 psalms. His completed psalter was published in 1564. The melodies are found in the tenor except for a handful that are put in the soprano. The harmonizations are set in a note-against-note style, just as hymns are set.
The heirs of François Jaqui republished Goudimel’s psalter in 1565 in Geneva. This edition (often called the Jaqui Psalter) seems to have been designed for use in the church as well as the home since it includes the Forms of Prayers, which is the Genevan liturgy. It also included the catechism, the creed of the Reformed Churches, and the full text of the metrified psalms with each musical setting. This edition is prefaced with Calvin’s forward and Theodore Beza’s epistle to the Genevan Psalter, 1562. The parts were not intended to be sung in church but at home. Goudimel makes this clear in his forward:4
To Our Readers:
To the melody of the psalms we have, in this little volume, adapted three parts, not to induce you to sing them in Church, but that you may rejoice in God, particularly in your homes. This should not be found an ill thing, the more so since the melody used in Church is left in its entirety, just as though it were alone.
In spite of this, within a generation, the psalms were often being sung with all four parts in church and Goudimel’s setting were those most often used. The harmonizations were so popular that even the Lutherans borrowed them almost verbatim for their German psalter edited by Ambrosius Lobwasser. Through the Lobwasser Psalter (Leipzig, 1573), the influences of the Genevan tradition are seen throughout the Lutheran hymnody of that generation.
In his second complete setting of the psalms, Goudimel used the traditional Genevan melodies. They were generally placed in the soprano voice while the other voices employed a more imitative counterpoint. However, the counterpoint was not so elaborate as to confuse it with the motet style. These delightful settings were published in 1568.
Goudimel was living in the Huguenot city of Metz when he worked on these psalters. He had become a Huguenot by around 1560. He left Metz in 1567 because of the new commandant who was hostile to the Protestants. He lived in his home town of Besançon for a short time but then moved to Lyons. During the firestorm that swept France in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Goudimel was martyred when the massacre came to Lyons between August 28 and 31 of 1572.
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