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Volume 15, Issue 1: Musica

History of the Genevan Psalter, Pt. 3

Duck Schuler

After the publication of Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant (1539), the next important development toward the completed Genevan Psalter (1562) was the publication in 1542 of La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques, avec la maniere d'administrer les Sacremens, & consacrer le Mariage: selon la coustume de l'Eglise ancienne (The Form of Prayers and Ecclesiastical Songs, with the manner of administering the sacraments and consecrating marriage according to the custom of the ancient Church). This book contains thirty-five psalms set to music and a Lord's Day liturgy, as well as a marriage service. It was a result of Calvin's return to Geneva on September 13, 1541. Without Calvin's leading, the Genevan church had deteriorated to such a condition that the city council urged Calvin to return in order to restore order to the church and city. On the day of his return, Calvin insisted that certain conditions (his Ecclesiastical Ordinances) be approved so that restoration might take place. Music is mentioned twice in these Ordinances: "It will be good to introduce ecclesiastical songs, the better to incite the people to pray and to praise God," and "For a beginning the little children are to be taught; then with time all the church will be able to follow."1 Calvin shows his practical wisdom here. I have found by experience that when the children of a congregation learn the psalms first and sing with enthusiasm, their less receptive parents are often shamed into realizing that singing psalms is really not that hard and can actually be a delight.

The preface to La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques contains Calvin's "Epistle to the Reader," which gives us more information about his theology of music. Calvin maintains that Scripture governs our worship, requiring "the preaching of the Word, the public and solemn prayers, and the administration of the sacraments."2 Singing is included in the public and solemn prayers. "As to public prayers, these are of two kinds: some are offered by means of words alone, the others with song."3 Calvin relies on Paul and Augustine to solidify his argument commending the singing of psalms. Thus he makes it clear to the people of Geneva that the singing of psalms is an important part of the reformation of the church.
And this is not a thing invented a little time ago, for it has existed since the first origin of the Church; this appears from the histories, and even Saint Paul speaks not only of praying by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth we know by experience that song has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. It must always be looked to that the song be not light and frivolous but have weight and majesty, as Saint Augustine says, and there is likewise a great difference between the music one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.4
Not only does he appeal to history, but he insists that the Psalms be sung not lightly and frivolously but with "weight and majesty." Our approach to God in worship is not to be taken lightly as is pointed out in Hebrews 12:22-29. Calvin is clear that there is a difference between what music is allowed in the church and what is used at home. And yet in the next paragraph of the epistle he encourages us to sing Psalms "in our homes and in the fields" as an "organ for praising God and lifting up our hearts to him, to console us by meditating upon his virtue, goodness, wisdom, and justice."5 The Psalms are most valuable because "when we sing them we may be certain that God puts the words in our mouths as if [He] Himself sang in us to exalt his glory."6 This epistle shows that Calvin's insight into the nature of music and its purpose in worship providentially reached maturity under the tutelage of Bucer in Strasbourg.
Thirty of the Psalms in La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques were put into French verse by Clement Marot and the other five most likely by Calvin. The thirty by Marot were taken from his Psalmes de David, translatez de plusiers autheurs et principallement de Cle. Marot (Anvers, 1541). Marot originally gave the manuscript of these Psalms in 1540 to Emperor Charles V, who urged him to continue his work. The published form of his Psalms was somewhat corrupted but was revised in later editions after Marot had moved to Geneva in 1542. His move to Geneva came after the publication of the psalter that same year.
La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques also contained musical versions of the Song of Simeon, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed, a real blow for exclusive psalmodists looking for Calvin's support. The musical editor of the psalter was probably Guilluame Franc, cantor at St. Peter's in Geneva. However, the tunes most likely all came from melodies in use at Strasbourg written by Wolfgang Dachstein and Matthäus Greiter. These tunes set the standard of compositional style for all subsequent editions of the psalter.

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