Academic journal article The Hymn

Gaining a New Appreciation for Calvin and Music: The Past, Present, and Future of the Genevan Psalm Tune

Academic journal article The Hymn

Gaining a New Appreciation for Calvin and Music: The Past, Present, and Future of the Genevan Psalm Tune

Article excerpt

Seven years ago, I was hired by Northwestern College, a school affiliated with the Reformed Church in America and located in Orange City, Iowa. I moved from the relatively nonReformed New England states to an area of the Midwest that is filled with the descendants of Dutch immigrants. Here, in contact with communities and hymnals of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Reformed Church in America (RCA), I have come to know and love the Genevan psalm tunes that make up the earliest musical heritage of those denominations. This essay is an attempt to uncover the history and reasons behind the uncommon strength, grace, and beauty of these melodies, as well as to encourage their continued use.

Calvin's Influence on the Psalm Melodies

The formation of Genevan psalm tunes was rooted in John Calvin's understanding of prayer, worship, and the role of music. In his Foreword to the 1543 Geneva Psalter, Calvin enumerates three elements that together make up Christian worship: preaching, prayer, and the sacraments. He identifies music as a form of prayer.1 Calvin explains what he means by prayer in his Institute?, "to seek in [God] . . . what we have learned to be in [God.]"2 For Calvin, prayer arises out of awareness of human sinfulness and need and responds in praise and thanksgiving to God's promises to save, comfort, and heal all who approach in prayer.

While the petitionary function of prayer takes pride of place in Calvin's Institutes as well as in the order for public worship which he drafted for use in Geneva,3 Calvin highlights the doxological function of prayer when discussing music; he writes that "song has great force to move and inflame the hearts of [people] to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal."4

Calvin cites music's ability to persuade and affect people in addition to its use as a vehicle for prayer or praise. He quotes Plato in noting that "there is hardly anything in the world with more power to turn or bend, this way and that, the morals of [people]" than music. When used for a holy purpose, melodies can serve as "spurs to incite us to pray to God and praise [God]." Even an evil text, if set to music, "pierces the heart much more strongly and enters within; as wine is poured into the cask with a funnel, so venom and corruption are distilled to the very depths of the heart by melody."5 Calvin calls music a gift from God that is "proper to recreate [people] and give [them] pleasure."6 One must be discerning indeed in determining which musical pleasures are "proper" uses of this gift and which are dangerous distillations.

Given Calvin's beliefs about the function of music, what genres of music did he prefer for the context of public worship? Unlike Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, who had broader musical interests and talents, Calvin offered little in the way of concrete parameters for composers to follow. In his Psalter preface, he declared that music must not be "light and frivolous but have weight and majesty," a description he attributes to Augustine.7 To that he adds his own opinion that proper church music should not be "merely honest but also holy."8

Charles Garside, a scholar of the music of early Calvinism, describes the reformer's desire for music that is fresh and distinctive. Garside writes that Calvin

came to the decision, doubdess while at Strasbourg, that when the psalms were sung they should have, quite literally, their own music. They should be rendered, as it were, in a style so distinctive that when heard it would be set apart at once and unmistakably from all other existing music, ecclesiastical as well as secular, and associated exclusively with the psalms. In this noble idea of a musica sacra he parted company decisively with Luther and Bucer . . . Calvin sought and eventually won a uniquely "new song."9

Some of Calvin's desires did not come to full fruition. Although he wished for each psalm to have its own unique melody, the final Genevan Psalter included only 125 tunes for 152 texts. …

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