Friday, January 11, 2013

"The Fruit of Our Lips:" A Cappella Praise through the Centuries (Part 4)

In this series I am attempting to give a rudimentary overview of the practice of a cappella singing in Christian worship down through the centuries, using examples where possible to illustrate the survivals of this practice. Prior installments have looked at a cappella singing from the early church through the Middle Ages, continuing a cappella holdovers in the Catholic, early Anglican, and Russian Orthodox traditions, and a cappella singing in the Waldensian, Lollard, and Anabaptist churches. In this post we will look at a cappella singing in the Calvinist Reformation, and in similar movements within the English and Scottish Reformation.

Jean Calvin and the Reform of Worship

Jean Calvin (1509-1564) is one of those figures with whom I must often respectfully disagree. Respectfully, because he was undoubtedly a first-rate intellect even in an era of intellectual giants. But disagreeing, because I believe the main thrust of his teaching--the "five points"--shoehorns God's nature and interaction with humankind into a humanly devised (thus inherently limited) framework. Calvinism is logical, terrifyingly so, but it eventually leads to conclusions out of harmony with what God has plainly revealed. That said, Calvin took an enormous step forward by calling church traditions to heel in light of the Scriptures. He understood the tendency of humanity to veer away from God's will, and the necessity of returning to God's will by following the revealed Word. In his Necessity of Reforming the Church, presented to the Diet of Speyer in 1544, Calvin states:
For there is a two-fold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish His authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and, secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray (Calvin Necessity 10).
In the last sentence we see Calvin's doctrine of total depravity, to be sure; but considering the history of God's people presented to us in Scripture "for our learning" (Romans 15:4), he has a point. Time and again, godly prophets, kings, and apostles had to return the people to God's Word, including His will about worship. Calvin's view on worship is often called the "Regulative Principle" in Reformed circles, because it acknowledges that it is God's place to regulate worship, and our place to obey His expressed will without addition or subtraction.

As the Christian world at large has moved farther away both in time and in temperament from the fervor of the Reformation, Calvin's views on music have fallen on hard times. By the end of the 19th century, the opinion of Douen (one of the pioneer scholars on the Genevan Psalter) was held as gospel: Calvin was the "enemy of all pleasure and of all distraction, even of the arts and of music" (Clement Marot et le psautier huguenot, quoted in Garside 6). Garside astutely points out, however, that, "Calvin very rarely, if indeed ever, wrote about music independently of its relationship specifically to public communal worship or the praise of God in general" (Garside 6). Like Zwingli, Calvin could separate an appreciation of the art of music itself from the consideration of its proper use in Christian worship. In the "Epistle to the Reader" that prefaced his 1542 La forme des prieres et chantz ecclesiastiques (Form of prayers and ecclesiastical songs) he stated:
There is a great difference between the music which 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 (quoted in Garside 18).
Contrary to the view that Calvin was "anti-music," in fact his first comprehensive statement on the subject was unreservedly positive:
Furthermore 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 aroused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love (Geneva Articles, quoted in Garside 7-8).
He was equally firm in his grounding of this practice in New Testament Scripture and practice:
The Psalms . . . we wish to be sung in the church as we have it from the example of the ancient church and also the testimony of Saint Paul, who says that it is good to sing in the congregation with mouth and heart (Geneva Articles, quoted in Garside 10).
Finding a path of safety within God's will marked Calvin's approach to worship from the start; it was probably his fear of doctrinal error creeping in through the church's singing that caused him ultimately to exclude any texts from being sung except for the Psalms and a few of the other poetic passages found in Scripture.

Charles Garside has shown that Calvin's embrace of congregational singing in the Apostolic tradition was likely influenced by Martin Bucer, an earlier reformer in Strasbourg. During the 1520s Bucer introduced congregational Psalm-singing in between each of the other acts of worship, not unlike the common practice among Churches of Christ today. Bucer detailed this practice in his Grund und Ursach auss gotlicher Schrifft (Justification and demonstration from Holy Scripture) of 1524, the title of which is itself instructive. He added in the conclusion of his discussion of congregational singing: "in this we know that we are following the teaching of the Spirit of God" (Garside 11).

Calvin and Bucer were on friendly terms, though of different languages; after Calvin was expelled from Geneva in 1538, Bucer helped him to establish a French-speaking congregation in Strasbourg. Here was ample opportunity for Calvin to observe the impact of congregational singing on worship, and by the time of his return to Geneva in 1541 he was an ardent champion of congregational psalmody (Catholic encyclopedia).

The two men seem to have differed, however, in their teaching on the use of musical instruments. Bucer says in his preface to the Neue Straßburgische Gesangbüchlein:
Music, all singing and playing (which above all things are capable of moving our spirits powerfully and ardently), should be used in no other way except for sacred praise, teaching, and admonition. . . . Music, as in other things, has been placed before and directed to God our Father, so that absolutely no song and no instrumentalizing may be sung and used except by and for Christian spiritual activities (quoted in Garside 30).
Bucer seems to present a rather extreme version of the familiar arguments that "All of life is worship," and "Why would God give me this talent if I am not meant to use it to His glory?" Without digressing too far into this topic, I would just point out that although all of life should be lived worshipfully, in reverent respect for God's will and to His glory, to claim on this ground that there is no difference between the activities of everyday life and the worship assembly commanded in Scripture is facetious. And though there are many activities (such as athletic contests or musical performances) that can glorify God by encouraging the pursuit of excellence, providing wholesome entertainment, and celebrating the talents God has given, this alone does not make them appropriate for the worship assembly.

Calvin, on the other hand, showed no such equivocation. In his commentary on Psalm 71:22, he explains:
To sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law, and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures; but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving. We are not, indeed, forbidden to use, in private, musical instruments, but they are banished out of the churches by the plain command of the Holy Spirit, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, lays it down as an invariable rule, that we must praise God, and pray to Him only in a known tongue (Calvin Psalms volume 3).
The latter point is an unusual and thought-provoking argument about the nature of language, music, and communication. Paul of course was not talking about playing instruments, but about speaking in unknown tongues (languages not familiar to the assembly). In verse 9 of the same chapter he explains, "So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air." But the problem Paul identified did touch on singing as well. In verses 14-15 he says,
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
According to Paul, an unknown language would be just as inappropriate in song; the praising, thanksgiving, teaching, and admonishing taught in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 6 are expressed in understandable verbal communication, "with . . . mind also." If musical instruments in worship are not praising, thanksgiving, teaching or admonishing, what part do they have in Christian worship music? This brings up the question of what instrumental music communicates on its own, a debate of long standing in Western aesthetics. Many of the 19th-century Romantics believed that purely instrumental music was a form of expression even higher than the spoken word; E. T. A. Hoffmann, for example, said that "vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and represents the emotions, which come from the realm of the infinite, only by the definite affects of words." Or, put the other way round, purely musical expression lacks the (comparatively) specific signification of verbal communication. Paul's argument against using unknown tongues in worship rests on the need to communicate with one another not only in the spirit but in the understanding, and thus Calvin may have a point in bringing this passage into the argument against instrumental music in worship.

In his commentary on Psalm 81:3, Calvin covers more familiar territory:
With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in making use of instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been His will to train His people, while they were as yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ. But now when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time (Calvin Psalms volume 3).
There is one passage from Calvin's writings that seems to muddy these waters: his commentary on Colossians 3:16. In his discussion of the phrase, "Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," he says:
Under these three terms [Paul] includes all kinds of songs. They are commonly distinguished in this way--that a Psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of; a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters. He would have the songs of Christians, however, to be spiritual, not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles (Calvin Philippians Colossians & Thessalonians).
Here I believe Calvin was speaking merely of technical distinctions between types of songs existing in the 1st century, at least as he understood them; if he were commending the use of instruments, it would run counter to the much plainer statements cited previously, and to the practices in the churches under his guidance. Neither is his statement about instrumental accompaniment in these genres particularly accurate. In Paul's era the Psalms were only sung accompanied in Temple worship, but were sung a cappella in synagogues across the ancient world. By contrast, the hymns and odes of pagan Greek and Roman worship were nearly always accompanied.

The Genevan Psalter

When Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541--this time to stay, and with virtually undisputed authority in church practices--he immediately set to work building a repertoire of French-language psalms and tunes for congregational use. The result was the Genevan Psalter, which came out in stages beginning in 1542 and reached a complete form in 1562. The importance of this work can hardly be overstated. Walter Blankenburg noted that in the three years following the publication of the complete Psalter in 1562, "not less than 63 recorded editions were published, undoubtedly a unique event in the history of Protestant hymnals"(quoted in Garside, 5). In its final form it included all 150 Psalms and the traditional canticles such as the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). It was particularly abundant in provision of tunes, with 125 different melodies available for use (Slenk 349).

The texts of the Genevan Psalter came from a somewhat unexpected venue--the court of the French king Francis I. Clément Marot, a prominent poet in the royal retinue, first began writing French paraphrases of the Psalms for court entertainment and private use, but Calvin found them to be just the thing for congregational singing by the common people as well. Marot fled to Geneva in 1542 because of persecution for his Protestant beliefs, and was employed in the translating of the Psalter until his death in 1544. The theologian Théodore de Bèze completed the remaining part of this work (Slenk 348).

The person most associated with the music in the Genevan Psalter is Loys Bourgeois, who taught music in Geneva from 1545-1552. He is only known to have edited the music for the 1551 edition, and claimed sole credit for only 38 of the 85 tunes in that work. (By comparison, the 1562 edition of the Psalter introduced 40 new tunes by the enigmatic "Maître (Master) Pierre.") But Bourgeois's editorial oversight was far-reaching, shaping the entire concept of what a Psalm tune should be (Slenk 348-9). One of his tunes is still known around the world even today--OLD 100TH, which is included in Praise for the Lord no fewer than three times (#17 "All people that on earth do dwell," #64 "Before Jehovah's awful throne," and #528 "Praise God from whom all blessings flow"). This tune was actually Psalm 134 in the Genevan Psalter, but English-language psalters quickly matched it instead with William Kethe's translation of the 100th Psalm, "All people that on earth do dwell."

Bourgeois's melodic style is simple, sturdy, and spare, using only one note for each syllable, and only two different note lengths throughout. This served two purposes: it made the tunes easy to sing, and it kept the worshipers from being distracted from the words by the music itself (Trocmé-Latter 337). Many historians have suggested that the Genevan Psalter music was adapted from popular music of the day, but though a number of prominent composers made settings of the Psalter tunes in popular styles, few of the melodies themselves show evidence of secular origin (Slenk 349-351).
One such tune that has been much debated is PSALM 42 (see PFTL #109 "Comfort, comfort ye my people"), which some suggest is derived from the tune of "Ne l’oseray je dire" found in the c. 1510 Bayeux Manuscript (Hymnal 1982 3:127). The comparison does not quite convince me, but there is very much of the popular Italian frottola style in PSALM 42. With its bouncy alternation between 6/8 and 3/4 time, it is not hard to imagine Queen Elizabeth's condemnation of these "Geneva jigs" in comparison to the high-church style of her Chapel Royal (Owens). (Though the note values in the example below are the equivalent of the modern whole and half notes, the tempos were not slow; the semibreve or "whole note" gets the beat.)

Pidoux, Le psautier huguenot, 51. 

Bourgeois's comments in the 1551 Psalter indicate, however, that he did use well known melodies from the Catholic plainchant tradition (Trocmé-Latter 338-339). One obvious borrowing is found in PSALM 80, which is adapted from the medieval Easter sequence "Victimae Paschali laudes."

Pidoux, Le psautier huguenot, 81.

 As can be seen in the examples above, the Genevan Psalter tunes were originally written without any parts. Only unison singing was accepted in public worship in Geneva at that time, once again to avoid distractions from the words (Trocme'-Latter 337). Outside of the worship assembly, however, it was acceptable to sing in parts, and arrangements of these tunes for multiple voices soon became popular. The 16th century saw the birth of the music publishing industry, and the rising middle class had a voracious demand for printed music for amateur entertainment. Given the racy nature of many popular songs of the day--nothing is new under the sun!--it was thought better to encourage the singing of spiritual songs at home and in social gatherings.

Bourgeois himself arranged some of the Psalm tunes for four voices; and following the completion of the 1562 Psalter, Claude Goudimel actually wrote three different four-voice settings of the entire book--all 125 tunes! The most basic kind of arrangement simply harmonized the melody using the same rhythm in all voices, one note per syllable; more advanced styles included rhythmic decoration of this basic structure or even a fully contrapuntal treatment in the manner of a motet (Slenk 350-351). The first of these methods became the default style for a cappella Psalms and (much later) hymns, and is the "hymn style" most people associate with congregational part-singing to this day. The music in the following video is Goudimel's setting of PSALM 42 in this simple fashion, sung with the text "Comfort, comfort ye my people." (Performance by the Chapel Choir of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario.)

Singing the Psalm tunes in parts became so popular that Marcus van Vaernewijck, chronicling events in Ghent during the 1560s, said that "these Psalms appealed to the members of the new religion so much that in the evening they would gather in groups of two to three hundred and sing them in different streets and alleys of the city" (quoted in Slenk 353). Composers of the first rank--Janequin, Arcadelt, Le Jeune, and Lassus--wrote entire volumes of arrangements of these tunes (Slenk 351). The video below is a motet setting of the OLD 100TH tune by the Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, sung by Doulce memoire. The tune is heard in the tenor voice in somewhat longer notes, supported by imitative voices that elaborate on ideas from the melody.

Eventually, of course, the Calvinists allowed part-singing in worship. The seriousness with which they resisted innovation in worship, however, can be seen in an incident connected to Bourgeois's editing of the 1551 Psalter. In the process of compilation he altered a few notes of the traditional tunes in the interest of making them easier to sing. On 3 December 1551, Bourgeois was arrested by the Geneva authorities for having "changed the melodies without permission." Calvin defended his corrections and secured his release, but not before Bourgeois had spent a night in jail (Trocmé-Latter 337).

The Impact of Geneva Psalmody on the European Continent

Wherever Calvin's doctrines went, Geneva psalmody went as well; collections of Marot's Psalms, sometimes with Geneva tunes, appeared in Antwerp as early as 1541. A cappella congregational psalmody was so associated with the underground Reformed churches in the Netherlands that the Catholic Habsburg rulers actually forbade the public singing of Psalms! Still the practice of psalmody spread during the 16th century, even during periods when it was punishable by death (Slenk 353).

In the French-speaking Low Countries the Genevan Psalter quickly caught on. Dutch-speaking Reformed groups had a home-grown psalter in the Souterliedekens ("Little psalter songs"), first published in Antwerp in 1540, but this eventually was overshadowed by the Geneva tradition (Slenk 354-5). The following video begins with a solo rendition of the "Lofzang van Zacharias" (Luke 1:68-79) from the Souterliedekens. The secular song at 0:55 is believed to be the source of the tune. The four-part setting at 4:50 is by Gherardus Mes, and is here performed a cappella up until 6:00.

In German lands, most Reformed churches adopted Ambrosius Lobwasser's adaptation of the Genevan Psalter, the long-lived Psalter des königlichen Propheten Davids. This achieved such popularity that it was even used by some Lutheran congregations (Slenk 356-7). A similar adaptation in for the Hungarian Reformed churches was prepared by Albert Szenci Molnár, known as the Genfi Zsoltar (Koyzis). The following video is the 89th Psalm sung to one of Claude Goudimel's four-part settings by young people of the Reformed Church in Nagykőrös, Hungary.


For more than two centuries, the heirs of Calvin on the European continent held to a cappella Psalm-singing; but over the course of the 19th century the organ was reintroduced. Compared to the polemics produced by the instrumental music controversy in the U.K. and U.S., sources and scholarship on this trend on the Continent are quite scant. In his La protestantisme et la musique, Bernard Reymond notes that organs were used sporadically by a few Swiss congregations in the late 18th century, but were by far the exception until the second half of the 19th century (110).

The mixture of reactions at that time was interesting: though some objected on the same grounds that Calvin had expressed, others seem to have been more concerned that instrumental music would discourage congregational singing, or that it was a return to Catholicism, or that it was a break with tradition (Reymond 108-9). These concerns proved true in varying degrees, but essentially surrendered the fundamental question of the need for Scriptural authority.

The impact of Reformed psalmody during the 16th century was also felt keenly in the British Isles, and by extension in the North American colonies in the following century. The next post in this series will address the a cappella church music practices that emerged in these lands, many of which survive to this day.


Garside, Charles, Jr. "The origins of Calvin's theology of music: 1536-1543." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, volume 69 number 4 (August 1979), pages 1-36. (Available with a free user account at

Calvin, Jean. Commentary on the book of Psalms, 5 volumes, translated by James Anderson. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845-49.
Electronic version by Christian Classics Ethereal Library: (volume 1) (volume 2) (volume 3) (volume 4) (volume 5)
Calvin, Jean. Commentaries on the epistles of Paul to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, translated by John Pringle. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851. Electronic version by Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

Calvin, Jean. The Necessity of Reforming the Church (Diet of Speyer, 1544), translated by H. Beveridge. London: W. H. Dalton, 1843.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. "Beethoven's instrumental music" (1813). Electronic version by Cengage Learning.

Hymnal 1982 companion, ed. Raymond F. Glover. New York: Church Pension Fund, 1994.

"John Calvin." Catholic encyclopedia. Online edition 2009.

Koyzis, David. "Genfi Zsoltar: the Psalms in Hungarian." The Geneva Psalter.

Owens, Michael E. "The Geneva Psalter." 2008. From The Genevan Psalter Resource Center.

Pidoux, Pierre. Le psautier huguenot du XVIe siècle. Mélodies et documents. Basel: Bärenreiter, 1962.

Reymond, Bernard. Le protestantisme et la musique. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2002. 

Slenk, Howard. "Psalms, metrical, II: The European continent." The new Grove dictionary of music and musicians, 20 volumes. London: MacMillan, 1980, 15:348-358.

Trocmé-Latter, Daniel. "'May those who know nothing be content to listen': Loys Bourgeois's Advertissement to the Psalms (1551)." Reformation & Renaissance Review 11/3 (2009), 335-347.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate this well-researched blog. I just found it and am enjoying reading through the posts. Most people today are completely unaware of the long tradition of singing without instruments in worship; this is a great resource for answering their questions when we in the church are faced with them.

    Charlie Smith
    Indianola, Miss.