Archive for January, 2012

The Genevan Psalter

Have you ever wondered what might be the oldest songs we still sing in churches today?  Some hymns like “All Glory Be to Thee, Most High” (blue Psalter Hymnal number 319) and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (331) may come to mind, but these songs are scarcely used and often forgotten.  One collection of texts and tunes, however, that still contributes a significant part to Christian worship today is the Genevan Psalter.

“Even the name sounds old,” you may think.  So it is.

Before the time of the Reformation, just about the only music in the church service was in Latin—sung by trained choirs, not congregations.  It was the Reformers who emphasized that congregational singing, particularly the singing of the inspired psalms, was a vital part of worship.  Martin Luther created a collection of hymns and psalm settings, including the famous “A Mighty Fortress,” in German for the churches.  (Don’t forget that “A Mighty Fortress” is actually a paraphrase of Psalm 46!)

Around the same time, John Calvin was trying to incorporate the singing of the psalms into the worship of the French Protestants.  Between 1539 and 1562, he commissioned the creation of a new Psalter, with new tunes that would be easy for untrained singers, and new translations of the psalms in French.  Such skilled poets and musicians as Clement Marot, Louis Bourgeois, Maitre Pierre, and Claude Goudimel contributed to the work.  This songbook, created for Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, was thus called the “Genevan Psalter.”

All well and good, an old and stuffy book with strange tunes and texts in a foreign language was published in the mid-1500s.  Who cares?  After all, this blog is supposed to be about today’s church music, right?

Well, what’s unique about the Genevan Psalter is that for some reason, it didn’t fade into oblivion, unlike so many other psalters of its day.  Despite its unusual-sounding tunes, despite the fact that its texts were originally in French, it is still used to this day in many Reformed churches.  Even in non-Reformed churches, it still plays one significant role.  How many times have you sung the Doxology?  The song “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” can be found at the end of almost any traditional worship service.  But did you ever notice the name of the tune, OLD HUNDREDTH?  Believe it or not, this is a tune from the Genevan Psalter that was once used with the words of Psalm 100!

In the 1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal currently used in the URC, Genevan tunes appear at least 35 times for both psalms and hymns.  Some of the more familiar ones include “As the Hart, About to Falter” (74, Psalm 42), “All People That On Earth Do Dwell” (195, Psalm 100), and “O Bless Our God with One Accord” (280, Psalm 134).  Obviously, the psalm texts are in English for our sake, but for the most part, the tunes have remained the same.  When the URC’s new Psalter Hymnal is published, it no doubt will contain a significant number of these texts and tunes as well.  In some other Reformed denominations, like the Canadian Reformed Church, the Genevan Psalter is still the only Psalter in use!

Michael E. Owens, a Calvinist and professional musician, manages a website about the Genevan Psalter at  In an introduction to the Psalter, he explains the significance of the Genevan tunes as harmonized by Claude Goudimel:

Goudimel had already written several settings of each of these tunes in the complex, polyphonic style which was then a popular form of entertainment.  In those settings, one part sings the Genevan melody while the countermelodies sing the same words at different times. Thus, though the singers are edified, the words are often not clear to the listeners.

But Goudimel’s most influential harmonizations were in a ‘homophonic’ format, in which each of the harmonizing parts uses the same rhythm as the melody. Thus all the parts sing the same words at the same time.  This 4-part, homophonic, ‘note-on-note’ format came to be called ‘cantional’ style. The historical impact of these settings was immense. It is now the standard ‘hymnbook’ style of harmony. As far as I can tell, Claude Goudimel invented it.

The Genevan Psalter was groundbreaking in numerous ways.  Within the Reformation, it was one of the first, if not the first, complete book of psalms in the common language of the congregation.  It was revolutionary in that it used contemporary tunes, remaining reverent yet accessible to the singers.  And its unique style of harmonization has become standard practice through more than four centuries of hymn-writing.

So next time you sing the rousing version of Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” or the familiar Doxology, remember that it was this significant work of the Reformation, the 450-year-old Genevan Psalter, that formed the basis for the songs we sing today in praise to God.

To God be the glory!



  • is an overflowing source of information about the Genevan Psalter.  Texts and tunes are available to view, hear, and even download.  In particular, Michael Owens’s Introduction to the Genevan Psalter offers a thorough look at the history of this songbook.
  • The Canadian Reformed Church’s website on the Book of Praise, a new hymnbook containing the complete Anglo-Genevan Psalter, is also a helpful resource.
  • As an introduction to the sound of the Genevan tunes, take a listen to this setting of Psalm 42 (again, from

Grand Opening

Hello visitors!  This blog has been “under construction” for the past few weeks, and I’m just now opening it to the public.  If you’d like a brief preface to the purpose of URC Psalmody, check out the Introduction and About this Blog pages first.  Before you join the discussion, I’d recommend that you also take a quick look at the Post Guidelines for this blog.  For starters, though, you might want to simply dive into reading the few posts I’ve already made.  Don’t worry, more will be posted soon.

As a new blog from a new blogger, URC Psalmody is a work in progress.  I have tried to configure the settings to make it easy and convenient for anyone to participate in the discussions, without opening up the blog for spam and unrelated junk.  If you see anything that needs tweaking or correction, or even if you just have suggestions for making this blog flow better, I’d love to hear from you–just make a comment below or send me a private email here.

In any case, I hope you are encouraged in some way by the growing community of URC Psalmody.  May God be glorified as we discuss his amazing gift of music!


Michael Kearney

Paraphrasing the Psalms

This brings us to the first post in the “Actions” category—a category focused on stimulating some discussion on church music as it relates to (relatively) current events, especially within the URC.  For our first topic, let’s take a look at the difficult issue of paraphrasing the psalms.

The URC Psalter Hymnal Committee is currently working on collecting psalm settings for the new URC Psalter Hymnal.  In 2010, the committee had generated confusion amidst some of our church musicians by including some psalm-based songs (such as “Amid the Thronging Worshippers” and “Christ Shall Have Dominion”) in the Hymn Proposal, the future hymn section of the URC Psalter Hymnal, rather than the psalm section.  At issue was the problem of the settings’ Scriptural accuracy—their faithfulness to the original wording of the psalms.

This issue was handled in a similar fashion by the editors of the CRC’s gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal.  Choosing to offer only one setting per psalm, the CRC relocated many of the old psalm settings such as “How Shall the Young Direct Their Way?” and “How Good and Pleasant Is the Sight” to the hymn section of this songbook.  Their approach represents one end of the spectrum of reactions to paraphrased psalm versions.

For the URC, it seems that this trend has been reconsidered.  In an April 2011 report, the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee informed our churches that it had made the following decisions:

The Committee has decided to retain appropriate Psalm paraphrases in the Psalm section instead of including them in the proposed hymn section. Thus, Psalm texts that are true to Scripture will be listed as the first selection(s), with the paraphrases being listed after these primary selections. Paraphrase versions will be noted as such. Many well-known blue Psalter Hymnal Psalms are paraphrases and several are being retained as paraphrase versions. Also, some Psalm paraphrases currently in the Hymn Proposal (HP) will be moved to the proposed Psalm section.

With this update, it appears that within the URC, these familiar songs will be moving back to their original home—within the psalm section of the Psalter Hymnal.

These decisions are far from settling the matter, however.  What about Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases for instance, such as “Jesus Shall Reign” (based on Psalm 72)?  The vast majority of his compositions have appeared as hymns, not psalms, even in the CRC’s older Psalter Hymnals.  A great array of familiar hymns, from “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” to “Now Blessed Be Jehovah God,” is based on the psalms, yet conversely, some of the psalm-songs in the blue Psalter Hymnal are hardly recognizable when compared to the original text.  (Consider, for instance, number 79, which is based on Psalm 43.)

This brings us to the root question: How close should the lyrics be to the original Scriptural text in order to be considered a proper psalm setting?  How much can a psalm be paraphrased, for the sake of incorporating the New Testament message into the Old, without forsaking its integrity?  What criteria should be in place for selecting Biblically sound and yet poetically beautiful versions of the psalms?

Your thoughts on this matter, as always, are appreciated!



Instruments in Worship

To start off our discussion line in the “Words” category, how about an informal survey?  This category will contain regular posts intended to stimulate constructive conversation on various topics.  Every once in a while, though, I’d like to use this conversation area to share a little information about the music in our churches, using a group of similarly-themed questions as our base.  For our first topic: What is the role of instrumentalists in your worship services?

While some of our brothers and sisters in fellow Reformed denominations have no instrumental accompaniment in worship, I would venture to assume that piano or organ accompaniment is commonplace in URC churches.  How many organists and pianists are there in your church?  Do you rotate fairly evenly, or is there one primary accompanist while others fill in as necessary?

How often do you accompany the congregation with multiple instruments playing together, such as piano and organ?  Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on this arrangement—problems you have noticed, solutions you have found?

Do other members in your church actively play instruments as well, such as brass, woodwind or strings?  Are these musicians also involved in worship?  How do you incorporate them into the congregational singing or service music?

Since this is our first discussion, I’ll keep the post length to a minimum.  If you can, I would love it if you would take a few moments and share your responses to these prompts.  A little later on, I’ll give my own answers to these questions as they relate to my home church in West Sayville.  I hope to hear from you soon!



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