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 www.genevanpsalter.com.  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!

–MRK

References

  • GenevanPsalter.com 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 GenevanPsalter.com).
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