by Michael R. Kearney
What would happen if a group of theologians and musicians got together for the purpose of setting every one of the 150 Psalms to a new, carefully-crafted, and easy-to-sing tune? Amidst the theological and musical chaos of the 21st century, this prospect might sound to us like an unrealistic dream. Actually, it has happened before, and the product has made a lasting mark on Protestant worship for the last 450+ years. That project was the creation of the Genevan Psalter.
Before the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, just about the only music in the church service was sung in Latin by trained choirs, not congregations. The Reformers emphasized that congregational singing, particularly the singing of the inspired psalms, was a vital part of worship. In Germany, Martin Luther created a collection of hymns and psalm settings, including the Psalm 46 paraphrase “A Mighty Fortress,” to be sung congregationally by the churches.
Around the same time, John Calvin was also laboring to incorporate psalm-singing into the worship of the French Protestants to whom he ministered. Between 1539 and 1562, he commissioned the creation of a new Psalter with new French versifications of psalm texts and new tunes that would be easy for untrained singers. Skilled poets and musicians such as Clement Marot, Louis Bourgeois, Maitre Pierre, and Claude Goudimel contributed to the work. When the psalter was finally completed in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1562, it was appropriately named the “Genevan Psalter.”
While this brief explanation provides historical context for the Genevan Psalter, you may still be wondering how this psalter is important to the 21st-century church. This psalter has influenced Protestant worship from two different angles: the continental Reformed tradition and the British Isles Presbyterian tradition.
In the continental Reformed tradition, the Genevan Psalter was almost immediately translated into Dutch by Pieter Datheen (Petrus Dathenus). In the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), Datheen’s Dutch Psalter continued as the dominant songbook of the churches until the late 1700’s. Even after Datheen’s psalm texts had been outmoded, Genevan tunes still formed the backbone of Dutch Reformed congregational singing. If you dig deeply enough into the songbooks of American denominations with a Dutch heritage, you’ll probably still notice the influence of the Genevan Psalter somewhere. The blue 1959/1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal used today in the United Reformed Churches in North America contains at least 35 psalms and hymns set to Genevan tunes, including familiar selections like “As the Hart, About to Falter” (#75, Psalm 42), “I Love the Lord” (#228, Psalm 116), and “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (#406). Meanwhile, the Canadian Reformed Churches still sing from an English translation of the Genevan Psalter in its entirety, most recently published as the Book of Praise (2014) and the New Genevan Psalter (2015).
The Genevan Psalter’s influence on Protestant worship in the British Isles is harder to trace. The English and Scottish styles of psalm versification favored strict meters and rhyming schemes, unlike the wide variety of Genevan meters. However, a few Genevan melodies whose meters lined up nicely with English versifications did eventually make their way into the psalm-singing tradition of the British Isles. The most familiar of these is the Genevan tune for Psalm 134, which became (confusingly) associated with the long-meter Scottish Psalter version of Psalm 100 and has come to be known as OLD HUNDREDTH (hence the graphic at the top of this page). Even in non-psalm-singing churches, OLD HUNDREDTH is still almost universally recognized as the tune of “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Thus, Calvin’s Genevan Psalter project is indirectly responsible for the doxology used in almost every traditional Protestant church!
As one of the Reformation’s first complete psalmbooks (if not the first) in the common language, the Genevan Psalter was a groundbreaking development in the history of Protestant Christianity. Next time you stumble across a composition by Louis Bourgeois in the blue Psalter Hymnal or sing OLD HUNDREDTH at the end of a service, reflect a bit on the lasting impact of Calvin’s immense and seemingly unrealistic undertaking. Indeed, the Genevan Psalter should inspire us to devote similar efforts to promoting enthusiastic and robust congregational psalm-singing throughout Christ’s church today.[youtube http://youtu.be/BQPgfMLb1CM]
(above: a Dutch arrangement of Genevan Psalm 42, an excellent introduction to the beauty of Genevan tunes)
Genevan Psalter Resources
- The New Genevan Psalter (2015), containing Genevan tunes for all 150 psalms along with new English translations, is published by Premier Press. More information can be found on its website, http://newgenevanpsalter.wordpress.com.
- The Book of Praise (2014) contains music identical to the New Genevan Psalter but with the addition of liturgical forms, prayers, and the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches. More information can be found on its website, http://bookofpraise.ca.
- Brink, Emily. “A Reformed Approach to Psalmody: the legacy of the Genevan Psalter.” June 10, 2005 (accessed May 15, 2015).
- Koyzis, David. “Introduction to the Genevan Psalter.” 2011 (accessed May 15, 2015).
- Owens, Michael E. “The Genevan Psalter.” November 3, 2008 (accessed May 15, 2015).
- bookofpraise.ca: The official website of the CanRC’s 2014 edition of the Book of Praise.
- churchmusic.ca: “Information about the Psalm tunes of the Psalter that the church Reformer John Calvin initiated (also called Genevan Psalter).” Created by Frank Ezinga. Articles on history and theology of church music and hints to accompanists, especially organists.
- frankezinga.com: “From the Organ Bench,” personal website of CanRC organist Frank Ezinga. Sheet music, CDs, and videos featuring his arrangements of Genevan psalm tunes from the Book of Praise.
- genevanpsalter.blogspot.com: A blog on news and resources related to the Genevan Psalter, created by David Koyzis.
- genevanpsalter.com: The Genevan Psalter Resource Center, created by Michael E. Owens. “This website is intended as a center for resources and information relating to the Genevan Psalter, including any and all articles, sheet music, recordings, books, websites and metrical translations based on it.”
- genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca: The website of David Koyzis containing a variety of resources related to the Genevan Psalter, including a bibliography, list of resources, videos, and text and sheet music for his own versifications.
- genevantunes.com: Various arrangements of Genevan psalm tunes for voice, piano, guitar, organ, concert band, and orchestra. Created by Tim Nijenhuis.
- The YouTube channel “Psalmen@YouTube” features recordings of congregational singing of Genevan tunes to lyrics from the 1773 Dutch Psalter with organ accompaniment, http://www.youtube.com/user/Upquark2/
- Computerized horn recordings of all Genevan psalm tunes are available online from de Hervormde Gemeente te Dinteloord, http://www.hervormddinteloord.com/muziek.htm under “Melodieën van het Geneefs Psalter (1562).”
Last updated May 15, 2015