THE PSALMS AND GENEVAN MELODIES - Ron Dykstra
Used with permission from Reformed Polemics Vol. 5, No. 7 Dec. 5, 1998
A presentation written for an “outreach”and/or information evening on the Reformed Faith.
Rediscovering Congregational Singing
Psalm 100: A Psalm For The Thank Offering:
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his
presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, we are his; we are his
people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
We have just read a short part or passage from the Bible, the Word of God. And, as most of you
will probably know, the Bible consists of many books. There are in fact 66 different books which
all have their own name. But, perhaps the most well-known, and also the most often read, is the
Book of Psalms. This book is considered by some as the greatest collection of “the world’s bestloved poems.”There is hardly anyone who does not know at least one or more of the psalms by heart.
The Book of Psalms is not only the most often read book of the Bible, but the psalms are also quite frequently sung. We can read throughout the Bible that the people of God used singing and music to praise the Lord their God. They were happy, and they rejoiced in the mercy and faithfulness of their God. They showed their happiness, their joy, their thankfulness, by praising the Lord their God, in music and song. And in praising God they often used the Book of Psalms; they used the very words of these psalms to sing praises to God. In the psalms we encounter the words of man within the Word of God.
Psalms 100 is an good example of the fact that the call to rejoice and to be joyful in the Lord, the
call to praise Him, goes out to all of us. In this psalm we are called to “make a joyful noise to the
Lord...”to “come into His presence with singing...”, to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his
courts with praise...”There are of course many ways in which we can praise our God, but the
psalmist, the writer of this particular psalm, reminds us of God’s beautiful gift of music; of the fact that the Lord has given us a voice so that we, with our voice, and in our songs of praise, may sing of His faithfulness, and praise Him for His steadfast love.
This psalm speaks of joy and gladness, of praise and thanksgiving. The psalms, however, describe or depict far more than simply or exclusively praise and thanksgiving. In the year 1542, John Calvin, the well-known reformer, said of the psalms: “There is no movement of the spirit which is not reflected here as in a mirror. All the sorrows, troubles, fears, doubts, hopes, pain, stormy outbursts by which the hearts of men are tossed (to and fro, RD) have been depicted here to the very life.” Therefore, in the Book of Psalms, we will find all kinds of psalms or songs.
There are psalms or songs of thanksgiving, of praise and adoration. There are psalms which are prayers or petitions, and also laments or complaints. There are psalms or songs of confession, of penitence or repentance. As well, there are songs for instruction or teaching. And let us not forget the imprecatory songs; songs that tell us of God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s anger and wrath; songs of justice for, or vindication of God’s people. We can find love songs for the church, and of course, Messianic songs; songs which speak about the great Messiah, the Redeemer of His people, namely, Jesus Christ our Lord. The psalms then give expression to the fears, hopes and joys of the believers. They are the faith experience and expression of those who God has drawn into His covenant community.
John Calvin, the well-known reformer who we mentioned earlier, also spoke about the Sunday
worship services, and he explained that the worship services are not just a gathering of people, but a holy convocation; a holy meeting. This holiness is determined by the fact that the Word of God is proclaimed. Furthermore, John Calvin also mentions prayer, and he distinguishes two forms of prayer during the worship service: the prayer spoken by the minister and the prayer sung by the congregation. Calvin attached great importance to congregational singing, for he states, “the singing of the congregation takes place before the face of God and His holy angels, who listen to it.”They hear both the words and the melodies.
For a long time, during the middle ages, the people of the Church did not sing in the public worship services. As the result of the Great reformation people again became aware of the importance of congregational singing; singing in which old and young could participate. And it was precisely John Calvin who rediscovered the Book of Psalms for the people of the Church. It was he who began the task of bringing congregational singing back into the worship services. Unfortunately there were no suitable melodies available for congregational singing. These first had to be composed.
“There were indeed numerous melodies around in the streets, the fields, the inns and the homes. Those songs were not in any way related to Bible passages. People sang to entertain themselves and others. But melodies which were appropriate for the worship services and suitable for Bible texts did not exist. This was the great challenge: to find songs which were not for cheap entertainment, but which were directed to God’s honour. The necessity was felt to search for songs which praised God and confessed His holy name. These songs were to be sung by the whole congregation as a collective prayer, and for mutual encouragement and edification.
Calvin determined the following criteria: no folk tunes, but melodies which are pleasing to God and the angels. These melodies must also measure up to high musical standards, and everyone must be able to sing them. They have to be suitable for children as well. It must be mentioned that it is a remarkable achievement to compose melodies which children can sing, but which are not children’s songs. (a) In 1539 the first psalm melodies of master composer Louis Bourgeois appeared in print, and slowly the number grew, till in 1562 the Psalter was complete: a monument of texts and melodies. Every single psalm could now be sung on a skillfully composed melody. And so John Calvin, during his stay in Strasbourg (France), and in his visits to Geneva, a city in Switzerland, taught the Church to again sing her psalms. It was from this Swiss city, namely the city of Geneva, that the Genevan Psalter and the Genevan melodies received their name.
Starting already during Calvin’s lifetime, the rhymed version of the psalms was printed and
reprinted many times, and shortly thereafter, as it spread throughout Europe, it appeared not only in French, but also other languages. The psalms could now be heard in many countries and in a number of languages. The psalms were instrumental in the spreading of the Gospel and the
conversion of thousands of people. They were of crucial importance in aiding the preaching of
God’s Word. During the 16th and 17th century congregational singing of the Psalms became more and more a common occurrence and the Genevan melodies became well-known and cherished by those who heard them and sung them.
Many musicians, particularly organists, have used the beautiful Genevan melodies to improvise and compose; to make music to the praise of God and the edification of the congregation. These psalm melodies are of immeasurable value. They have shaped the Church throughout the centuries; they have given the Reformed Churches their distinct and dignified character. These psalm melodies functioned as a typical characteristic for the believers who confessed the truth of God’s Word.
“The Reformed Churches have always attached great value to the Psalter as a collection of songs of God’s covenant.”(b) As we already mentioned, “the first complete Psalter was published in Geneva in 1562. Four years later the Genevan tunes were used by Petrus Dathenus in his Dutch versification of the Psalms. The Genevan Psalter has been associated with the Churches of the reformation ever since. When members of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated) came to North America after the second World War and established the Canadian Reformed Churches, they brought with them their appreciation of the Genevan Psalter. As early as 1954, the first General Synod of the Canadian Reformed Churches appointed a committee to study the possibility of introducing such a (complete) Psalter in the English language. In 1972 the first complete Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter appeared, and English metrical versions of all the psalms could be sung for the first time to the authentic Genevan melodies of the sixteenth century. The present text, which is a thorough revision of the Psalter, was accepted by General Synod 1980 as the definitive version.”(c)
“Although in Reformed liturgy the Psalms have a predominant place, our Churches have not
excluded the use of Scriptural hymns.”(d) The Canadian Reformed Churches added 65 hymns.
Many of these hymns are in fact rhymed versions of Old and New Testament Scripture passages.
They are of a different nature than the psalm melodies, yet “they too constitute a thank offering of praise when we sing of the facts of redemption by God, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”(e) They can be selected in combination with the psalms.
“The beauty of the psalm and hymn melodies is not solely determined by the fact that they have
historical value. Their beauty lies in the choice of tones and their progression. Many Reformed
masters have shaped them. They are of the classical caliber that lasts.”(f)
In summary, we will end with a few of John Calvin’s own words about congregational singing, as
found in his Institutes (vol. III, 20): “Certainly, if singing is tempered to a gravity befitting the
presence of God and angels, it gives both dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has a very
powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardent prayer. We must, however, be
carefully aware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning
of the words.”And in the same context he says: “If this moderation is used, there cannot be a
doubt that this practice (of congregational singing, RD) is most sacred and salutary.”(g)
(g) The Origin of Our Psalm Melodies (4), K. Deddens, Clarion