John Calvin in his library. On the shelf, books of the Bible, including the Book of Psalms.

To sing psalms is not only a form of prayer practised by Christians of virtually all denominations, but also – and indeed firstly – a fundamental component of Jewish worship. Jesus himself sang the psalms in the synagogue and privately (as witnessed by the Gospel account of the Last Supper), and this unparalleled collection of sacred poetry has been recited, intoned, sung and set to music in a variety of styles, epochs and places.

However, it is with the Calvinist Church that sung psalmody is most frequently identified: whereas the original repertoire of the other Christian churches includes other musical forms along with psalms, the total identification of Calvinist worship with psalmody is a unique feature of the Reformed church.

The story of the enormously successful “Genevan Psalter” is a fascinating narrative. The first kernel of this collection originated in a rather unlikely context, the hyper-Catholic French court. In that refined and aristocratic milieu, and under the influence of humanistic thought, three concurring factors fostered the birth of the first psalm versifications.

Influence of humanism

Firstly, humanism had promoted the rediscovery and appreciation of ancient classical metres in poetry; secondly (and consequently) some of the most brilliant literateurs of the era wished to apply these metres to the vernacular, partly in order to demonstrate the nobility of the French language; thirdly, an upsurge of spirituality encouraged the cultural elite to consider the literary beauty and depth of the Book of Psalms.

Thus, one of the leading French poets, Clément Marot, tried his hand at psalm versifications, applying the classical metres to his paraphrases of the psalms. At first, his poetical creations were enthusiastically received at the Catholic court, and were recited (probably also sung) as an aristocratic and spiritual pastime.

After the so-called Affaire des Placards, however, when posters against the Eucharist were pinned to the King’s door, the climate became too hot for the evangelically-minded, and many of them had to flee Paris and seek refuge elsewhere. Among them was John Calvin, who intended to reach Strasbourg. During his travel, however, he was intercepted by Guillaume Farel, the Genevan reformer, who implored him to stay in his city and contribute to the Reformation.

The joint efforts of these two, however, were no more successful than those of Farel alone, and soon the city exiled both Farel and Calvin. Thus, Calvin was at last free to go, as intended, to Strasbourg: there, the reformer Martin Bucer had succeeded in creating a thriving reformation, and part of this result was due to his clever use of music. Calvin was impressed by the difference between the Strasbourg congregations, where people of all ages and social provenance were singing hymns with fervour, and the “coldness” of the congregation he had left in Geneva.

In Strasbourg, Calvin was asked to be the spiritual leader of the French-speaking congregation; and here he lost no time in trying to collect for them a musical repertoire similar to that sung in German by Bucer’s followers. He therefore turned his attention to Marot’s psalm versifications, which were ready-made and beautifully written; the first tunes were probably composed by the Strasbourg choirmasters.

A new tune for every psalm

Whereas Luther tended to adapt pre-existing melodies (mostly from the plainchant repertoire, but occasionally also from the secular sphere) to the new texts written by his fellow Reformers and by himself, Calvin’s choice was practically the opposite. Here, indeed, the lyrics had preceded the tunes; moreover, due to the origin of Marot’s psalms as stylistic exercises and literary experiments, the high variety of metres employed by the poet prevented the use of a single tune for several texts. Furthermore, the “sacredness” of the psalms, as seen by Calvin, seemed to require entirely new tunes, which had no “history” behind them (even though occasional reminiscences of earlier repertoires can be found). Whereas Luther, at least sometimes, wished to “redeem” the pre-existing songs by giving them holy texts, Calvin wanted a new and entirely “pure” repertoire.

His work continued when he was called back by the Genevans; indeed, for a time both Marot and Calvin were together in Geneva and worked side by side in order to increase the number of psalm-versifications. At Marot’s untimely death, the task of completing the 150 Psalms of the collection was undertaken by Théodore de Bèze; in parallel, the new poems were provided with new tunes.

Thus, the first Calvinists had a challenging goal before them: to learn one-hundred-and-fifty new texts and songs, hardly any of which was set to the same tune as another. The reward for their commitment, however, was proportionate: those who mastered this huge repertoire had a fascinating repository of sacred poetry and music at their disposal. Since practically no two psalms had the same tune, even to hum a particular tune (or to have it played by brass instruments…) could immediately evoke the corresponding words. Persecuted Calvinists or Huguenots on the battle-fields could therefore identify each tune as a musical flag, which could provide comfort, strength, courage or consolation in a variety of situations.

Genevan Psalter spreads Calvinism across Europe

The printed collections of the Genevan Psalter were in turn immensely successful; it was quickly translated into the principal European languages, contributing dramatically to the spread of Calvinism. Psalms were the only musical forms admitted in the worship of early Calvinism, and their tunes had to be sung without polyphony and without musical accompaniment. This was not felt as a limitation, however: the musicianship of the reformed was channeled into psalmody, and tunes such as that of the “Old 100th” (as it came to be known in the English-speaking world) were soon appropriated by faithful of other confessions. (Recently, for example, it was sung by a Catholic crowd greeting Pope Francis at an open-air Eucharistic liturgy, and it made its way in the Lutheran and Anglican worships as well).

Privately, it was of course possible to play or sing arrangements of the Genevan tunes in polyphony or with instrumental accompaniment; thus, a wealth of beautiful “art-works” based on the Psalter came to enrich the spiritual repertoire not only of the musically-gifted Calvinists, but also of members of other confessions.

Ironically, when the Psalter came to be identified too closely with Calvinism, it was easier for members of other churches to share a more neutral repertoire, possibly created by Calvinist poets and musicians but without references to the Psalms, than to sing the Biblical words which, in principle, belonged to them all.

As we will see in a later article of this series on music and the sixteenth-century Reformations, music mirrored the confessional oppositions of the era, sometimes taking sides in the religious wars, but (more often) acting as a bridge of beauty and prayer in the midst of violent conflicts.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her new book, Reforming Music: Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century, was published this month by De Gruyter. Visit her website.

Earlier articles: (1) Reforming music: harmony and discord in the 16th century (2) Pre-Reformation church music: plainchant, polyphony and popular songs (3) Polyphony? Or cacophany? Prelude to a reformation in church music (4) Reformation music: how the Word became words. (5) Lutheran songs: a musical gift for all Chistians

Chiara Bertoglio

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Turin in Italy. Visit her website at www.chiarabertoglio.com