This article is about John Calvin's view of church music and secular tunes in church music.

Source: The Outlook, 2001. 6 pages.

John Calvin and Church Music

Although it should be obvious to all Christians that music is a normal avenue for praise and worship, we Calvinists have too often weakly accepted the many false criticisms of John Calvin and his attitude toward the richest of all arts. Historians contemporary with Calvin started the lie, and succeeding writers to the present day have carried it forward, that John Calvin disliked music and forbade its general practice.

Music Banned from Geneva?🔗

Charles Burney, the great English writer on music, whose History of Music (1776) was the first important treatise in its field, wrote a particu­larly damning commentary on Calvinist music, claiming that no instrumental music was allowed in Geneva for one hundred years after the Reformation, and that all music, except for psalm singing, was outlawed. That statement has been copied and recopied by succeeding generations of writers, and since no one bothered to seek the truth, the lie has been brought down to the present with few to challenge it.

It is our acceptance of the lie, the willingness of our forbears as well as our contemporaries to accept meekly the weight of centuries of false criti­cism, which has brought us to the present situation of musical confu­sion. There are those among us who, believing the derogatory statements concerning Calvin and music, insist that the true Calvinist must have little or nothing to do with music. There are others who, knowing little about the great musical tradition which Calvinist churches actually possess, feel that we may begin now to erect a musical culture without foundation or roots in the past.

What Place Music in the Church?🔗

The evidences of this confusion are all about us. Many churches wrangle over the desirability of the choir in the worship service. Not too many years ago the presence of an organ in the church was contested by some. The use of instruments other than the organ is seriously frowned upon by many. The importance of psalm singing as against hymn singing is a perennial subject of discussion. The place of the individual soloist in the worship service is challenged by some, while location of the choir in the auditorium is the concern of others. The use of scriptural texts and scriptural paraphrases in choir anthems is the weekly concern of many music committees, and the music sung in the Sunday night “hymnsings” is a constant source of argument and worry for musical leaders.

All of these musical problems which are facing us today are natural problems, inevitable ones. They have arisen because too few have concerned themselves with them in the past, and we have assumed that our history as a religious body has no rich tradition or foundation upon which to build. Although modern Reformed folk generally have tried to keep in step with the problems of youth, government and education, they have strangely enough sidestepped that one facet of creation which is nearer to them than they realize, and which, of all the means at their disposal, is one of the most adaptable to the praise of God, the science and art of music.

A Rich Musical Tradition🔗

That we have a rich tradition of music is now becoming increasingly apparent. Throughout the Protestant world, this year is being celebrated as the 400th anniversary of John Calvin’s Psalter of 1551. Musicologists every­where are beginning to awake to the importance of Calvinism as a cultural medium. The so-called humanist scholars of today, the objective, real­istic writers, are changing the tune of the past 400 years and are singing the praise of John Calvin, of Clement Marot, and of Louis Bourgeois. English translations of the great Dutch Calvinist motets, written for use in the Amsterdam Reformed Church of the 1600s, are now appearing on the musical scene. The secular world is catching up with the beauty and importance of John Calvin’s music.

Surely we, as Calvinists ourselves, can ill afford to continue the old story that Calvinists have no music of their own! The great challenge to us today is to take hold of this tradi­tion of ours, retain it for ourselves, and make use of it in its proper setting — in our praise of God. This is a serious challenge, for if we refuse to accept it we shall find ourselves deprived of something which should be peculiarly ours. Just as the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church and the Greek Orthodox Church have a musical liturgy which is distinctively their own, so we too may yet possess a great means of praise which can be readily recognized as Calvinistic.

Music on a Biblical Foundation🔗

This building of our musical genius upon a biblical foundation, in the tradition of the Reformed churches, is a difficult task. It is one that has been the subject of concern for many of our religious leaders. It is too great a task for one man. There are too many problems involved. There is too much that we do not know about our past; there is too much misunderstanding, and often too little desire to understand. It is a task which will call for the cooperation of theologians, poets and musicians. And most important, it is a task which will take much time.

This series of articles which will appear from time to time will bring to light some of the historical back­ground of the music of Calvin’s church. We hope to discuss the place of the organ in Calvin’s day, and, in the light of such a study, to concern ourselves with the organ as it is used in our modern church. A similar treatment of the choir in the church should also be worthy of consideration. Above all, however, we wish to remain as objective as possible, real­izing that our humble opinion may be honestly disagreed with by many. Comments and letters from our readers will be welcomed.

Secularism in Church Music🔗

Several readers of my introductory article to this series on the problems of Calvinism and church music have questioned the need for reverting to the days of John Calvin in our discussion of music in the Calvinistic church. This writer is convinced that the very vague sense of direction which we Calvinists have regarding church music today lies in the fact that we do not fully understand what has happened in the past: where our church fathers started in their evaluation of church music; the reasons for their actions concerning contemporary music in the church; and the application of their principles to our modern problems.

When John Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1541 to assume the pastorate at St. Pierre Church, he found no music in the service. No organ. No choir. No congregational singing. Why? The answer must be found in the history of the Reformation.

Music for Music’s Sake?🔗

Among the criticisms of the Catholic Church by the sixteenth-century Reformers was the complaint that the church service, the mass, was unintelligible to the average layman. Spoken or sung, the mass in Latin was not understood by many. But even a more serious accusation was this, that the music of the mass, instead of contributing to worship, was actually taking the listener’s mind away from worship. The music for many of the masses, sung in four or more parts by the choir, was most often based upon a secular folk song. For instance, there were more than thirty masses written during the sixteenth century based upon the popular tune, L’Homme Arme (The Armed Man). While one voice sang the original melody with the secular words, the other voices would sing elaborate countermelodies with religious words. This increasing secularization of music for the church, and the idea of music in the church for music’s sake, finally became so disturbing even to the Catholic Church that the famous Council of Trent was forced to consider it and take steps to change it. There were elements in the Catholic Church which desired the complete removal of music from worship because they feared that music had become so secular it was no longer possible to restore it to a place of value in worship. Music in the Catholic Church was preserved however, through the great work of such composers as Jacobus de Kerle and Palestrina.

The solution to the problem was found differently in the two important Protestant Reformation churches. While the mass continued to be sung in Lutheran churches, the texts were translated to the vernacular so that everyone could understand the words of praise. The music was simplified, and a new style of congregational singing developed so that everyone, whether they sang in unison or in harmony, at least sang the same words at the same time. The first reaction of the Swiss Reformers to secularized music in the church was simply that of many Catholics of the day: take all music out of the church. Not only vocal music by choir or congregation, but also instrumental music. Since the organ and other instruments had been used to accompany the highly secular vocal music, it was inevitable that the organ should also be discarded.

Calvin’s View of Church Music🔗

Severe as this solution was to the problem of church music, it is never­theless quite understandable. Since there was no music which fit the requirements for Reformed worship, none could be used. Just as all the dogma of the Catholic Church had to be completely eradicated from the thought of the Reformed Church, so, too, the unsatisfactory trimmings had to be cut out.

But John Calvin had a vision of satisfactory church music. His historical sense combined with his ideals of true worship and praise led him to the conclusion that even in the New Testament Church there was room for the Old Testament order of worship through music. But again, a start had to be made. His little Psalter of 13 Psalms and Hymns, with some of the verses composed by himself, which he had published at Strassburg in 1539, was expanded at Geneva for use in his church. One of the finest living professional composers, Louis Bourgeois, was hired to come to Geneva. Bourgeois’ job was a twofold one. He was to write the music for the new Psalter, and to teach music in the grammar school.

The music which Bourgeois wrote for the Psalter fit the needs of the congregation for true worship. Since for almost a generation there had been no singing in the church services, the music was kept simple. There was no four-part harmony for the time being. Everyone sang in unison, and everyone sang the same words. It was a complete musical unity. The music had been specifically composed for the texts, and seldom in musical history has there been found a more beautiful marriage of words and music. The music was joyful, highly rhythmic (not staid and slow as modern Calvinists often think of it) and so inspired as to live to the present day in almost every conti­nent of the world. Singing these Psalms with harmony was first enjoyed in the homes, the harmo­nizations having been written by some of the greatest living composers. As congregations learned the harmo­nizations, and with the introduction of organ accompaniments, we find the part-singing of the Psalms back in the churches within fifty years after Calvin’s death. With the rise of great Calvinistic organists and composers like Sweelinck, who used the Psalm tunes as the basis for their organ chorales and preludes, we find instrumental music once more in use in the church.

What about Secular Tunes Today?🔗

In this brief historical background there must be some lesson for the twentieth-century Calvinist church. Music was eradicated from the church in the sixteenth century because that seemed to be the only way to cure the problem of secularism. The secular, sometimes lewd, associ­ations of the melodies used in the Roman Mass had come between the worshiper and his worship. Are we not faced with a similar situation in many churches today? How can the mental image of Narcissus gazing into the water be an aid to worship? But Narcissus is a popular organ prelude with some organists. How can one sing “Come ye sinners poor and needy” in divine worship when between him and worship stands the name of the composer, Rousseau, one of the great atheists of the French Revolution? The music itself may be attractive and may in itself be perfectly wedded to the text of the song. But we must remember that in our day, just as in Calvin’s day, pretty music alone or in combi­nation with religious words does not necessarily contribute to worship. If there is any element present which detracts from true worship, it should be eliminated. By the grace of God much folk music and much art music of even godless composers may be called beautiful or possibly “inspired.” But that does not make the music ipso facto proper for worship.

Calvinist churches have generally remained true to the importance of the Word. In their concern for the Word however, they have too often forgotten about the vehicle which carries the Word. When the choir or the congregation or the Sunday School class sings portions of Scripture, it is only fitting that the music have the sincerity and meaning which the Word calls for. Only too often does the music have a taste of the dance hall or the tavern, and the unthinking listener, with his rhythmic sense tickled, feels musically satisfied. The question of his spiritual satisfaction and the question of proper praise to God is usually left unanswered.

This state of affairs is a natural one. It is a state which might well be expected, since the attitude of many Reformed folk toward music has been destructive rather than constructive. Guidance for all of us is desper­ately needed to help us worship in spirit and in truth. May God grant us that guidance.

The Desirability of a Truly Calvinistic Church Music🔗

Reformed theologians and musicians alike are often placed in an embar­rassing position when they are asked to describe the music of their church. Their embarrassment may, in some cases, be caused by the poor performance of the church music by mediocre talent in their local congregation. However, even in those churches which possess fine musical talents devoted to the service of God there are still occasions for concern and question. For there seems to be no set of standards for church music to which we all may subscribe. There is no generally accepted body of sacred songs which reflects the typical spirit of the American Reformed people. There is no sense of direction for the guid­ance of the church in the choice of music for worship.

It has been said that during the Reformation the people sang their way into the Protestant church. They left the Roman Catholic Church, with its great body of litur­gical music, but they founded another church with its own distinctive music. The Lutherans with their great chorales and the Calvinists with their spirited and impressive Psalm tunes had something which brought the meaning of worship through song in the vernacular closer to the people. We must remember, too, that even though the music of these two great branches of Protestantism was different from the music of the Roman Church, it was still music of high quality. The music as music, and the union of this music with the text, created between the two elements one work of art worthy of the great message it had to convey.

Protestant Reformed Symbolism🔗

Although Protestantism in general has tended to de-emphasize the religious symbolism found in the Roman Catholic Church, each Protestant church has, nevertheless, developed over the years a certain set of standards and symbols which characterize that church in the minds of others. Thus, some churches traditionally use one type of architecture; some developed a distinctive liturgy; some substitute a reader for the minister; some baptize by immersion, others by sprinkling; some use no organ but sing their psalms unaccompanied in unison; some use a particular type of cross as their distinctive emblem; some have a body of liturgical chants and hymns different from all other Protestant song; each church has its own set of doctrinal standards which sets it apart from all others. Many of these standards and symbols (mental, aural, or visual) are the result of the different historical development of the churches. Others reflect the attitudes and relationship of the church to its Creator. Each church has pride in its own distinc­tiveness and is jealous of it. We of the Reformed heritage, too, have our traditions, our standards, and our symbols. Justly proud of them, and convinced of the accuracy of our position, we have no desire to lose those symbols and standards of our church which best reflect our back­ground and our eternal yearning for a closer walk with God.

Weakening influences have been at work, however, in Reformed churches in America from the very moment of their transplanting. If one enters a Reformed church in The Netherlands, he is struck by the fact that the worship service is quite different from that of the Anglican, Mennonite, Lutheran, Moravian, or liberal churches. Not only is the exposition of the Word by the minister different. The congregational partic­ipation in the worship itself is different. The congregational song, in particular, is so different from that of the other Dutch churches that there can be no doubt in the mind of the casual visitor that here, indeed, is a church which worships God in a musical language which is not only distinctive but wholly satis­fying to the congregation. The music and song of the church, based as they are on the principle of the supremacy of the Word of God, have truly become an integral part of the worship. This body of believers has developed to the point where the church’s music and the congrega­tion’s worship are inseparable.

The Calvinists’ Indifference🔗

Something must have happened when these worshipers arrived in America. Although Americanization does not seem to have adversely affected the Roman Catholic’s love for Gregorian chant, or the Lutheran’s love for the chorale, the Calvinist seems to have neglected by choice the traditional music of his church. The fault does not lie with the generation of the twentieth century. The process of watering down our musical heritage began already in colonial days when the early English translators, such as Francis Hopkinson, experienced difficulty in matching English verse to the unusual meters of the Calvinist psalm tunes. The trend, begun so long ago, has brought us to the point where today many Calvinists do not know the greatness of the music of our past, do not recognize that music when they hear it, or openly scoff if asked to sing it.

This reaction is a natural one. Our leaders of the present as well as of the past have been derelict in the effort to preserve this art. What efforts have been made have often been misguided. Too often our poli­cymaking has been in the hands of well-meaning individuals who have allowed mere personal likes and dislikes, rather than historical accuracy, to influence their judgment. There have been some with a thorough understanding of the important historical development of psalmody, hut their voices have too often been submerged by the clamor for borrowing from other sources.

The gradual disappearance of our own great music and the substitution for it of music from other traditions is, in itself, not a “bad” thing. Along with our common confessions of faith, the language of music is one of the great factors in the ecumenicity of the church. Nevertheless, to become a church of musical borrowers, regardless how good the thing is which we borrow, reveals an instability and immaturity which ill becomes a church with the rich background that we have. We too often forget that our roots are much deeper than those of the churches from which we have borrowed so much. Our river runs directly to the spring at Geneva and the music which belongs to our history has been fed by the blood of martyrs. Even greater than the fact that our music rises from the well-spring of the Reformation is the fact that the words of these great songs rise from the Holy Scripture itself.

Need for Serious Evaluation🔗

It is time that we evaluate seriously the music in our churches. Dr. Peter Y. DeJong, in his article “The Eye or the Ear” (Banner, June 20, 1952) discusses the relation of the Word to the preaching. That relationship is no less important for the music of the church, including the music of congregational song, organ playing, and choir singing. With this in mind we quote a few excerpts from that article:

The liturgical revival among Protestants has only touched the periphery of Reformed church life until now. Yet among us there are champions of a new way. It is therefore more than time that we take heed to our ways...

We must pledge ourselves to maintaining the Reformed way of worship.

This is the more needful when we remember that the preaching of the Word does not seem to have had the appeal among us which it once had. We also are in danger of stressing form at the expense of content. Indeed, a Reformed Christian is a lover of good form. But the form must be the true and proper reflection of a sound content.

God is still pleased to call His people to salvation by the pure preaching of the Word. The gate which He uses first is that of the ear, not of the eye.

The Word and Church Music🔗

The Word of God is no less important for the music of the church than it is for the preaching. The organist and the choir members are all concerned with the worshipers, and their activ­ities serve to lead the congregation in worship. In what direction shall the congregation be led?

The words which men, women, and children sing are the more deeply impressed upon their hearts because of the singing. Whether they are sung at home, in the worship service, or in youth meetings, those words become a part of the religious experience. What would you have them sing? What kind of music shall be the vehicle for these words?

The music which we choose as the vehicle for the Holy Word is a reflection of our attitude towards that Word. If our hymns and anthems can scarcely be distinguished musically from the street songs and dance tunes of the day we reveal a shocking sense of disrespect toward our God. How shall we praise Him?

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