The Sung Prayers
Besides the prayers that "are offered by means of words alone," there are also, according to Calvin, "the others with song." It is quite exceptional that he typifies the songs used in the church services as sung prayers. Yet, the singing and the songs according to God's will, as revealed in the Scriptures, belong precisely to the essence of the worship service. It is, therefore, important to examine Calvin's vision of the place and function of singing, songs and music in the liturgy.
Calvin himself had been active in the design of songs for congregational singing, first for the refugee congregation at Strasbourg and later for the church at Geneva. He also prompted others to help him, among them Clement Marot, Theodorus Beza, Matthias Greiter, Louis Bourgeois. In this article we hope to explain Calvin's basic thoughts with regard to the text and melody in the service of congregational singing. These thoughts can be found especially in the Prefaces to his Service- and Song Books of 1542 and 1545. He also pays attention to it in his Institutes and here and there in his Commentaries.
1. The Singing of the Congregation as Such
Calvin was deeply convinced of the special significance that singing had for the congregation. In the Epistle to the Readers he remarked:
And in truth we know from experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.1
When he says "from experience," we probably should think of Calvin's first encounter with congregational singing in Strasbourg in 1538 about which A. C. Barnard writes the following:
It made a tremendous impression on him. Here he hears congregational singing for the first time. He says that he listened to five or six and that it moved him to tears.2
Next, Calvin states that singing was a very old custom. It already had existed at the time of the apostles. He refers to 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, where Christians are urged to sing with heart and voice and with such spiritual songs, whereby believers may edify each other. From these texts Calvin even concludes that the singing by the congregation is commanded by Scripture.3 Even though the singing of the congregation was interrupted in the history of the church, we nevertheless are dealing here with a time-honoured custom in the church from her inception.
After that Calvin poses that the singing must come from a profound and thorough movement of the heart, in order for it to be pleasing to the Lord as it appears from Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 15:8. In his expanded Preface of 1545 he writes:
Now the heart requires intelligence, and therein, says Saint Augustine, lies the difference between the singing of men and of birds. For a linnet, nightingale, a parrot will sing well, but it will be without understanding. Now the peculiar gift of man is to sing knowing what he is saying. After the intelligence must follow the heart and the affection, which cannot be unless we have the hymn imprinted on our memory in order never to cease singing.4
In his Institutes Calvin phrases this as follows:
Still we do not condemn words or singing, but rather greatly commend them, provided the feeling of the mind goes along with them. For in this way the thought of God is kept alive on our minds.5
In the fourth place Calvin sees communal singing as the first gift or one of the principal gifts of the Lord in the service of salvation and re-creation. In his first Epistle to the Reader (1542) he had written that singing had "great force and vigor to move the hearts of men to invoke and praise God," in his expanded Preface (1545) he adds:
Now among the other things proper to re-create man and give him joy, music is either the first or one of the principal, and we must be more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it, converting it to our condemnation when it has been to our profit and welfare.6
There is in this world hardly anything that can bend and change the direction of our lives more than singing. From experience we know that singing has a secret power and that it can move us one way or another in a nearly incomprehensible way. So in it God has given us a powerful means and we must use it in all responsibility so that this gift will be to our benefit and not lead to our undoing.
Finally, it is Calvin's deepest held conviction that God wills that the whole congregation should sing to His honour. That is why from the very beginning he was searching for ways to make the congregation sing. In Geneva the singing of the clergy had come to an end and the organ no longer spoke. This engendered silence had to become filled with congregational singing. It, however, did not come about during Calvin's first stay in Geneva, but while in Strasbourg he discovered the German churches. In the form of strophic hymns, they like a mass choir sent their songs heavenwards in unison in such a way that it overwhelmed him. During the time of the Reformation these German churches at Strasbourg and area were among the first where everyone, young and old, men and women sang the psalms in unison under the direction of a cantor.
Here, 'Calvin's ideal of the reformational church song ripened: sober, clear and in the vernacular; only texts borrowed from God's Word: psalms and hymns; no solo songs, no art songs; only people singing in unison; and that on simple but beautiful melodies that appealed to the ear and which, when properly rendered, underlined the character of the text.'7
In his small French-speaking church Calvin immediately set to work on this type of congregational singing. Later back in Geneva he fought for the introduction of congregational singing as he had experienced it in Strasbourg. Already in 1537 he and the other ministers wrote to the Council of Geneva:
The second article concerns the Psalms, which we desire to be sung in the church, as we have example of in the ancient church, and even the witness of St. Paul, who says it is good to sing in the congregation from the mouth and from the heart. We cannot conceive the advancement and edification that will proceed from this without having experienced it. Indeed as we do it, the prayers of the faithful are so cold that that must bring upon us great shame and confusion. The Psalms can arouse us to lift up our hearts to God and move us to an ardor both to call upon and to exalt by praises the glory of His name.8
They also indicated how this introduction of singing could be accomplished:
This way to proceed to this seemed good to us: if some children, to whom we have previously taught a simple church song, sing in high, distinct voice, to which the people listen attentively, following with their hearts what is sung by mouth, until little by little they become accustomed to sing a song together. But in order to avoid confusion, it would be needful that you do not permit that anyone by his insolence, to hold the holy congregation in derision, set about to disturb the order that will be established for this.9
The Council accepted the proposal but dragged its feet in the implementation of it, or rather they consciously held it up. When, after the expulsion of both Farel and Calvin from Geneva, the Council attempted to have them return to Geneva, both ministers made the introduction of congregational singing a condition. When they did return in 1541 Calvin made this introduction a priority. After much work the project was finally realized.
2. The Priority of Singing Psalms
In his Epistle Calvin writes:
Now what to do? It is to have songs not merely honest but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to God and praise Him, and to meditate upon His works in order to love, fear, honour and glorify Him. Now what Saint Augustine says is true — that no one can sing things worthy of God save what he has received from Him. Wherefore, although we look far and wide and search on every hand, we shall not find better songs nor songs better suited to that end than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and uttered through him. And for that reason, when we sing them we may be certain that God puts words in our mouths as if Himself sang in us to exalt His glory.10
Many have concluded from this passage that Calvin only wanted Psalms to be sung in church. Oskar Söhnge, for example, says: "The reduction of singing to Psalms only has for centuries been the distinctive feature of the reformed church services of the Calvinistic persuasion." He also refers to Article 69 of the Dort Church Order of 1619.11 Others have pointed out that Calvin nowhere prohibits the singing of hymns, even though he endorsed the singing of Psalms in the worship service. It will be helpful to pass along H. Hasper's thoughts on the subject. In his Een Reformatorisch Kerkboek (1941) he, among others, sees the following principles as Calvin's heritage:
- Psalm singing was given its own place and function in the church service where it belonged to the service of prayers;
- This psalm singing included the singing of 'Psalms' and 'Hymns';
- The content of what was to be sung must come from and be based on the Holy Scriptures.12
H. Hasper also states that at Calvin's death in 1564, the Reformed church book for "psalm singing" in the worship service was still in statu nascendi.
Only the part, in which the Old Testament Book of Psalms was arranged for singing, Calvin considered finished. What further needed to follow was hardly begun. No one can say what the French Reformed church book would have looked like, when Calvin had lived, for instance, another thirty years. It would, no doubt, have been a unified reflection of the whole of Holy Scriptures: the Bible in a different form.13
In his Calvijns beginsel voor de zang in den Eredienst (Vol I and II, 's-Gravenhage, 1955 and 1976) Hasper works his thought out further. In his doctoral thesis Barnard Smilde drew the following lines from the abundance of Hasper's material.
According to Hasper, it was of great importance to Calvin that congregational singing was restored to its rightful place. Not a mumbling priesthood, not a professionally trained choir that performed artful, polyphonic compositions, but only an inspired congregation called to praise and adore God. For that reason congregational singing must be simple, understandable, sober and powerful. The content of a church song must meet high standards. The text must come from the Bible or based on it. The song of the church is part of the service of prayers. In the singing the congregation is caught up in the Word of God, which is her greatest treasure. The most suitable material that Calvin could find for it was contained in the Book of Psalms. In it people had a tie to the church of the Old and New Testament. In it the people had songs that were given by the Spirit. In times of sadness and persecution the congregation, furthermore, could find herself back in the struggles of the ancient psalmists. But not only the psalms but also other parts from the Bible, particularly from the New Testament, are suitable for the congregational song. That statement Hasper bases on the fact that the first, modest French Psalter, Aulcuns Pseaumes et Cantiques (Strasbourg, 1539), already contained versifications of the Ten Commandments and the Song of Simeon. A later edition of this psalter also contained the hymn Jet to salue, mon certain redempteur. A hymn commonly ascribed to Calvin. Calvin kept the oecumene in mind and had the Apostolic Confession sung and so maintained the tie with the early church. That Calvin was against songs other than the psalms, according to Hasper, is therefore a "foolish thought," a thought that especially took root in The Netherlands and there passed for something that was especially Calvinistic. Hasper disputes this by pointing to the above mentioned Strasbourg psalter that contained not only hymns but also ended with the following rhymed aphorism:
Psalme et chant ie chanteray
a un seul Dieu, tant que seray.
And even if Calvin had been against New Testament songs, we would still have to place Holy Scripture, with its clear mandate for a new song, above Calvin's opinions. That the churches in The Netherlands initially sang only psalms and continued do so for centuries after the Reformation, should, according to Hasper, simply be seen as a kind of order-measure to guard the church against chaos and arbitrariness and in any case to insure that the people would honour the Psalms.14
Dr. Smilde agrees with most of what Hasper has distilled in his books, even though he places a "cautious question mark" after Hasper's remark "if Calvin had lived another thirty years etc." He considers that statement to be speculative and wonders: "Did Calvin, indeed, think about a continuation of his work in the spirit of a New Testament hymnal after the completion of the Genevan Psalter?"15
Apart from this minor matter, Smilde considers Hasper's broad outlines of Calvin's position to be correct. Calvin certainly did not intend to have the congregation sing only psalms for then he would be in conflict with his own song book which had other Bible songs in addition to the metrical psalms. It can, however, be said that Calvin, when he again had to give form to the singing of the congregation, as far as content, first of all thought of the psalms. That is why we rather speak of priority rather than of preference of the psalms.
From Calvin's integrated theological position, J. H. Nichols has given the following motivation for this priority:
Part of the appeal of the Psalms was that the language was that of the inspired Scriptures, and presented Christ and his benefits, so to speak, in God's own language. Some such feeling seems at least to have inhibited for generations the development of a Reformed hymnody ... In repentance and supplication as in joy and adoration, the songs of ancient Israel read Christologically were the chosen language of prayer of the Reformed Church. In contrast to both scholastic and Anabaptists, Calvin argued for the substantial identity of God's revelation to the ancient Hebrews and to the Christians. All true revelation of whatever age is of the Christ, the eternal Son, including Old Testament visions, angelic messengers, prophetic declarations. The faithful sons of the Old Covenant actually received the benefits of the Messiah's cross and resurrection. Israel was the real church; her sacrifices were real sacraments of the Christ, his life and power. The new covenant in Christ Jesus, to be sure, is clearer, more vivid, less encumbered with ceremonies and cult, but Christ is the substance of both covenants. The Old Testament and thus the Psalms were interpreted Christologically and as prophetic of the life of the church. Political and cultic references in the Psalms which seem archaic and irrelevant to a modern congregation were understood by the sixteenth-century Reformed Church at once as metaphorical prophetic allusions to her own life. The Psalms were so thoroughly known to the Huguenots that for every occasion an opposite verse seemed to leap to the tongue.16
The fact that the singing in Calvinistic churches for centuries consisted of psalm singing may not be projected back to the starting and principles of Calvin. That would be an anachronism. It may neither be explained in these churches from fundamental reasons, but, as E. Stricker writes, it stems from "the ... limited number of their songs and the small production of their song writers."17 Calvin — and that is already a question of principle — more than Luther was more concerned that the sound, objective interpretation of the message of God's Word would be obscured and become hidden behind the words of man in the so-called free hymns. That is why he prefers songs that are bound to the Bible and of these the Psalms received priority. He opposes free hymns in the sense of extra-biblical songs, for he knew the lesson from history in which the corruption of the singing of all sorts of un-biblical thoughts could be ascertained.18 He, therefore, maintained that no one can sing songs pleasing to God when he had not received them from Him first. Wherefore there are no better songs than the Psalms. "Psalms" must here be understood in the broadest sense of the word, i.e. as biblical psalms and hymns, also outside "the Book of Psalms," namely scriptural songs. Thus Calvin closed his first Psalter with the words: "Psalms and hymns I will sing before the only God, as long as I am!"19
3. The Singing of the Law
Because it was unique for his time, we will pay some attention to Calvin's view of singing the Ten Commandments; its place and use, in the context of sung prayer. In his Strasbourg liturgy, La Manyere, Calvin had the congregation sing the Decalogue after the Confession and Absolution. Although there were already such arrangements in the twelfth century, one such version by Antoine Saunier was introduced to Geneva in 1532,20 this versification of the Commandments in twelve stanza was, however, Calvin's own creation!
This custom, found nowhere else, he gave a fixed place in his Strasbourg liturgy but omitted it from his Geneva order. There we do not find the Law either spoken or sung. It only appeared in the song tables after 1546 where it was assigned to the Lord's Supper service! When the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper ended, the singing of the Law stopped as well. As indicated Calvin had the Law sung after the Confession and Absolution in Strasbourg. This clearly shows that he especially saw it as a rule of thankfulness for which the congregation assumed responsibility. After receiving forgiveness for sins confessed, the believers were to focus on showing thankfulness in accordance with God's will as revealed in the words of the covenant. And just as the Lord God had given Moses and Israel the Law on two tables, the hymn was sung in two parts. It could not be more scriptural!
Traditionally the reading of the Law was interspersed with the singing of the Kyrie Eleison. Calvin placed this brief prayer after each stanza as a refrain in his versification and made use of a Strasbourg melody from 1524.21 Between the first and second part of the Decalogue Calvin inserted a short, free prayer in which God was asked to make clear to us how we should act in our daily life according to His will. Again, all of this was Calvin's own liturgical creation!
4. The Melodies
Calvin did not only speak about the content of congregational singing, he also addressed the question of melodies. About this matter he had his own peculiar view that linked up with his starting point, namely that singing needed to be given back to the congregation. Therefore, the melodies also had to be such that they could be easily learned and used by the congregation. It were to be true congregational melodies. That is why he chose monody, unison singing, one melody for everyone in the church service. "The singing congregation, and, what is more, a congregation gathered under God's Word, became the focus of church-musical attention," according to B. Buschbeck. And that surely required proper melodies.22
With a singing congregation as starting point, Calvin rejects the use of choirs in the church services, as well as part singing during the meetings, even though he promoted and stimulated this type of music making outside the services. Calvin feared that the tone (melody) would push the word (content) aside; that more attention would be given to the manner of singing than to the text.
In the Roman services Calvin had observed how polyphonic music of the choir usurped congregational singing. He had also seen the first questionable symptoms of choral music in Lutheran churches. In Strasbourg, however, his ideal found fulfillment: the ecclesiastical mass choir; the tangible unio mystica; the voice of many as of one, the church collectively busy with God's praise; everyone in his diversity yet equally voiced and encouraging each other. This kind of unity is never possible in part singing, for a congregation cannot sing motets. If Bourgeois would have had his psalm settings sung that way, the congregation would have to sit mum. And that precisely would have defeated what Calvin viewed as essential to the Reformation: 'the church must sing at all costs.'23
That is why Calvin had serious objections to the use choral music in the church services. In his Institutes he said:
We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.24
In his Preface to La Forme (1545) Calvin wrote that music consists of two parts, text and melody, and that we must make a distinction between them. With regard to the text we must take into account what Paul had said about evil words corrupting good manners. He continued, "but when it has the melody with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly and enters within; as wine poured into a cask with a funnel, so venom and corruption are distilled to the very depths of the heart by melody."25 "Calvin, therefore, saw polyphonic choral music, as compared to congregational singing, as a minus, while Luther viewed the polyphonic musical expression of the Gospel, as compared to congregational singing, as a plus."26 For Calvin intelligibility of the text was clearly essential for the singing. People must be able to understand what they sing and what is sung by others. How could they otherwise be edified by it; how could they otherwise pray and praise God with it?
We must keep in mind that at his time the intelligibility of the text indeed suffered under the complexity of the musical fabric, while the congregation (somewhat simplistically, no doubt) had no printed copy of the liturgy in front of them.27
Calvin pleaded for unison singing in the meetings of the congregation. It was the congregation that had to sing and then in such a way that it was intelligible to everyone. That is why he instructed his musicians to write unison melodies.28 With regard to the "stanza structure" and "rhyme scheme," Pierre Pidoux concludes that the Genevan psalms are of "nearly inexhaustible riches." He counts a total of 116 'original forms' and states: "It should be obvious that each stanza- and rhyme structure would require its own melody." Thus Bourgeois and his successors, by way of monody, composed many variants, 127 in total. That they with limited means wrote 127 melodies is a remarkable artistic achievement. Precisely this limitation gave the psalm tunes a special character that was obviously the opposite to that of contemporary chansons.29 In this respect it is remarkable that Calvin's Psalter, in spite of the fact that at least seven composers may have worked on it, yet displays an amazing stylistic unity. B. Smilde states that it is regrettable that there still has been no study that summarizes the various stylistic aspects of this collection, although in his opinion Dieter Gutknecht's doctoral thesis30 is a step in the right direction.31
Even though Calvin only permitted unison singing in the worship services, a great number of choral settings of the Genevan tunes were published during his lifetime by, among others, L. Bourgeois, Cl. Goudimel and somewhat later J. P. Sweelinck. Calvin himself stimulated this activity. These settings were intended for domestic use and choral societies. Claude Goudimel, for example, wrote in the Preface to his publication:
To the melody of the psalms we have in this little volume, adapted three parts, not to induce you to sing them in church, but that you may rejoice in God, particularly in your homes. This should not be found an ill thing, the more so since the melody used in church is left in its entirety, just as though it were alone.
In these settings the cantus firmus (the melody) is generally in the tenor while the other voices move around it in either homophony or polyphony. From the mixed vocal/instrumental practice of the sixteenth century, in which each voice could be augmented or replaced by a musical instrument, numerous, colourful "registrations" are possible.32 It, therefore, cannot be said that Calvin objected to part singing. He did, however, not consider it suitable, and, therefore, inadmissible, for congregational singing in the church services.
5. The Tempo of the Singing
Lately there has been a lot of talk about the tempo in which the songs from the Genevan Psalter ought to be sung. This discussion especially involves a passage in Calvin's Preface. He wrote:
It must always be looked to that the song be not light and frivolous but have weight and majesty, as Saint Augustine says, and there is likewise a great difference between the music one makes to entertain men at tables and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and His angels.33
Some translate leger' (light) as quick, swift and volage (frivolous) as 'hurried' as opposed to 'pois' (weight) (i.e. dignity) and majesté (majesty) (i.e. loftiness). This then to some would indicate a slow tempo for singing the psalms. J. R. Luth says in his essay entitled Het tempo van de Geneefse Psalmmelodieën34 that, except for a few remarks by Valette, Davantes and Bourgeois, we really do not know anything about the singing in Geneva. Up to now we have no description of church services that directly or indirectly contains information about the tempo of congregational singing. We, however, have information about the number of psalms sung in a service. From the tables of 1549, 1551 and 1562, compiled in order to regulate the use of the psalms in the various services, it becomes clear that on Sunday mornings, Sunday afternoons and Wednesdays one or two psalms were sung "after the second stroke of the bell" and also "before and after the sermon." That way the whole psalter was sung in twenty-five weeks. In a given service the people sang sixteen to twenty stanzas, not all in one sitting, but at three different places in the liturgy. On average the congregation then sang six to eight stanzas after each other. "The question is," according to Luth:
How would this be possible if the tempo of the singing was slow? If a contemporary congregation already begins to show signs of tiredness after singing only three or four stanzas in a row, how could the people at Geneva manage to sing eight or ten stanzas after each other in a slow tempo! It is obvious that on the basis of what we can conclude from these tables that the tempo of psalm singing in Geneva must have been rather high.35
After pointing out that melodies of the Genevan Psalter for the most part came from the Gregorian chant repertoire, Luth concludes:
We consider it highly probable that the tempo in which the psalm melodies were sung in Geneva did not deviate much from the source on which they depended. The tempo would sooner have been higher because the usual (Gregorian) melismata had been eliminated thus making way for syllabic songs. Most of the members of Calvin's church at Geneva came from a church where only recently they had heard the Gregorian chorales. When, for example, Psalm 80 was sung, the people would immediately have recognized the melody as "Victmae paschali laudi." Similar recognitions would have occurred with most of the psalm tunes. When we add to this the fact that there was no organ accompaniment, that most people could not read so that they, led by a children's choir, had to learn the melodies in their new rhythmic form, then it is easily understandable that many factors that now put the brakes on the tempo of congregational singing were not present at that time.36
A final argument Luth derives from the fact that in the Genevan tunes the final notes of each line rhythmically occupy the most important place. The melody lines there find their point of rest. One sings towards the final note. Again and again this rhythmic, tension inducing peculiarity propels the melody to its conclusion.
At a slow pace each note would receive so much attention that this beautiful rhythmic phenomenon would hardly be noticed ... From the already mentioned Prefaces by Vallette and Davantes it appears that the rests at the end of lines provided room to breathe. As shown previously, it was assumed that the people would always sing one line on one breath. From this we can conclude that this assumption by the theorists was based on a fluid tempo.37
All these facts make it clear "that the psalm melodies were initially sung rather quickly ... in any case (quarter note) MM = 120-144."38
To be sure, in the matter of the tempo of the psalm tunes the last word has not as yet been spoken. It, however, appears to me that it is incorrect to apply the words "light & frivolous" and "weight & majesty" to the tempo of the singing. In the context in which they appear the phrase refers to the proper quality of the singing in the worship services. That way, in my opinion, they fit the best in the whole of Calvin's vision of congregational singing in his services.