Sunday, September 10

Reforming Music

One of the most remarkable features of the Reformation was the veritable explosion of creativity it provoked. Painting, sculpture, music, literature, technology, architecture, oratory, and engineering, the likes of which had not been seen since the halcyon days of High Medievalism filled cities like Geneva, Frankfurt, London, Zurich, Edinburgh, and Amsterdam. Beauty, goodness, and truth became the natural handmaids of Reformed thought.

Though a good deal of that creativity revolved around the teeming worlds of commerce and industry, not a little focused on reviving the once moribund services of the church itself. This was particularly evident in the sudden prolificacy of sacred music and hymnody.

In Geneva, the poet Clement Marot and the theologian and Protestant reformer Theodore Beza collaborated on a magnificent new translation of the Psalms into an familiar vernacular French. They also set each Psalm to one or another of several standard metrical verse forms, which made them particularly accessible to musicians and composers.

The new translations were introduced by the reformer John Calvin as a vital part of his liturgical renewal there in Geneva--and from there, they were quickly adopted by the various Reformed churches in France and Switzerland. The French musician Louis Bourgeois either composed new hymn tunes or selected old folk melodies that might be used interchangeably with any number of the Psalms--and the result was a lively, refreshing, and dynamic form of worship.

Two other French Reformed musicians, Claude Goudimel and Claude Le Jeune, composed stunning four-voice settings for the Bourgeois melodies, which became standard for the churches seeking to conform worship to confessional forms. But visitors--for some reason expecting that the worship of the Reformers might be dour and somber--were often surprised by the vigor and enthusiasm of the new settings. Indeed, these Psalms were so lively that they were popularly dubbed Genevan Jigs.

English translations of the Genevan Jigs were published in 1562 by the Puritan writers, printers, and publishers Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. And then on this day in 1612 a similar Psalter was published in Holland by the English Separatist clergyman Henry Ainsworth--in fact, it was the Ainsworth Psalter that the Pilgrims brought to America on the Mayflower in 1620. Thus, quite contrary to the popular caricatures, the music and the worship of the Calvinistic Puritans and Pilgrims--as well as their kith and kin amongst the Covenanters--was creative, vibrant, and exhilarating.


Lawrence Underwood said...

Do we have any of the music extant? I would love to hear or incorporate some of it into our worship.

gileskirk said...

Lawrence: Yes, virtually all of this music is extant and available in various psalters and hymnals. The Scottish churches, the Covenanters, and some of the continuing Alglican communions have published these resources right up to the present. Greg Wilbur could probably steer you to the best of these--he's always giving me wonderful new insights into hymnody. And, reading his blog is an absolute must for anyone interested in these kinds of issues. His latest post on musical accompaniment in worship is a powerful recovery of Reformation principles.

Lawrence Underwood said...

Thanks! BTW, thanks for the post on the Nike+ and the key pocket. Now my New Balances are 'wired'. Cool stuff.

Marcus said...

George & Lawerence: At our church we use the new Cantus Christi. It is does not have all 150 Psalms but it makes use of some great Genevan tunes. The Psalm 2 tune is the most appropriate tune according to the context. Our family started singing the Psalms several years ago in the RPCNA Psalter. We love Psalms more than hymns.

K. Cody Vest said...

I'm new here, but I though you might be interested to know that has the entire genevan psalter in midi format as does
Also, the source for the Cantus Christi's Genevan tunes can be found here in melody only pdf versions:

I enjoy singing the psalms too. I have used these sites, sped up the tempo, and enjoyed my own genevan jigging myself.

gileskirk said...

Both Cantus Christi and the RPCNA Psalter are excellent resources. And material on the web abounds. May God grant reformation in our day as we recover the rich legacy of the reforming work of the past.