Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Charles Garside on Calvin's view of Psalmody pt.8: the 1542 Epistle to the Reader

In the last post, mention was made of the fact that Calvin says scarcely little about music or song in the 1541 Ecclesiastical Ordinances. As Garside observes, only two sentences about song can be found, and these are tucked away in the middle of a paragraph devoted to marriage. The point was made that Calvin’s intention was to take up the subject of worship song separately and in an entirely different format. That new format is found in the 1542 Epistle to the Reader in his order for worship for Geneva. This 193 word statement would be enlarged upon and revised over the next year, and incorporated into a couple of different works, but in seed form, there are some very significant thoughts expressed about music and song in this current work which further chart out Calvin’s maturing thought.

The title of this new work setting forth the liturgical order for Genevan worship is itself instructive, The Form of Prayers and Ecclesiastical Songs, with the manner of administering the sacraments and consecrating marriage according to the custom of the ancient Church. Of particular importance for our purposes is that within the body of this work Calvin identifies three ordinances which constitute public worship: preaching, public prayers, and the administration of the sacraments. For the first time in Calvin’s writings about song, we see that he places song, an element of worship, under the rubric of public prayer. Expounding upon this rubric of public prayer he writes that prayers are of “two kinds: the one made with the word only, the others with song.”  With respect to this apparently new liturgical development of subsuming worship song under the rubric of prayer Calvin explains that it “is not a thing invented a short time ago” (p.17). So what does he mean by all this?

Garside explains that Calvin is essentially introducing his theology of music and song to the public for the first time. Prior statements made about the role of song had only been made in private communications to the council of Geneva. In presenting this liturgical work to the broader church community in Geneva, it was necessary to offer some explanation of why song and prayer were joined together. The first point he wants to make about song in general is already signaled in the title of the 1542 Genevan order of worship, tucked away at the very end in the prepositional phrase “according to the custom of the ancient church.”  Calvin’s primary explanation for the introduction of song as a form of prayer in worship is expressed in two succinct sentences in the Epistle: for from the origin of the Church this has been so, as appears from the histories. And even as Saint Paul speaks not only of praying by mouth, but also of singing (p.17). In other words, to “sing prayers” was to follow the custom and practice of the early church, and in turn, that was to embrace and follow a practice which was founded upon the authority of Scripture.

 An additional insight into Calvin’s developing thought about song in worship is unveiled in the Epistle where he breaks new ground in commenting about the nature of worship music itself. With respect to music Calvin writes, “And in truth, we know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal” (p.17). Garside makes the point that this marks a tangible movement forward in Calvin’s understanding since in the 1537 Articles his remarks were limited to the content of song, while in the 1542 Epistle his remarks branch out and cover new ground, taking into consideration the topic of music in general. This new insight about music seems to be have been generated and born out of his own experience of congregational singing in Strausburg. In 1537 Calvin could only propose song on the basis that the content of the songs (psalms) themselves could be “most expedient for the edification of the church.” Now however, in 1542, having experienced the “feeling” generated by hearing the whole congregation sing aloud in worship, Calvin speaks of music’s “emotional power.”

The concept of music’s inherent power to move the emotions was a matter of great concern for Calvin. He was not at all interested in moving the emotions for the sake of having an emotional experience. In other words, he was not “sanctifying” the mere experience of emotional uplifts, or any and every form of emotional manipulation. Rather, he was speaking to the benefit and blessing of a certain kind of spiritual vigor kindled in the heart by a peculiar kind of music. This fact is born out by a clarifying comment found subsequently in the Epistle: there must always be concern that the song be neither light nor frivolous, but have gravity (pois) and majesty (maieste), as Saint Augustine says” (p.18). Interestingly, Garside points out that neither “gravity” or “majesty” or their equivalents are found in the passage from Augustine that Calvin quotes. Instead, it seems that these two qualities of music are unique and original to Calvin himself.

In searching for an objective handle to sort of grasp hold of what Calvin has in mind by “gravity” and “majesty,” Garside proposes that a final comment in the Epistle provides a helpful starting point for analysis. Distinguishing between the quality of “sacred” and “secular” music, Calvin says, “And thus there is a great difference between the music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and His angels” (p.19). Apparently, there is music which is directed to men (music "at table" and "in home"), and it is for the purpose of entertaining, and then, there is music directed to God (sung in Church), and it is uniquely suited for the worship of His glorious and eternal being. It is obvious from the context and tenor of Calvin’s remarks that it would be wrong to seek to inflame the emotions by the use of song and music which is purely for man’s entertainment (which is obviously the nature and character of all revivalistic and contemporary worship music ). For Calvin, only songs of a unique and specific quality (Psalms) combined with tunes which are appropriately grave and majestic can meet the rigid qualifications of worship song which is truly worshipful to the Lord. These comments then, contained in the 1542 Epistle, truly do mark out a significant leap forward in Calvin’s theology of music, and according to Garside, signal the beginning of “the sacred style” which would subsequently come to characterize the melodies of the Genevan Psalter.

The next post will take up Calvin’s remarks about song contained in the 1543 edition of the Institutes.   


Alvin Mullins said...

Do we know how the Genevans sang the Psalter? For instance were all instrumentation removed from all liturgies? Also did they sing straight from the Bible, did they have a Psalter with "raw" Psalms or were they metered? If so were they chanted or sung? Finally, were their any hymns sung? Thanks for the post.

Alvin Mullins

John Sawtelle said...

Good questions all, let me see if I can shed some light here. Calvin is known for having restored congregational singing to the Reformed church after it had been wrested from the congregation and put into the hands of professional choirs during the high middle ages. The first thing Calvin did to promote that aim was to get rid of organs and choirs. He thought organs were of a piece with OT instruments which had banished with all the rest of the types and shadows with the cross of Christ. Next, Calvin, with the help of professional musicians and poets, put together a psalter to sing from. The first one was put together in Strausburg and then Calvin built on that work over his ministry in Genva, producing many editions in French for use in Geneva which climaxed in the 1562 Geneva Psalter. These psalms were metrical and put to sacred melodies in order to facilitate congregational singing. It was expected that congregational members would purchase their own copies of this psalter and bring them to worship. Finally,and I say this to the best of my knowledge, Calvin was opposed to human compositions and did not permit their use in public worship. I am aware the some attribute a hymn, "I Greet Thee My Sure Redeemer" but there is not a shred of evidence that Calvin composed this and it never found its way into any of the Genevan Psalters produced during Calvin's lifetime. The best line on this hymn is that it was inserted into Calvin's works sometime into the 19th century and ascribed to Calvin's hand.

I hope that gets to your questions.