Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Martial Ethos of Historic Reformed Worship: Psalm-singing for vigorous Kingdom service (part 2)

In thinking about the historic Reformed practice of psalm-singing and how it cultivated the particular effect of a martial ethos, it will be helpful to briefly trace the origin and distribution of the Geneva Psalter which had such a substantial hand in shaping Reformed worship for at least a few centuries subsequent to the Reformation. Although Psalms were being sung as early as the 1520’s among the Reformed, it was Calvin who helped make this practice a badge of identity for the Reformed churches. Taking a middle road between Luther on the one hand, who incorporated hymns and psalms in public worship, and Zwingli on the other, who rejected the use of both instruments and songs altogether in public worship, Calvin proposed the singing of the Psalms a capella by the whole congregation.

To facilitate turning this principle into a consistent practice, Calvin oversaw the editing and publication of a French psalter in 1539, while yet in Strausburg (p.38). Though this first run at producing a psalter was not without its flaws or limitations, it did at least accomplish the objective of putting his principles into practice, not only in his congregation of French refugees, but it also laid the groundwork for the spread and use of the Psalms in the worship of the Reformed churches through the influence it had upon Valerian Poullain, his successor in Strausburg, who then went on subsequently to serve in England and then Frankfurt (p.39). A few short years later, in 1542, having returned to minister in Geneva, Calvin published a new version of the psalter, this time with a preface which explained the rationale for using the psalter in Reformed worship:

And in truth, we know by experience, that singing has great strength and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.

It is evident from even this brief remark that Calvin saw the inherent power of music to move the soul and viewed the Psalms as the most pure lyrical form to mold pious zeal for holy ends.

Believing the Psalms were best suited to cultivate a true and substantial holy ardor and in view of that seeking to actually compile a psalter complete with musical settings was one thing, pulling it off in practice was quite another. Early on Calvin had put his own hand to translating and arranging metrical versions of the Psalms, but had to admit his own labors were less than satisfactory. By the providence of God, a man named Clement Marot was led to Calvin for just such a purpose. Hands down, Marot was one of the leading French poets of the day. So renowned for his capabilities was Marot that he had access to the court of Francis I, but acquiring his skills for Geneva's project proved to be quite an ordeal. In 1535 Marot had been accused of heresy and fled Paris to seek refuge in the court of Renee of Ferrara where he met Calvin (p.40).  Apparently, someone was able to patch things up between Marot and Francis I because he can be found back in the king’s court by 1538 and was at that time already producing metrical versions of the psalms that even found favor with the king and his court. By 1543, while Marot’s psalm settings were growing in popularity in various pockets of France, they were growing in disfavor with the Roman intelligentsia at the Sorbonne and with the Roman authorities. To escape persecution Marot fled to Geneva where he received a hearty welcome from his old friend John Calvin. Though Marot’s stay in Geneva would not be a particularly lengthy one, he was able to publish a total of 49 metrical versions of the Psalms. Apparently Clement had a knack for crossing swords with people, and before he could finish his work in Geneva he was exiled from the city for inappropriate fraternization with some ladies down at the local pub. After expulsion from Geneva things took a sharp dive southward for Marot as he died suddenly and prematurely in Turin by means of poisoning (p.41).  

With about one third of the psalter arranged for music, Calvin turned to another leading humanist and poet, Theodore Beza, in order to see to it that the work Marot started would be brought to conclusion. From 1549 to 1562 Beza worked steadily to complete the psalter project. Beza, working side by side with musicians such as Franc, Goudimel, and especially, Louis Bourgeouis, was able to produce a psalter that displayed a remarkable artistic touch and was well adapted for popular use.

With production complete, the psalter was ready for distribution, and all indications are that it was a hot commodity as it rolled off the press. Upon completion of the final edition in 1562, the Geneva Psalter was translated into Dutch, German, Hungarian, and English (p.42). For the most part, the new translations attempted to retain the tunes and simply translate and arrange the lyrics to the musical settings. The success of the psalter can measured by its massive popularity as Reid notes, “even Godeau, Bishop of Grasse in 1649, could witness to the popularity and influence of the Huguenot psalm-singing while his own Roman Catholics were either dumb or sang “des chansons deshonnetes” (p.42).  The effect of the psalter was that it unleashed a wave of what Reid calls “popular music” for it had finally put sacred lyrics to tunes that were accessible to the musically untrained. This popular music certainly had unintended consequences, which we will take note of in subsequent posts, but for now I leave us to consider Reid’s preliminary summary of the psalter’s effect:

This was of great importance for it meant that the faithful could now sing together the songs of faith, a practice which was bound to strengthen their morale in the face of persecution and conflict (p.42).

Imagine that being said of Fanny Crosby or CCM songs, or even the trendy new worship songs advertised on one web site which promotes “intimate songs of the heart” that are “sure to capture your heart, and leave you with an enduring sense of His presence, and a hunger for more.” To even consider the question for a moment is to answer it; such pious doggerel does not nourish the heart for even a moment, let alone for the flames of persecution.

With these comments in view I conclude with Dr. Reid’s bold claim for consideration, “certain types of music have power to stimulate to action, even the power to incite hands to war and fingers to fight.”

In the next post we will examine how psalm-singing shaped the Reformed identity and bore witness to their motivation and purpose as they sought to spread the truth and how they sustained them when they faced the fiery flames of persecution.

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