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X. Calvin: His Relations to Metrical Psalmody and Church Music.

Behind this whole movement—the establishment of Psalm singing in French Switzerland, its spread through France and the other countries in Europe—stands the great figure of John Calvin. There is no more difficulty in assigning the leadership to him than in assigning to Luther the leadership in establishing hymn singing in Germany and its spread from there into other Lutheran countries. From this point, indeed, the two figures stand as independent sources, from which flow two parallel streams of Protestant church song—the Lutheran Hymnody on the one hand and the Reformed Metrical Psalmody on the other. And the streams were not to be fully united till after two centuries had passed. They are not in fact merged into unity even to-day, when the Calvinistic precedent of Psalm singing still furnishes the ground for maintaining denominational integrity among exclusive Psalm singers.

Calvin’s work thus becomes of great import to Psalmody, and marks an epoch in the history of the Hymn. Calvin did not, of course, invent or even introduce the metrical Psalm. Metrical Psalms were by no means excluded from Lutheran Hymnody. But the Lutheran Psalm was in motive a hymn rather than a version of Scripture. It might be literal, and, on the other hand, might give merely a suggestion of the subject or manner of some canonical Psalm. But the Calvinistic Psalm took its authority and its appropriateness from its divine inspiration. It must be Holy Scripture, first of all; and then it became metrical merely to facilitate its congregational rendering. Calvin had determined to make the Psalter the praise book of the Reformed Church, and to that 76 end never rested till the praise book was complete. The excellence of that praise book, both literary and musical, carried Metrical Psalmody through France by its own impulse; and the Genevan tunes spread Metrical Psalmody more widely through Europe. Calvin’s great authority made Geneva the center of the Reformed world, and the Genevan Psalmody became the inspiration and the model for the Reformed Churches in England and Scotland. In this process of extension the practice of singing metrical Psalms hardened into the rigidity of an established custom. The Calvinistic precedent became the Calvinistic principle; the metrical Psalm became the norm and rule of praise throughout the whole Reformed Church, to the virtual exclusion of all hymns of human composition.

It becomes, therefore, of interest to discover just what were Calvin’s own views as to the proper subject-matter of praise. And these should be taken from his own words. Calvin’s choice of the canonical Psalms, and his ignoring of the Latin hymns of the church, was, of course, in accord with his views of the supremacy of Scripture in worship and his complete indifference to such liturgical stores as the church had accumulated since primitive times. He wished to get back to primitive simplicity, and his establishment of congregational singing rested upon his conviction that it was an apostolic institute of which the people had been unjustly deprived;110110Institutio, Bk. iii, chap, xx, § 32. the Latin hymn indeed being the very instrument by which the deprivation had been effected. At the same time Calvin is not to be counted among those who before and after him maintained the exclusive right of the Psalms or the hymns of Scripture as the only divinely authorized subject-matter of praise. Such a view demands the interpretation of the “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in Ephesians, 5:19, and Colossians 3:16, as being merely different names for canonical Psalms. Calvin’s exegesis is quite different. In his Commentary on Colossians he holds that under these terms St. Paul includes “all kinds of song,” and 77 adds the word “spiritual” to indicate that he would have Christian songs to be of that character, and not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles. The choice, then, before the church is very wide, and why from among all these songs Calvin himself chose the Psalms for his church at Geneva clearly appears from his preface of 1542-43. After referring to the need of songs that are pure and holy, and the need of receiving from God Himself power to write songs worthy of Him, he adds:

“Wherefore, when we have sought on every side, searching here and there, we shall find no songs better and more suitable for our purpose than the Psalms of David, dictated to him and made for him by the Holy Spirit. But singing them ourselves we feel as certain that God put the words into our mouths as if He Himself were singing within us to exalt His glory.” And again: “Only let the world be well-advised, that instead of the songs partly vain and frivolous, partly dull and foolish, partly filthy and vile, and consequently wicked and hurtful, which it has hitherto used, it should accustom itself hereafter to sing these divine and heavenly songs with good King David.”111111Opera, vi, 171, 172.

Calvin here offers his Psalter to the church, and commends it to the world on account of its divine excellency. His words convey no implication of any divine prescription, and might have been uttered by any Psalm-loving Lutheran. It was, moreover, quite foreign to Calvin’s mind to set up a formula of praise, or to find any efficacy in the use of it as prescribed. “Neither words nor singing,” he said in his Institutio,112112Book iii, chap, xx, § 31. “are of the least consequence or avail one iota with God unless they proceed from deep feeling in the heart.”

It was not merely the example of Calvin, but also the conditions of the time, that kept the Reformed Churches to the Psalter. They found in it a well opened in the desert, from which they drew consolation under persecution, strength to resist valiantly the enemies of their faith; with the assured 78 conviction that God was fighting for them, and also (it must be added) would be revenged against their foes. There was at the same time an inevitable narrowing and loss involved in the drying up of those springs of spiritual song which come from within the heart itself; and a greater loss in so far as the lyrics of an earlier dispensation hindered the fullness of Gospel song from reaching the heart. Even in Calvin’s time there was criticism that Marot and Beza’s Psalms did not recognize the fulfillment of prophetic Psalmody in Christ.

Both the spirit and the method of Calvin’s work in Psalmody have been greatly disparaged by modern students, and it is worth while to inquire if they have accorded deliberate justice. M. Douen, in his Clément Marot et le Psautier Huguenot, has done more than anyone else to elucidate the origins of the Calvinistic Psalmody; and yet he brings to his researches a rigid preconception of Calvin’s personality to which all that he discovers in the record, and much besides, not discernible there, is forced to contribute. To M. Douen, Marot not unjustly represents the modern spirit and Bourgeois the art of music. Opposed to them stands Calvin as “the type of dogmatism imposed by authority, antiliberal, antiartistic, antihumane and antichristian.”113113Vol. i, p. 387.

According to M. Douen, Calvin made use of the poet and musician as long as they consented to work in subjection to his despotic will. But when the poet failed in entire conformity to Calvin’s rule of life, and the musician ventured to arrange harmonies to the Psalm melodies in disregard of Calvin’s wishes, Calvin turned against both. He regarded “their independence as a revolt against God himself,”114114i, 663. disregarded their unique services and treated them with negligent disdain,115115ii, 9, and passim. until they were compelled to leave Geneva, the victims of Calvin’s “rancour.”116116i, 663. It can hardly 79 be claimed that this alleged hostility of Calvin to his colaborers rests on any sure basis of evidence. Several instances of Calvin’s kindly regard for them and his intervention in their behalf have already been cited. It may be noted that in Bourgeois’ case Calvin’s interventions continued for several years subsequent to the date of his publication in 1547 of the Psalms à quatre parties; to which publication Calvin had in all probability no objection, the harmonies not being designed for use in church services. M. Douen’s charges, which color his whole work, are to be regarded rather as hypothetical; as what must inevitably have happened when his preconceived Calvin was confronted with the modern spirit and the feeling for art. Even were they true in whole or in part they would not change or even affect the results of Calvin’s work for congregational song. They would only cause regret that a work so successful and wide-reaching could have been prosecuted in a spirit so malevolent.

But the side of Calvin’s work which has subjected it to the most widespread criticism and even condemnation is the musical side. This criticism has been directed against the Genevan Psalmody itself on the ground that it reduced congregational song to its most rudimentary form, in that all the people sang the melody in unison without accompaniment and without other leadership than that of a precentor. But criticism has gone much further than this, because the question raised by the Genevan Psalter is much broader than any relating merely to the method of administering the ordinance of congregational praise. It is the question of what part music is to have in worship; and the Genevan Psalter proposes an answer to this question by offering Psalmody in lieu of all other forms of church music. For it must be acknowledged that the Genevan Psalter embodies Calvin’s ideals and expresses Calvin’s whole purpose in regard to the proper function of music in church worship. In his liturgical scheme for the Reformed Church, music had no other place than that of furnishing melodies for singing the metrical Psalms.


The mere statement of the fact thus acknowledged constitutes the gravamen of the main charge laid against Calvin by historians of the art of music. One of the latest of these, Mr. Louis C. Elson, will serve as a sufficient instance. Having referred to Luther as “an ardent musician, who desired to approach the beauty of the Catholic ritual in the music of the Protestant Church,” he proceeds to say:

“At the other extreme we find John Calvin, a bitter opponent of the fine arts, a man who desired that the music of the church might attract no attention to itself, but merely become a peg whereon to hang the rhythmic recitation of the Psalms.”117117The National Music of America, Boston, 1900, p. 18.

Mr. Elson’s presentation of the critical attitude will serve our present purpose, because, though unguarded and unsympathetic, it approaches more nearly than most to the actual facts. But his designation of Calvin requires much qualification. In Calvin’s writings certainly there is nothing entitling anyone to call him an opponent of the fine arts. He dealt with them appreciatively, and his numerous references to them are thoroughly consistent. We may take as typical his dealing with Jubal, the inventor of the harp and organ, in the earliest reference to art in the Scriptures. Calvin calls Jubal’s art faculty a rare endowment, an excellent gift, so much of good amid the evil proceeding from the family of Cain, an evidence of God’s bounty in diffusing the excellent gifts of the Holy Spirit through the whole human race.118118Commentaries on Genesis, iv, 20. “All the arts,” Calvin says, “come from God and are to be esteemed as inventions of God.”119119Commentaries on Exodus, xxi, 2. Calvin’s theology found room for the artistic endowment of the human race under his doctrine of “common grace,” and his scheme of life found room for the liberal arts; they are to minister to our pleasure and comfort, and are to be used as God’s gifts and to His praise.


Calvin was not, then, in theory at least, hostile to the arts. But was he, nevertheless, hostile or even indifferent to the specific art of music? According to Dr. Henry Allon:—

“Calvin was utterly destitute of musical sensibility, as every page of his works and every element of his character indicate; he was too much of a theological formula to have much of the genius of song. And this unhappy defect has deprived his writings of the broad human sympathy which characterizes Luther’s, and has entailed upon all the churches that bear his name such musical asceticism and poverty.”120120“Church-Song” in Lectures before Y. M. C. A. in Exeter Hall, 1861-1862. London, n. d., p. 304.

It is true that Calvin was no musician as Luther was, and that being undeveloped on the musical side, he failed of the full understanding that comes by participation. But in warmth of sympathy and appreciation he failed not at all:—“Among other things which are suitable for men’s recreation and for giving them pleasure, music is either the foremost, or, at least, must be esteemed one of the most prominent; and we must esteem it a gift of God to us with that purpose.”121121Preface of 1543. “We doubt if there is any thing in this world which can more powerfully turn or bend hither and thither the morals of men.”122122Ibid. As to his own “sensibility,” Calvin has testified: “Our own experience shows a secret and almost incredible power of music to move hearts one way or the other.”123123Ibid.

Throughout his writings Calvin recognizes music as a divinely appointed instrument to enrich and ennoble life and even to minister legitimately to the entertainment of the masses; and this with no other restrictions than would be insisted upon by anyone of an equal ethical seriousness.124124Comm. on Genesis, ut supra. Compare Abr. Kuyper, Calvinism, N. Y., etc., n. d. [1899], pp. 206 ff, and Doumergue, vol. ii, chap, iv, 1st part.


It is true, nevertheless, that Calvin opposed any encroachment of the fine art of music within the sphere of worship; that he wished, in Mr. Elson’s phrase, “that the music of the church might attract no attention to itself,” and should be employed only in strictest subordination to the ends of spiritual edification and the glorifying of God. The end of aesthetic gratification had with him no relation at all to worship. Worship is the response of heart and mind to the Word of God. Its outward actions should have dignity and grace, but not adornment.125125Institutio, Book iii, ch. xx, § 32. The attempt to adorn it with the music of the organ is foolish. Things without life giving sound are incapable of understanding, without which there is no praise. The organ music of the Papal Church was imitated from the Jewish, in which instrumental music was tolerated because God dealt with the Jews as with spiritual children needing to be entertained.126126Homilia in I Lib. Samuel cap. xviii. Opera, xxx, 259. Doumergue’s effort (vol. ii, p. 521) to show that Calvin may have had merely the abuse of the organ in mind is hardly successful. The tongue is the special instrument by which God’s praise is to be declared and proclaimed, and that by singing as well as speaking.127127Institutio, Book iii, ch. xx, § 31. “If singing is tempered to a gravity befitting the presence of God and angels, it both gives dignity and grace to sacred actions, and has a very powerful tendency to stir up the mind to true zeal and ardor in prayer.”128128Institutio, Book iii, ch. xx, § 32.

The singing thus favored is that of the body of believers, “proceeding from deep feeling in the heart”; the singing of a choir, whether on behalf of the people or to them, finding no recognition or place. The whole range of art forms in which music can reach the congregation only by impressing them as auditors was excluded. And even, in congregational singing, “we must carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words.”129129Ibid. Augustine had been so conscious of the encroachment of sensuous charm upon spirituality in the church Psalmody of his time as to consider the expediency of having the Psalms rendered merely by a modulated recitation.130130Confessions, Book x, ch. 33. Calvin, with the same end in view, did not go so far. He provided a full repertory of grave yet beautiful melodies, but he arranged that in worship they should be sung in unison by all, disregarding the harmonic parts. M. Douen characteristically attempts to show131131Vol. ii, p. 375. that Calvin’s objection to four-part singing in worship was merely an item of his antipathy to beauty, and quotes the following passage from the Institutio:

“The songs and melodies which are composed to please the ear only, as are all the fringots and quaverings of Papistry, and all which they call trained music, and tunes in four parts, are by no means suitable to the majesty of the church, and cannot be otherwise than greatly displeasing to God.”

But the words here printed in italics are not Calvin’s. They occur only in the French version of 1560.132132Book iii, ch. xx, § 32. Opera, vol. iv, 420. They are one of numerous glosses added to the text by the hand of an unknown translator, and there is no reason to believe that they even passed under Calvin’s eye.133133Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 520. Compare B. B. Warfield, “The Literary History of Calvin’s ‘Institutes’,” Pres. and Refd. Review, April, 1899, p. 209. Calvin’s objection to employing four-part song in worship was simply the fear that attention to the music might divert the mind from the words.

It would be idle to attempt to reconcile Calvin’s canons of worship with a theory of art for art’s sake. If his temperament had been artistic, his canons would in all probability have been different; certainly their application would have been less severe.

And yet one who will try to put himself in Calvin’s situation 84 is not likely to feel that he was playing the part of a music hater or of a mere iconoclast. Facing on one side the religious music of his time he found nothing except the venerable system of Gregorian plain-chant as used in the old Church. It was historically and inextricably interwoven with the doctrines and ceremonies which the Reformation had renounced. It was a music removed from the people with a curious ingenuity—so complicated that they could not have performed it if permitted, and in fact kept entirely in the hands of an official class, set exclusively to words of a foreign tongue the people could not understand, and, when performed in their hearing, probably heard with dull indifference by a people whose natural taste it did not appeal to and whom no one had cared to train to an appreciation of it. Facing the music of the people he found it rude and untaught, but left free to flow in more natural channels and to mingle with life. He found it also contaminated by the contact, fouled by the impurities of life and degraded to become too often the instrument of immodesty and the inciter of dissoluteness.

In a similar situation Luther resolved to provide religious songs for the people, and also to conserve the interest of plain song in Protestant worship. In the first resolution he succeeded and in the second he failed. Calvin set his heart on fashioning the Word of God itself into songs for the people, and he turned his back upon the traditional ecclesiastical music, making popular song a part of the cultus of a democratic church. Those who condemn him for the latter course have not yet shown just how Calvin could have succeeded where Luther failed, or how the Gregorian music should have adapted itself to express Calvin’s ideals and to extend his Reformation. They seem to imply a neglected opportunity to organize and maintain a full musical establishment at Geneva, where, in fact, he struggled to introduce music at all, and could not wrest from the Council a living wage for his single precentor. They fail on the one hand to give Calvin credit for providing a popular song that stirred the heart of nations, and they neglect on the other to record the 85 services of his musical associates to the development of the modern art of music.134134On this last point consult Kuyper, Calvinism, pp. 226-230.

It must be remembered also that the iconoclastic side of the changes at Geneva did not fall to Calvin’s hands. All that pertained to Roman ceremonial had been swept away before his coming. The practical question was not how much of the Roman worship he should retain, but whether he should follow Zwingli’s lead in renouncing all religious use of music in worship. So that Calvin’s work in establishing congregational song was a purely constructive work. His critics should begin by giving him credit for his purpose to restore music to a place in Reformed worship, in which prior to his coming it had no place at all. And even though the spiritual triumphs of the new Psalmody be accounted as beyond the ken of the musical critic, he ought in fairness to acknowledge the loving care given to secure its musical excellence within its admittedly narrow limits. That Professor Dickinson, in his Music in the History of the Western Church,135135New York, 1902, p. 362. should devote so much space to the Lutheran chorals, and dismiss the Genevan melodies with a reference to them “as unemotional unison tunes,” suggests that the demands of fairness are not always complied with. It might, moreover, be argued that in having the melodies sung in unison Calvin consulted the best interests of congregational song. Both the plain song and the Lutheran Hymnody furnished ample precedent for his course, of which his own very competent musicians seem to have approved, as have many since.136136Doumergne, vol. ii, p. 519. Bovet, p. 67.

Whether for good or for ill the musical ideals and example of Calvin long dominated the worship of the Reformed Churches. He must be held responsible, without doubt, for what Dr. Allon, in the lecture already referred to, describes as “the musical asceticism and poverty” of “all the churches that bear his name.”137137Exeter Hall Lectures, 1861-1862, p. 304. But Dr. Allon surely goes 86 rather far in holding Calvin responsible for the indifference and neglect into which the performance of Psalmody afterwards fell in more than one branch of the Reformed Church. He goes on to say:

“In no Calvinistic country—American, Scotch, Dutch, and, so far as it is Calvinistic, English—is there a church-song. The musical Luther has filled Germany with rich church-hymnody: the unmusical Calvin has so impoverished Puritan and Presbyterian worship, that the rugged, inartistic, slovenly psalmody has become a by-word and a needless repulsion; for surely there is no piety in discords, nor any special devoutness in slovenliness; our nature craves something better than the traditional psalm-singing of the inharmonious meeting-house.”

Now Calvin did in fact provide a church song for France, and provision for its continued well-being was made in all the colleges established by his influence, in each of which music and training in Psalm singing constituted a part of the curriculum, with regularly allotted hours in every week’s calendar.138138See Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 513. Presumably, therefore, what Dr. Allon means is that Calvin’s principle of severing worship from the fine art side of music tended ultimately toward complete musical indifference and consequent slovenliness in the performance of Psalmody. And, if the matter is so stated, the tendency in that untoward direction may be freely admitted, provided that Calvin be not held responsible for the fact that the people of the Netherlands and Scotland, and other lands into which his doctrine spread, had less musical sensibility and gift than the countrymen of Luther.

In the course of time the constraint of Calvin’s ideals has gradually come to be less felt in the worship of the Reformed Churches. A modification of view as to the relations of art and worship has permitted the harmonization of congregational song, its instrumental accompaniment, and also the introduction of the music of impression whether of the choir or organ. On the other hand, the free spirit of evangelism has brought within the sanctity of worship the light and 87 frivolous melody which Calvin would have repudiated as “unbecoming the majesty of the church and displeasing to God.” But through all changes there continues to be felt in all Reformed Churches the force of his insistence upon congregational praise still asserting itself against the encroachments of choir music, and the restraining hand of his ideal of art held strictly in subjection to spiritual ends.

Note.—The study of the Psalmody of the Calvinistic Reformation ends here; but it is proposed to add an appendix tracing the decline of Psalmody in French-speaking churches.

Portrait of Theodore Beza

Portrait of Theodore Beza

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