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VII. The Melodies of the Genevan Psalter.

An essential part of the Genevan Psalter was the melodies to which the Psalms were set. From its beginnings in 1539 the Psalter was not a book of poetry, but a song book in which every piece had its proper tune.

As has already appeared, the singing of Marot’s Psalms began, not among the Huguenots, but at the French court, which set the fashion of adapting them to popular airs. The Psalms, says Florimond de Raemond,6262Histoire de l’hérésie; quoted by Bayle, Dictionary, art. “Marot.” “were not then set to music, as they are now, to be sung in churches; but everyone gave them such a tune as he thought fit, and commonly that of a ballad.” These tunes, Raemond says, were popular because they were pleasant and easy to learn. The example of the court was followed by Pierre Alexandre in preparing his Antwerp Psalter of 1541. It contained no tunes, but a number of the Psalms were preceded by the opening words of some familiar song, as indicating the melody to which they were adapted.6363See Bovet, p. 249.

Calvin’s course was different. He held pronounced views as to the character of music which was suitable to the house of God. In his preface of 1543 he said:

“It has always to be seen to that the singing be not light and frivolous, but that it have weight and majesty, as Saint Augustine says: so that the music made to amuse people at dinners and at home differs 62 widely from the Psalms sung in church in presence of God and the angels.”

In order to carry out these views Calvin from the beginning supervised the music of his Psalter with the same zeal and pains he gave to its literary upbuilding. The melodies he heard in the German congregations at Strassburg became his starting point; he preferred them, as he wrote Farel,6464December 29, 1538. Opera, vol. xb, 438. to the French tunes. Some of them he adapted to the manuscript Psalms in his possession, and to make others available he made Psalm versions of his own, as we have already seen. These melodies, embodied in Calvin’s Strassburg Psalter of 1539, became the basis of the Genevan music. Eleven of them6565Psalms, 1, 2, 15, 36, 91, 103, 104, 114, 130, 137, 143. The original melodies of 1539 may be recovered by means of chapter xxi of M. Douen’s work. (though with one exception modified more or less by musical editing) retained their places through all the subsequent development of the Genevan Psalter. One of them (the XXXVIth), in connection with Beza’s version of the LXVIIIth Psalm, to which it was afterwards set, was destined to have a great career as the “Huguenot Battle-Psalm.”6666For the history of Psalm and tune see Doumergue, vol. ii, appendice viii, “La Psaume des Batailles.”

When Calvin secured the introduction of Psalm singing at Geneva in November, 1541, the first step was to familiarize the people with the tunes; and his original proposal to begin with the children was now carried out by the Council. William Franc, a refugee from Rouen, who in June of that year had been licensed to establish a singing school, was appointed to teach the children “to sing the Psalms of David,” with a salary of ten florins,6767Douen, vol. i, p. 608. and on June 6, 1542, was made precentor at St. Peter’s. On April 16, 1543, the Council resolved that:

“Whereas the Psalms of David are being completed, and whereas it is very necessary to compose a pleasing melody to them, and Master 63 Guillaume, the precentor, is very fit to teach the children, he shall give them instruction for an hour daily; and that Master Calvin be conferred with concerning his salary.”6868Douen, vol. i, p. 608.

The salary of fifty florins proposed by the Council was raised through Calvin’s urgency to one hundred. Franc retained his position till 1545, when he informed the Council that he could not live at Geneva on a hundred florins, and, upon their refusal to augment his salary,696929 May, 1545. Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 513. he resigned and went to Lausanne.

It does not appear that Franc had any part in the musical editing of the Genevan Psalter of 1542. The Order of Council just quoted contains no intimation that he was employed to compose as well as to teach the new tunes. The persistent claim that Franc composed and arranged these melodies is not supported by the evidence. It rests upon a letter of David Constant, professor at Lausanne at the end of the seventeenth century, which Bayle published in his Dictionary.7070Art. “Marot.” Constant wrote that he had seen a testimonial signed by Beza, dated November 2, 1552, declaring that it was Franc who set the Psalms to the melodies sung in the churches, and that he (Constant) owned a copy of the Psalms printed at Geneva under Franc’s name, and also a magistrate’s license of 1564 in which Franc is named as the composer of the tunes. Constant’s statements were investigated by Léonard Baulacre, who reported in the Journal Helvétique,7171Recherches sur les psaumes de Marot et de Bèze, reprinted in Œuvres de Baulacre, Geneva, 1857, vol. i, p. 410; quoted in Douen, vol. i, pp. 609, 610. in 1745, that he could find no reference to the composition of tunes in Beza’s testimonial of 1552, and that the Psalter seen by Constant, although printed at Geneva, was not the Genevan Psalter, but an independent one prepared by Franc for use at Lausanne.

Franc established himself at Lausanne in 1545, and was 64 made precentor in the cathedral. He found Marot’s Psalms in use there, but the melodies were not those he had been accustomed to at Geneva. In this little matter of the tunes, Lausanne had pleased itself by asserting its independence of Geneva. On July 21, 1542, Viret wrote Calvin: “We have resolved to sing at once the music of the Psalms composed by Gindron,” a canon of the cathedral, “which is easier and more agreeable than yours.”7272Opera, vol. xi, 412. Franc’s coming to Lausanne, with none too kindly recollections of Geneva, doubtless acted as an encouragement to prepare a complete Psalter on the same musically independent lines. In 1552 the minister of Lausanne applied to the Council of Geneva for permission to print the Psalms with the Lausanne tunes, there being no printers at Lausanne.7373Douen, vol. i, p. 612. The Council saw no objection and granted a license. No Psalter of that date has been discovered, but in 1565, three years after the appearance of the complete Genevan Psalter, there was published at Geneva the complete Psalter edited by Franc, under the title, Les psaumes mis en rime francoise par Clement Marot et Theodore de Beze, auec le chant de l’Eglise de Lausanne.7474Douen, vol. i, p. 610. This Psalter itself, and the “privilége” of the Genevan authorities to print it, dated December 1, 1564, were those seen by Constant, and account for the error into which he was led as to Franc’s connection with the Genevan Psalter. In the preface7575Reprinted in Bovet, note v, and Douen, vol. i, p. 611. to his Psalter Franc disclaims any rivalry of “those who have done their work faithfully” or any wish “to correct what they have done so well”; but he neither intimates nor implies that his own hand had shared in their work. Franc’s Psalter contains some twenty-seven compositions or adaptations of his own. He explains that these were called for to accompany recent translations of Psalms to which hitherto no proper tunes had been set. As for the rest, he claims the right to choose the best of those already in use in Lausanne or other Reformed churches.

An opening of the GENEVAN PSALTER, 1562.

An opening of the GENEVAN PSALTER, 1562.
The melody at the right is that commonly called “The Old Hundredth.”


Franc’s tunes in the Lausanne Psalter are of small merit,7676Specimens are given by M. Douen. and were soon superseded even in Lausanne itself. Their present interest lies in the internal evidence they afford that the man who wrote them could not also have been the composer of the Genevan melodies; for the particular distinction of the Genevan tunes lies in their unsurpassed excellence. They were composed, to quote Robert Bridges,7777“A Practical Discourse on some Principles of Hymn Singing”: Journal of Theological Studies, October, 1899, p. 55; and separately, Oxford, 1901, p. 29. by an “extraordinary genius” in that grave type of melody best adapted to congregational praise.

There is no reasonable doubt that they were the work of another French musician, for fifteen years a resident of Geneva, Louis Bourgeois. He had come there in 1541, with Calvin or soon after him, and probably by his invitation. Calvin recognized his ability, at once engaged him as musical editor of the 1542 edition of his Psalter, and became his sponsor and advocate before the Council. In 1545 the Council divided Franc’s office and emoluments between Bourgeois7878The Registres du Conseil are the source of our knowledge of Bourgeois’ career. As such they were explored and reported upon by M. Th. Dufour in the Revue critique, 1881. The important entries are in Bovet, pp. 60, 61; Douen, vol. i, pp. 615, 616, and Doumergue, vol. ii, pp. 514 ff. and William Fabri. In 1574 they granted him the freedom of the city, “because he is a good man and willing to teach the children,” and exempted him from guard duty that he might give himself more closely to his studies. In the license of 1552 to print the Lausanne Psalter, which has been already referred to, it is distinctly stated that it was Bourgeois who had arranged the melodies of the earlier editions of the Genevan Psalter, and who had set to music the Psalms of Beza more lately added to it.7979The license is reprinted in Douen, vol. i, p. 612, and Grove, Dictionary of Music, art. “Franc,” note.

In return for this service, which after events were to prove so great, the Council treated Bourgeois with ill-judged parsimony and worse. In 1551, at the very height of his best 66 work, they cut his salary in half. Then followed a series of petitions from Bourgeois, who “desired to live and die in their service,” and asked only enough to live on. Calvin intervened, and pleaded the musician’s poverty, but in vain; the Council would “speak no more of money.” Meantime Bourgeois was constantly at work to perfect the music of the Psalms, and the Council, wearied of his petitions, made this an occasion of silencing him. On December 3, 1551, they arrested and imprisoned him, because without their permission he had made alterations in certain of the melodies of the earlier printed editions of the Psalter, thus causing confusion in public worship. Calvin again intervened and secured his release after twenty-four hours. Calvin had more difficulty in recommending the alterations to the Council, but in the end they were allowed to stand.8080See a full account of this incident, so suggestive of Calvin’s concern for the music and musician, in Doumergue, vol. ii, pp. 514, 515.

The limits of Bourgeois’ work in preparing melodies for the Genevan Psalter include the editions from 1542 to 1551. The whole number of melodies from his hand is eighty-three, set to the original thirty Psalms of Marot, nineteen later Psalms of Marot and thirty-four of Beza.8181Douen, vol. i, p. 649; but compare Doumergue, vol. ii, p. 516, note 7. Most, possibly all, of these are constructions from melodic material already extant, even to the adaptation of current secular melodies.8282Donen, chap, xxii, “Origines des mélodies du Psautier.” Bourgeois left Geneva and returned to Paris in 1557. The melodies of the additional Psalms of Beza incorporated in the edition of 1562 were undoubtedly by another hand whose identity has not been established, but which has proved to be an inferior one both in practice and in the judgment of musicians.

Claude Goudimel has been confidently proclaimed as the composer of the Genevan melodies in whole or in part by De Thou, Florimond de Raemond, and even by John Quick in his Synodicon in Gallia Reformata.8383London, 1692, vol. i, p. v. But Goudimel 67 never came to Geneva, and remained in the Roman Church until after the Genevan Psalter was well advanced.8484See Doumergue, vol. ii, appendice ix. His work upon the Psalms began with the recently recovered Premier livre, contenant huyct Pseaulmes de David, traduictz par Clement Marot et mis en musique au long (en forme de mottetz) par Claude Goudimel, published at Paris in 1551.8585See Grove, Dictionary of Music, art. “Goudimel,” vol. i, new edition, 1906. At that date Goudimel was still in the old Church, whose members then felt free to use the Genevan melodies. Goudimel’s work ultimately covered the entire Psalter, but it consisted then and later in furnishing harmonies to the already existing melodies. The beauty and wide diffusion of his settings attached his name to the Genevan Psalter and gave ground for the tradition that it was he who composed the melodies.

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