The Legacy of John Calvin and the Renewal of Christian Worship
Henderson Lectures, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary May 1, 2009
John D. Witvliet, Director, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Professor of Worship, Theology, and Music, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary Grand Rapids, Michigan
Lecture 2: Bless the Lord, O My Soul: The Biblical Psalms as the People’s Prayerbook in Reformed and Presbyterian Worship
This is an edited transcript of the audio recording.
This session on music and Calvin‟s Geneva is strategically chosen to be the session following lunch. And we will be talking about a lot of content, but there also is some active participation that we will engage in. I would like us to sing a little bit of this setting of Psalm 98, but do your best to refrain from singing in harmony. I know this is very challenging, but do your very best. And to start I would like to sing a line, and invite you to repeat it, which will be actually a historical reenactment of the way often these melodies were learned first of all. And as we sing this, I will ask you not to sing with too heavy a voice, so that it slows down, which is always a tendency with these powerful melodies. Let‟s do a little bit together, just to get started, repeating after me:
Sing, sing a new song to the Lord God. For all the wonders He has wrought. His right hand and His arm are most holy. The victory to Him have brought.
The Lord has shown His great salvation. To Israel His love made known. He has revealed to every nation. His truth and righteousness alone.
Now stanza three, together in unison and we will not let it slow down as we move, with great energy, together:
Let all the streams in joyous union now clap their hands and praise accord. Let mountains sing in glad communion, and skip for joy before the Lord. He comes, He comes to judge the people, a radiant truth and equity. He shall redeem the world from evil and righteous shall his judgement be.
You may be seated. And please turn in your handout back to page six. So this afternoon we turn our attention now to the Sung Prayer. The use of psalms in Calvin‟s Geneva was a significant mode of congregational participation in the worship life. This morning we talked about how it was part of late medieval Catholic piety to come to worship, to come to Mass, to participate as you stood, by watching the very distant priest against the east wall, who would be facing away from you, who would be saying mass in Latin, the language you could not understand. What a shift it was from that, instead to come into Calvin‟s Geneva, to be seated at benches, gathered around the pulpit, to be asked to listen for understanding to the sermon, to be asked to follow in your own heart the prayers that would be spoken in French and to be asked to sing together as we have just done. Now there‟s something about even the experience with which we‟ve begun that is a very embodied experience. It requires breath. And the tune we just sang, requires
quite a bit of breath. This is not a tune that you are likely to sing under your breath. The tune is written to call forth quite a bit of engagement, bodily engagement. And this then would be another key aspect of discontinuity of late medieval Catholic, and Genevan worship. On page six, we pick up some of the language from Calvin‟s own pen that describes and justifies this practice. Two quite famous documents that are often cited in discussions of worship and church music in the 16 th century, the first one, left side of page six, two thirds of the way down, the “1537 Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church.” Now these are articles that were written as part of Calvin‟s first stay in Geneva; in some ways, this is the first imagination about how the new church ought to take shape. We read this: “Further it is a thing very expedient for the edification of the church to sing psalms in the form of public devotions, by which one may pray to God, or to sing His praise so that the hearts of all be roused and incited to make like prayers and render like praises and thanks to God with one accord.”
Now in that very brief
paragraph, we already see the seeds of so much of Calvin‟s later thinking and writing about music and the church and about worship in general. There‟s the phrase, “for the edification of the church”, one of Calvin‟s favorite, it was a test for him of any liturgical practice. Does this build up the body of Christ? Then there is this language that always strikes my students—“that the hearts of all may be roused and incited.” It was one of Calvin‟s very favorite verbs, to incite the congregation to sing God‟s praise. Most of my students will tell me that after reading this material, it was the number one myth that they learned to rethink: having thought that Calvin was largely a cold-hearted intellectual, and then to see all of this language about the engagement with the emotion. Calvin goes on, “On the other hand, there are psalms which we desire to be sung in church as we have it exemplified in the ancient church.” There it is, as with the title of the liturgy we looked at this morning, a reference to the early church. Calvin read the treatises and the psalms of Athanasius and Chrysostom, both representing traditions that used psalmody a great deal in both daily and public prayer. So again, the practice of returning to the Psalms was not a Biblicism on Calvin‟s part, it was rather a move of going behind late medieval accretions, to an earlier model of liturgical practice. And, let‟s go on, “and the evidence of Paul himself, who says it is good to sing in the
congregation with mouth and heart. We are unable to compute the profit and edification which will arise from this, except that after having experimented”—and then Calvin not in a happier mood, says—“certainly as things are, the prayers of the faithful are so cold that we ought to be ashamed and dismayed. The Psalms can incite us to lift up our hearts to God and move us to an ardor in invoking and exalting with praises the glory of his name.” Next paragraph, “This manner of proceeding seemed especially good to us, that children, who beforehand have practiced some modest church song, should sing in a loud and distinct voice, the people listening with all attention, in following heartily what is sung with the mouth, till all become accustomed to sing communally.” Now this was a remarkable move in 1537: to a community that had only ever heard singing in church by a choir, the schola cantorum, singing Latin chant, Calvin was recommending not only that the congregation sing psalms, but that the children be invited to become the liturgical leaders of the assembly. There is of course a certain expedience here, right? The children can learn this relatively quickly. Those of us who are older, take a little longer to learn these things, right? Start with the children, have their infectious love for music percolate in the homes, and let us hear through their voices, how we are to sound on Sunday. If you think of it, it‟s also a part of quite a different experience for children growing up in Calvin‟s Geneva then. Not only do they have special catechism classes designed for them, midday on Sunday, but they have this particular role to play in the life of the church. There is, as some writers have explained, a certain dignity given to children and the offering that they can make to the worship of God through this move. And we later know that Calvin, frustrated later on with singing, had to hire a cantor, a kind of local church musician, to become the steward of the gifts of music in Geneva and Louis Bourgeois‟ assignment, not only was to write tunes, like “Old One Hundred,” that would live for 400, and 500 years, his assignment was not only to lead worship in the assembly on Sunday, but it was to train the children in school all week long. And there again, we see a link between catechesis and liturgy. Not disconnected in any way, but integrally connected. Now in 1542, a few years later, we go on in your handout. Calvin wrote a very famous letter to the reader that was published on the front end of the book “The Form of
Church Prayers.” This book was a rather tiny book, and I‟m so thrilled to have a copy, a facsimile of this remarkable, influential book, certainly in the Reformed tradition and beyond. “1542 Form of Church Prayers” had the liturgy in it that we looked at this morning, at least began to look at. It had a few settings of the Psalms. 1542 was pretty early on for Calvin‟s reform, and they didn‟t have time to get all the Psalms set to music, but by 1542 there was a good start. It‟s all published, a very small little book. Early days still of printing. The Genevan printer had to set all of the type by hand to press out every page. And in the front end, Calvin wrote one of the most influential liturgical documents, this “Letter to the Reader,” which describes his vision not only for church music, but also at a few points, his vision for worship in general. And let‟s see a few highlights. The first half of the letter re-establishes some of the material we talked about this morning. It focuses on the theme of participation with understanding. Fourth line in: “It is expedient and reasonable that all know and understand what is said and done in church to receive from it benefit and edification.” Second paragraph introduces this theme of the affections.
“Good affection toward God is not a dead and brutish thing,
but it is a lively movement proceeding from the Holy Spirit, when the heart is rightly touched, and the understanding illumined.” Yet another clue about the prominence of the holy spirit in Calvin‟s theology of worship. Over to the next page, first full paragraph, “on this occasion I pass over speaking about the preaching of the word, as this is not the topic at issue, regarding the two main parts of worship, mainly the prayers and the administration of the sacrament, we have the express commandment of the Holy Spirit that the prayers be made in the common language known to the people.” The switch from Latin to French. “As the apostle said, the people cannot respond to amen to a prayer made in a strange language. But since one has done it in the name and person of all, let each one participate in it.” Again, this theology, one person will say the prayer, the whole congregation participates.
This theme of understanding continues, and on
the top of page seven, right hand column, Calvin applies it to the sacraments. “If then we wish to celebrate the sacrament properly, we must have the teaching by which that which is signified is declared to us.” And then Calvin adds, “I well know that this seems very strange advice, to those unaccustomed to it, as happens in all new things, but
there is good reason if we are disciples of Christ that we should prefer His institution to our custom.” We‟ll say more about this later. That is a particularly key sentence, I think. As twentieth century scholars have looked at Calvin‟s liturgy, they have faulted it for being far too didactic. Calvin takes a long time in his Lord‟s Supper liturgy, to explain to the people the meaning and significance of the Lord‟s Supper. sensibilities, quite wordy.
It feels to modern
And I agree with that assessment, with respect to
contemporary practice, in large measure. But I also want to be sympathetic to Calvin‟s own catechetical goals. He saw that instruction as the opportunity to participate and to do the formation of this congregation for which reformation patterns of worship were so new. As the document goes on here, on page seven, to the third full paragraph, we come to what I think is one of the most significant paragraphs. “We shall speak of the sacraments at some later time.” And then this, “as for the public prayers, they are of two sorts. Some of them make use of speaking alone, the others with singing. This is nothing of recent invention, for from the very beginning of the church this was so, as the histories show, and even Saint Paul speaks not only of praying with the mouth, but also of singing.” And it is so crucial to see this point, because Calvin‟s teaching on prayer is one of the most luminous parts of his theology. Charles Partee‟s book written here at the seminary on Calvin‟s theology, published last year [The Theology of John Calvin, Westminster John Knox Press], has a beautiful section on Calvin‟s theology of prayer. It is the section of the Institutes where Calvin speaks with the most intimate voice, in some ways, the voice that is deeply connected with piety. And it is important when you read that section of the Institutes, to realize that when Calvin is describing prayer, he is describing not only what happens on the part of us as individuals, but he is also including what happens when the church sings. Church singing is as much prayer, as is the speaking of the Lord‟s Prayer, or the extemporaneous petitions that arise out of our experience. This is a pretty significant frame to put around church singing too. We don‟t sing at worship simply to beautify or decorate the service. We participate through singing and worship as an act of, in my words, covenantal engagement. God has spoken to us through the reading of Scriptures and the preaching, God feeds us at the table, but the engagement is only complete when we return the communication. It‟s
two-way. And the prayers are indispensible as part of that; more about that theme to come. Calvin continues in this document drawing heavily on influence from Plato. Bottom of page seven, last paragraph, “in truth we know by experience that singing has great power and vigor to move,” and here it says, “inflame” the hearts, men‟s hearts, “to call upon and praise God with a more vehement and burning zeal,” again, notice the language, “vehement burning zeal.” Calvin almost gets out his thesaurus to think of every possible way of communicating this kind of passionate engagement. And then he adds, “we must all see to it that singing not be light and frivolous, but have weight and majesty,” a very famous phrase. “Thus there is great difference between music one makes to give joy to men, people at table, and in their houses, in the one hand, and the sounds, which are sung in church, in the presence of God and His angels.” The document continues as we turn over the page with a line, “Even in the houses and in the fields, it would be for us an incitement as it were, an organ to praise God and to raise our hearts to Him, for Him to console us as we meditate on His power, goodness, wisdom, and justice.” Hold that thought for a few minutes, I‟ll return to it briefly. And then the references to Plato continue. The power of music to form people‟s emotions and sensibilities and virtue, the underlying text at the end of the second full paragraph, “we know by experience that music has a secret power, almost unbelievable to move morals one way or the other.” “So we need,” end of the next paragraph, “songs that are not only honorable, but also holy, which are like needles to arouse us to pray and praise God, to meditate on His works, in order to love Him, fear, honor and glorify him.” And that is why we are brought to the Psalms. “For when we have searched here and there, we will not find better songs, nor ones more appropriate for this purpose, then the psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit has spoken to him and made.” And here‟s a sentence I think people pass over too quickly. “When we sing them, we are certain that God has put words in our mouth, as if they themselves sang in us to exalt His glory.” Let‟s think about that. Calvin‟s view of Scripture: the Holy Spirit inspired writers; Calvin‟s theology of worship: the Holy Spirit inspires us to receive the Word of God and to return our thanks to God in prayer—becomes the justification for
singing psalmody. When we sing these psalms, these Spirit-inspired words, we are, as it were, jumping into the middle of this Trinitarian dynamic. The Holy Spirit prompting us to bring our prayers to the Father, through Jesus Christ. And then Calvin ends with, next paragraph, a line about the significance of memory.
“When we know all this music, we will have the song imprinted on our
memory, and never cease to sing it.” An experience we all know, I think. We all find ourselves waking up on Wednesday whistling music we heard on Sunday. We know people in nursing homes who can remember little else but songs they learned when they were very young. And the letter concludes, “with respect to the melody, it seemed best that the melodies we choose be moderate in the manner that we have set it, to bear a gravity and majesty fitting to the subject, and also to be appropriate to sing in church.” So we‟re getting a sense of Calvin‟s Trinitarian dynamic, music as sung prayer, music for the congregation to sing. All of this seems new, a dramatic change from medieval practice, but when we turn on page nine, we find something that tells a story not of discontinuity, but of continuity. For on page nine, you will find something that I doubt has ever been found, or at least not recently in a Presbyterian, Reformed, or for that matter, any other church near you. It is a table, which determines which psalms are sung. You see the columns, Sunday Morning, Sunday Afternoon, and Wednesday, and you see the rows, 1-17. 17 weeks it would take Calvin‟s congregation to sing through all of the psalms that were available at that point in Genevan church life. About 10 years later, a new table had to come out because of the composers were at work setting more and more of the 150 psalms, and you couldn‟t get through it all in 17 weeks. Pretty soon it took 23 weeks to make the journey all the way through the Psalms. But the point is, this was a disciplined use. The psalm wasn‟t chosen to correspond with the theme of the sermon, the psalm wasn‟t chosen because it was the musician‟s favorite psalm of the day. The psalm was chosen because it was the next one up on the chart. Now what other practice in the history of Christianity would have this? Most famously, probably, monastic traditions, going all the way back to the early church. You would find a chart like this in a Benedictine monastery, usually written inside a liturgical book, that would govern the choice of which psalms would be sung over time. But you get a
picture of a disciplined approach. We will sing through the Psalms over time, that comes on these, what I think are remarkable tables. And then I put also in this handout, before we turn to some singing ourselves, a testimony not from Geneva, I certainly wish we had one from Geneva, but we have one from a worshiper from Antwerp, who attended Easter worship in Strasbourg, so there‟s a connection with Calvin, and wrote this testimony about the experience of what it was like to encounter this psalm singing for the very first time. “In worship,” this participant in Strasbourg worship writes back home, “we sing a Psalm of David, or some other prayer taken from the New Testament. The psalm or prayer is sung,” „you‟ll never believe it,‟ “by everyone together, men as well as women, with beautiful unanymity, which is something beautiful to behold.” And realize that that detail was added because women‟s voices hadn‟t been heard in worship. If the choir sings all the music, and the choir is the schola and the schola consists of monks or priests, or deacons of the church, than women‟s voices as part of congregational singing would be new.
on, “you must understand that each one has a music book in his hand, which is why they cannot lose touch with one another.” I like that description. “Never did I think it could be as pleasing and delightful as it is. For five or six days, as I look on this little company, exiled from countries everywhere for having upheld the honor of God, I would begin to weep. And not at all from sadness, but at joy from hearing them sing so heartily, and as they sang, giving thanks to the Lord, that He had led them to a place where His name is honored and glorified. No one could believe the joy which one experiences when one is singing the praises and wonders of the Lord in the mother tongue, as one sings them here.” One last musical document, right-hand of the top of the next page, this comes from a bit later, after Calvin‟s time, but it represents a Catholic response to this new phenomenon of protestant music. And to that point in Calvin‟s letter, where I said we‟ll come back to it just a bit ago, was the line in Calvin‟s letter where he talked about even in the fields and homes. One of the brand new things about music in Calvin‟s Geneva was that Calvin intended that the Psalms sung in worship should also be sung outside of worship. And to a Catholic sensibility, this was a great offense. How could you possibly take the holy songs for worship, and sing them outside of church? This was a
desecration! In the words of Montaigne, let‟s read here: “It is not without much reason it seems to me, that the church forbids the promiscuous and indiscreet use of the sacred and divine songs, which the Holy Spirit dictated to David. We must bring God into our acts, save with reverence and heedfulness, full of honor and respect. Those words are too divine to have no other use than to exercise our lungs and please our ears. It is from the inmost thoughts that they should be brought forth and not from the tongue. It is not right to allow the shop boy, among his empty and frivolous thoughts to entertain and amuse himself with them. Nor surely is it right to see the holy book of the sacred mysteries of our faith tossed about in the hall and the kitchen” (a reference to the Bible). “They were formerly mysteries, and now they serve for recreation and pastime.” All of these ordinary Christians with the Psalter, and a Bible in their homes, reading the Bible and singing from it, a desecration! What is holy should be holy. And you see a theme that recurs then. Monasteries are disbanded. Holiness, the idea is, moves into every sphere of life. The music from Sunday worship moves into every sphere of life. The recording we heard as we came in was music, but did you notice, with harmony and instruments? Calvin took the music that was sung unaccompanied on Sunday, and gave permission for composers instruments to have all kinds of enjoyment with it in daily life. And to this day, some of the most glorious sixteenth century music was written by composers in Calvin‟s Geneva for people to sing in their homes. And you‟ll even find some early editions of the 1562 Psalter printed with harmony, four-part harmony down the side, each part separate, soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and one ingenious printer, deciding to print the Psalter in such a way, that the soprano and tenor parts would be facing this direction, and the bass and alto parts facing in this direction, so that if you wound up with a quartet of people around your kitchen table, you could simply set the book down in the middle of the table, and all sing from the very same book together. With all of this now in our minds and hearts, let‟s turn back to our musical examples, and if you could turn next to page 20. So this is the page right after Psalm 98, which we‟ve sung before. As we sing through these examples, I want to observe that I know that in the room there probably very different sensibilities with respect to language for God, and the masculine language of the Psalms being used, and I want to
acknowledge that as a most significant issue. Also to acknowledge in Calvin‟s day, it would have been the masculine language. We will use the language that‟s printed here today, please understand that I‟m very deeply aware of what a significant issue it is, but to invite us to experience this music in its own terms, let‟s encounter two examples now: 116 & 47. You can have them nicely facing here. And what I want you to do, as you look at these two psalms, is to think about pastorally, where these psalms are used. Psalm 116, it‟s one of the favorites for funerals. “Precious to the Lord are the death of the saints. I love the Lord, for He has heard my voice.” Psalm 47, in later lectionaries, was assigned to Ascension Day, right, the great coronation Psalm. “Nations clap your hands, shout with joy you lambs. Awesome is the Lord, spread His fame abroad,” goes the versification. Now of course, when we sing these in meter, these two examples, we are singing a poetic reworking of the text. The Psalms as they‟re given in Hebrew, French, English, simply can‟t be sung to a regular tune, there‟s no rhyme, there‟s no regular meter, they wouldn‟t work. So Calvin, based on a model he had experienced from Luther and to some extent, Bucer in Strasbourg, decided this metrical approach would be wise. He himself tried to set five or six settings, realized that this was perhaps not his spiritual gift, invited one of the leading poets of the day, Clement Marot, to begin work at metrical settings of the Psalms. And Marot did a most ingenious thing, Marot, being a remarkable poet, gave great care to choose the meter for each psalm. You know how in most hymnals, and I realize it‟s cut off from these pages, but on the bottom of the page, there will be all that tiny print down there, that hymnologists love and most of us love to ignore: the name of the tune, and then the indication of the meter; how many syllables go in each line. It‟s one of the great stories of the Genevan Psalter. In later Scottish psalmody, there was a particular love for common meter. I think you probably all know several common meter songs, “Oh God our help in ages past”, eight syllables, “our hope for years to come”, six syllables. Eight, six, eight, six, and it‟s all iambic, unstressed stress. Oh-God-our-help-in-ages-past. It turns out that 97 or 95% of Scottish psalmody is in fact set in common meter. One meter that could be used for everything. By and large, Scottish poets, English poets of later generations, had the psalm meter that they used. So much so, that many Scottish Psalters could be printed
like the book I have here, with split pages, can you see this? Yeah? Because 95% of the psalms all have common meter, it turns out that any common meter tune could work to sing with any psalm. So that a musician could choose, we‟re going to sing Psalm 93 today and we‟re going to sing tune 264, and they would go together just fine. It was all common meter.
There are some reasons why you‟d want to use all one meter. It‟s
simpler for the poet, this combination of text and tune is possible, works out pretty well. And there‟s something very simple about learning hymns that are eight-six, eight-six. My-shepherd-will-supply-my needs,-Jehovah-is-his-name, Oh-God-our…. It all kind of just flows and some of you can think of, we could think of many other examples. Clement Marot, however, within Genevan practice, took a very different approach. He set the entire Psalter, 150 that were published by 1562, in not just one or two or three meters, but in 110 different meters. Almost every psalm, got its own meter. It was as if every psalm had to be paired up with a certain way of handling it. So Psalm 116, happens to be one of my favorite Genevan tunes, is 10-11, 11-10. Now if you happen not to like this tune, you can‟t find many alternatives, because there aren‟t exactly a lot of 10-11, 11-10 hymns that we have. “I love the Lord for He has heard my voice.” Do you hear how 10 syllables, and then 11: “He turned to me and heard my cry for mercy.” It takes a big breath to get through that much.
There‟s something plaintive, or
something expansive about this. You don‟t hurry through this.
A particular mode,
ethos, of Psalm 116 is captured in 10-11, 11-10. Sing a little bit with me, from the beginning.
I love the Lord, for He has heard my voice. He turned to me and heard my cry for mercy. Anguish by death and overcome by sorrow, I turned in my distress to God in prayer.
In contrast, turn over to Psalm 47, where we have the only hymn I know that was written in a most unusual meter: five, five, five, five, five, five, double, which means, there are six lines, each of which consist of five syllables, once again repeated. “Nations clap your hands, Shout with joy you lands.” Now when I say that first five-five,
five-five, sounds a little clunky, doesn‟t it? “Nations clap your hands,” doesn‟t sound like it flows poetically as much as “Oh God our help in ages past”, until you put it with the music, that takes Psalm 47 and turns it into a genuine coronation piece. Psalm 47: “Nations clap your hands, shout with joy you lands. Awesome is the Lord, spread His fame abroad. He rules every land with a mighty hand.” … We‟ve got to do this one together, we‟re going to get moving just a little bit. … Sing with me from the beginning:
Nations clap your hands, shout with joy you lands. Awesome is the Lord, spread His fame abroad. He rules every land with a mighty hand. God brings nations low, he subdues each foe, from his mighty throne, God protects his own. Our inheritance is our sure defense.
All right, thank you, you may be seated. Now notice, even in English what is possible with five-five, five-five. You know that most of the Hebrew psalms feature a great deal of parallelism, right? A line is said, and then it‟s repeated. And most metrical settings totally mess that up, because poets can‟t figure out how to get the parallelism to work. But notice how it happens in many lines. “Nations clap your hands,” repeat it, “shout with joy you lands. Awesome is the Lord, spread his fame abroad.” And the parallelism you find in the psalm can be reflected in the poetry. Now this is a particularly interesting tune I want to linger over for just a second, because of course, the way we just did, quite quick, we just sang it the way that prompted Queen Elizabeth in England to refer to all this music, as “those Genevan jigs.” Which she did. But this way of rendering the music did not last. Because in, especially in the large worship spaces, some years, decades later, after the pipe organ was allowed in worship, it turns out that in those vast spaces with lots of echo, and big pipe organs, you couldn‟t sing music that nimbly. That was meant for recorders, not for pipe organs. So most of the later Psalters, let‟s say in the Netherlands certainly, some in Hungary, some in France, became iso-rhythmic, which means all of that rhythmic interest was flattened out, and congregations would sing it this way: “Nations clap your hands, Shout with joy you lands.” And sometimes, in fact, it would actually, to actually
allow the organist to have a little bit more freedom, the way it would work is actually a bit even slower.
“Nations clap your hands, shout with joy you lands.”
And then the
organist could improvise something really interesting in the interlude, and then “Awesome….” So much so, that the Genevan tunes fell out of favor: they‟re so dull, they‟re so boring. A little bit like masterworks of art that need perhaps to be cleaned off a bit so we can see restored, so we can see what was truly there. And the second half of the twentieth century, as in this publication, the original meter and rhythm was returned. And I‟d like to not leave Psalm 47 until you‟ve heard a brief recording of it. The recording that you‟re about to hear, is my favorite all-time, Genevan psalm recording, produced about 15 years ago in Japan. The Japanese Reformed Church, about five years ago, just completed translating the entire Genevan Psalter into Japanese. And Masaki Suzuki, remarkable conductor of the Japan Bach Collegium. For music lovers, he‟s producing one of the best complete sets of recordings of all Bach cantatas. It‟s actually coming out of Japan, not out of Europe, of all things, and they‟re remarkable recordings, just stunning recordings. He happens to be a church musician, who‟s a member of a Reformed church, and the Reformed Church Music Council of the Reformed Church of Japan, that headed up that project, and Suzuki had a little fun with his professional choir. And he took the sounds, and produced a marvelous CD that unfortunately was only distributed in Japan, but I want you to hear what he did with Psalm 47. He did Psalm 47 for use in the homes and villages, in the sixteenth century idiom, as it might have been, only probably honestly with much better singers than ever were available in the sixteenth century. Let‟s hear just a little bit now. … All right, there we have it. Before we switch gears to talk about contemporary practice, I do also want to note, and have us remember what the economic dimension to all of this. For the Genevan Psalter was one of the most published books in Europe up until the end of the sixteenth century. In the first two years of its publication, 27,000 copies were distributed. Now Geneva was maybe 10, 15,000 people, a small, little town by many standards today. In fact, it was enough of a money-maker, to cause some scandal among the Genevan printers.
Within just a few years, total copies of the
Genevan Psalter may well have reached 100,000 copies, in over 30 separate printings.
And remarkably, the Genevan Psalter was provided to all of the especially poor people in Geneva, as well as to children in care of the hospitals. And the hospitals in Geneva is another fascinating story, great deal of care to those poor and sick. But then you think, the Psalter is a part of, it‟s the one book in addition to the Bible that most people have. And again can function as part of the texture of daily life, much more easily. As with this morning, I‟m going to switch gears. We‟ve done our immersion in historical sources, we found some very interesting things, things we haven‟t expected, certain myths about Calvin and Calvin‟s time that we‟ve perhaps exploded along the way. We haven‟t begun to scratch the surface of many of the key issues here, but now I‟d like to switch gears and think about present-day practice, and as I did this morning, to propose a beatitude, and a proverb.
The beatitude is this:
Blessed is the
congregation that prays together to God in song from the full range of human experience. Psalms, Calvin called them, the “anatomy of the soul,” cover the whole range of human experience.
Lament and praise, confession, gratitude, despair,
ecstasy. All turned toward God in prayer, through song. Buried in that statement are the four criteria that I think needed to challenge music of any congregation. Is it corporate first of all, not just a performance of one to many? Is it functional, is it actually experienced as prayer? Is it iconic, do people sing it perceiving God‟s beauty and glory? And is it deeply connected with our experience in all of life? And then the proverb that goes with it: Wise is the leader, the office bearer, the pastor, the musician, who nurtures a culture in a congregation with that kind of balanced disciplined musical diet. Think for a moment about the kind of approach to the arts that we bring with us into church. I‟m going to try to do a little bit of aesthetic theory here in five minutes. Calvin had what might be called, a functional aesthetic theory. Music was sung in a way that functioned to help the congregation to pray. What was significant, was that the congregation was praying to God, and the music was a tool to enable that function to take place. In that way, my spoken words can be functional. Music was simply a different way of expressing that function.
But our liturgical aesthetic is often quite
different. And it‟s often exported from aesthetic theories that come from our culture, from other theorists, theologians, and uses of the arts. So quite often we will draw on
an aesthetic theory which says this: the key thing about music is that it generates a particular emotional experience. Now for Calvin, there was a lot of emotion. But the music was designed as an act of prayer, as a byproduct if you will, to generate emotion. That‟s quite different than saying the main purpose of music is to form in you an emotion you didn‟t have. Or, we might have an aesthetic which says this: music, lavish in its beauty is about evoking in us a sense of the mystery of the universe. Can you hear twentieth century approaches to the arts in general? People talk about going to an art gallery, and having a mystical experience. This is not the aesthetic from Calvin at all. Or, people think of music as a kind of object to admire. We go to an art gallery, in order to admire an art work, and we bring that aesthetic with us to church on Sunday. So when the choir sings an anthem, our response is to say, „How lovely the anthem.‟ That is quite different than hearing an anthem and saying “through that anthem, I prayed.” I‟ll never forget when a choir that I had a chance to lead, finished a worship service some years ago and people came up to me after the service with rather different responses. One person said to me, “what a beautiful anthem.” One person said to me, “your choir rendered the most symmetrical procession I have ever seen.” Symmetry sort of did it for them that day. But another person said to me, “thank you, because you see, six months ago, my husband passed away. Honestly for six months,” she told me, “I have not been able to pray. And tonight, it was as if this music allowed me to pray for the first time.” That‟s a very different, you might say, use of music. Now when I or anyone else starts talking about a functional theory of music, a functional liturgical aesthetic, musicians tend to get a little offended. Our music just isn‟t there to function in that way. I want to resist, by saying what deeper purpose could there be, than the music that is rendered in the context of worship, than it be a means to enact the profound covenantal relationship we have with God and Christ. That music is sung prayer, or in some cases, sung proclamation. It is nothing less than a means by which we are engaged with God and God with us. It is the highest function imaginable. I think that that discussion challenges us once again, and here I‟ll end by connecting up with the theme from this morning. For those of us who are involved in music-making, as I mentioned this morning, there‟s great temptation to have most, if not
all of our energy be designed or focused around creating that beautiful music moment in the middle of worship. A choir rehearsed 45 minutes over a period of three weeks to polish a beautiful four and half minute anthem. And we set that beautiful little gem inside a well-designed liturgy, and it is good. And a big part of me loves that. An organist carefully prepares to accompany congregational singing, it‟s musically beautiful, it‟s simple enough to get out of the way to let the congregation sing, but it enables them to see and interpret the text, and I celebrate that. But again, I worry that if all our energy is spend polishing those moments, without helping a congregation participate or engage in those moments as prayer, we have not done our job. I‟m thinking of a musician, I‟ll close with this before I invite us to sing here, a number of years ago, who directed a children‟s choir in Dallas, Texas. She began to worry about how the children sang an anthem as they did, perhaps once a month. And about the congregation was fallen into a pattern of sort of admiring this anthem. The congregation would tell these children things like, “You look so cute in front of church today.” This annoyed her to no end. And one year, several new people moved to town, and after the anthem was sung, the congregation began to clap. Now clapping means very different things in different cultures, but it was curious to this director that the congregation did not clap after the sermon at all. (I‟ve often thought that has potential.) And the congregation did not clap after the adult choir, so what did this leader do? The first Sunday of Advent, this children sang, “O Come, O come Emmanuel”, and rather than just walk up and sing it, they got placed in front, and a chorister came to a microphone, said to the congregation, “Please join us as we pray.” And the kids began to sing, and during the little coda at the end of the final refrain, that chorister went back to the microphone and said, “We pray all of this through Jesus Christ our Lord,” and the choir said “Amen.” And no one clapped because in this church, you didn‟t typically clap after a prayer. Story‟s not quite complete, because two months later the kids were going to sing again. They were going to sing a beautiful, simple little song, “Seek ye first, the kingdom of God.” But of course that‟s not a prayer. So the kids got forward, the choir director had the chorister come from the back to a microphone, and spoke to the congregation these words: “Hear the Word of the Lord, from the Gospel of Matthew.” And the kids sang, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” And at the end the chorister
walked back to the microphone and said “the Word of the Lord.” And the congregation said, “Thanks be to God.” Now do you see that that children‟s choir director had deeply imbibed from a functional theory of liturgical music. This music is designed to enable, and not just to enable, but to enact the relationship of God‟s people to God, in expressing prayer, and hearing God‟s Word. And if all you worry about is getting the kids to sound good, but you don‟t worry about how the congregation encounters it, the job is half done. And it seems to me that that is one of the bits of wisdom that we can glean from our study of music in Calvin‟s Geneva. Let‟s end this session by turning in your handout to page 24. I‟d like to end by having us sing together the musical setting, or at least a portion of it, of the Ten Commandments. We saw it in the liturgical order this morning, in this Genevan Psalter was printed not only several psalms, eventually all 150, but also the Song of Simeon, from Luke 2 the Nunc Dimittis sung at at the end of the Lord‟s Supper when it was celebrated, and also the Ten Commandments. Now the people in Geneva were of course required to memorize Lord‟s Prayer, Apostles Creed, and Ten Commandments, the three aspects that are covered in just about any basic catechism. And being smart, as these leaders were, they said we‟ll learn them best if we ask the congregation to memorize them.
But now, if you‟re Louis Bourgeois writing a tune for the Ten
Commandments, what kind of tune do you write? Well, if you are not a Calvinist, you write a very solemn tune, a very sad tune, because the commandments are primarily designed to challenge you to realize your own sinfulness. But if you are a Calvinist, then you realize that the Commandments are themselves gifts of God‟s grace. They are a gift to receive from God, they promote human flourishing, and so you set it to a tune that is rather joyful indeed.
My soul recall with reverent wonder how God amid the fire and smoke, proclaimed his holy law with thunder from Sinai‟s mountain when He spoke. Please stand, and I‟d like to ask you to sing with me at least say, the couple first stanzas, stanzas that we are not used to associating with the ethos evoked by that kind of tune.
I am the Lord your God and sovereign, who out of bondage set you free. Who saved you from the land of Egypt, than serve no other godâ€&#x;s but me. You shall not bow to graven idols for I a jealous God your Lord, shall punish sin in those who hate me, but love all those who keep my word.â€?
And then just listen:
Teach us Lord God to love your precepts, the good commandments of your law, give us the grace to keep your statutes with thankfulness and proper heart.
Amen. Thank you.
Presentation by John Witvliet at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. For audio and transcripts of these lectures, go to www.bit.ly/jcalvin-lega...