Why the Genevan Psalter?
Updated: Jul 22
A few days ago, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal cited the Genevan Psalms sung by Reformed Christians as an example of the power of congregational singing. The article was a reminder that from the interviews in 2003, we wanted to learn about the lives of Reformed men and women during the days of the communist dictatorship, but we also wanted to learn how singing the Genevan Psalms had expressed their hope as well as their fear and anguish. We learned that the Genevan Psalms had bolstered Hungarian Reformed believers ever since the counter-Reformation.
During an unexpected break in the interview schedule, we made a short trip to visit Reformed Hungarians living in Hungarian villages now part of Slovakia. Though aged and frail, Jolan Kiss sang Psalms for us until she was too tired to continue. In another village we met Dezso Edes, a church cantor, who for decades led the singing in his
A woman we met in Romania, Erzebet Gereb, said that for her, singing the psalms was cry to the Lord, a sigh which brings relief and nourishment to the soul. “Singing psalms,” she said, “is a link to the past and we hope that it is a link to the future too.”
For all of them, life during the communist period was hard, but living in a strong, faithful church community made life endurable and even blessed.
When preparing for the interviews, we had been advised to look for Dr. Istvan Almasi, a musicologist well-acquainted with the Genevan Psalter. When I met him, he was generous with his knowledge and gracious with his opinions. After I described the first part of the project, to collect testimonies and record psalm singing, he smiled and nodded, but when I suggested the possibility of creating a new version, he shook his head, opposed to yet another attack on the Psalter. I explained the position that a new, updated version would attract a new, younger audience. He willingly explained his.
"The 1607 Molnar translation of the psalms was a wonderful gift along with the original melodies and rhythms. However, especially in Transylvania, the Psalter was a victim of theological and social trends. Enlightenment thinking, rationalism, greatly affected the church. The last full Debrecen edition was published in 1778. By the end of the 19th century, only forty psalms remained in the Transylvanian Psalter." What Happened? "In reaction to the Enlightenment, Renewal trends stemming from the Pietistic movement swept through the church bringing with it a whole host of Anglo-Saxon hymns and songs. The melodies of these new songs were much easier to sing than the more complicated, modal music of the Genevan Psalms. Many of the tunes were profane, that is, popular music sometimes from bars and dance halls. It was the music of the people. The effect of this music was to dramatically change the taste in church music." If the music tastes had changed so much, did the remaining 40 Genevan tunes play a role in the preservation of faith? “You may be absolutely certain that the singing of the Psalms did help preserve faith during the Communist era!” Although there were only forty psalms left, they were well-used!" How was the church affected by Communism? "Although there were some people of strong character who resisted Communism and remained faithful, many more succumbed to the fear and pressure, either leaving the church altogether or collaborating with the state. Communism was a disaster for the spiritual life of the people, for the church, and for society in general.” Can you tell me more about the music of the Psalter?
"The scales, modes, moved from the large 6th interval of the Dorian scale to the reduced Aeolian scale." He sang the changes. "In 1542 the first edition, Bourgeois tunes appeared, followed by Goudimel’s harmonies in 1556. Those harmonies were brought to the Hungarian Reformed Church by Marothi and have been used in the village of Szaszcsavas for 200 years."
I mentioned that I had frequently heard the psalms sung slowly and in unison. He attributed the practice to the poor training of cantors and the low level of general musical instruction. The introduction of the organ also played a part in the demise of good psalm singing. Because organists were often poorly trained, they slowed down to pick out the notes; the congregations slowed down as well. He was quick to add this. “Though this psalm singing may be ugly to the trained musician’s ear, if it is sung from the heart, I am happy to be among such singers and to worship with them even if their singing is not perfect rhythmically or in beautiful harmonies."
Treasures found in the Reformed Library in Debrecen, Hungary
Two Versions of Genevan Psalm 25 In all the documentation of our interview project many years ago, I called it The Psalm Project. When the Dutch Psalm Project came to Calvin College a few years ago, I was immediately drawn to the name and was thankful that the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship was keeping the Genevan Psalter alive. I also remembered Dr.Almasi’s concerns. But he also said, “Music has the power to capture and transform in a way that no other medium can. Teaching the psalms depends on love for the psalms and the ability to lead them to Christ.” Maybe that's the key no matter the version. Below are links to two recordings of Psalm 25, a contemporary one by The Psalm Project performed at Calvin College: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVx3HabljlA
The other is by Ernst Stolz, a traditional Dutch musician: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVG_kyizE7I&list=RDIVG_kyizE7I&start_radio=1 .