The Ecstatic Companionship Of The Psalms

The metrical psalm was the perfect vehicle for turning the Protestant message into a mass movement capable of embracing the illiterate alongside the literate. What better than the very words of the Bible as sung by the hero-King David? The psalms were easily memorized, so that an incriminating printed text could rapidly be dispensed with. They were customarily sung in unison to a large range of dedicated tunes (newly composed, to emphasize the break with the religious past, in contrast to Martin Luther’s practice of reusing old church melodies which he loved). The words of a particular psalm could be associated with a particular melody; even to hum the tune spoke of the words of the psalm behind it, and was an act of Protestant subversion. A mood could be summoned up in an instant: Psalm 68 led a crowd into battle, Psalm 124 led to victory, Psalm 115 scorned dumb and blind idols and made the perfect accompaniment for smashing up church interiors. The psalms could be sung in worship or in the market-place; instantly they marked out the singer as a Protestant, and equally instantly united a Protestant crowd in ecstatic companionship just as the football chant does today on the stadium terraces. They were the common property of all, both men and women: women could not preach or rarely even lead prayer, but they could sing alongside their menfolk. To sing a psalm was a liberation—to break away from the mediation of priest or minister and to become a king alongside King David, talking directly to his God. It was perhaps significant that one of the distinctive features of French Catholic persecution in the 1540s had been that those who were about to be burned had their tongues cut out first.

Diarmaid MacCulloch | Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490–1700 (Penguin, 2004), 307–09


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  1. I am intrigued by this! How can we gain access to this large range of dedicated tunes, of which only a handful have made it into our Psalters? and also which tune was wedded to which psalm?
    As far as I know, Luther took his tunes from a range of sources (I did read that Ein Feste Burg was adapted from a drinking song), composing some of his own (His musical contemporary, Hans Sachs enthused over his musical capabilities). Weren’t the old church melodies mainly plainsong chants?

    • For those who don’t have a copy of the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise, this link to an English-language translation of the Genevan Psalter with the original Genevan melodies may be useful. I haven’t read though this PDF in detail but as far as I know it’s identical to the printed edition in the Book of Praise. Please correct me if I’m wrong about that.

      With no disrespect intended toward the Free Church of Scotland, I don’t believe their Psalter uses the Genevan melodies, which is the question John Rokos was asking. At least the versions I have seen in the past do not, which is what would be expected since the Scottish Presbyterian tradition created its own Psalter with its own set of melodies early in the Reformation and didn’t use the Genevan melodies.

    • Thank you so much, Dr Clark and Darrel. It isn’t at all what I expected – I only recognised 4 of the tunes: Old 124th, “Old 100th” (which the Genevan Psalter links with Psalm 134, not 100), Psalm 68 (which I only know from viewing in a hymnbook – I’ve never sung it {It incidentally fits no metre used in the Scottish Psalter, so it would never belong there}. It is exactly the same tune as for Psalm 36, additionally to which Michael Owens lists several other tunes that are shared – so much for dedicated tunes! ), and Psalm 42 (a strongly altered version of which I learned on the organ as the chorale Freu dich sehr O meine seele, in Henderson’s Introduction to Bach).
      There are reasons why tunes in this collection did not catch on outside Francophone Protestantism:
      I think I know of one Genevan tune that is in Common Metre, but this collection does not contain it or any other. The collection also contains nothing in Short Metre and only two tunes in Long Metre. Very few Scottish metrical psalms are commonly known in metres other than these three.
      Also the non-jazzily syncopated rhythms of these tunes are somewhat challenging to baroque and subsequent singers, and a sizeable number of theses tunes are in Phrygian, Dorian, Mixolydian and Lydian modes, which can be challenging, especially to precentors who only read music from sol-fa (The tune “Martyrs”, which is one of only two Scottish Psalter tunes in a non-diatonic mode, does not get the use it deserves, and I tend to be an object of unjustified admiration when (in informal gatherings, of course) I lead using this tune (I suppose it doesn’t help either that the tune is printed in duple or quadruple time, when naturally it is a stately tune in triple time, and Hately harmonised it as though it were diatonic).
      I could perhaps, for myself, grow to love these tunes, but I would ask: Which Heidelblog aficionado uses them? Please own up!!!

    • Well, John… as I read church history, it’s not so much a Francophone issue as being an “early Reformation” issue, before metrical singing became common and things like common meter, long meter, short meter, etc., became the norm for congregational singing. Having CM, SM, LM, and similar shared meters made it possible to switch melodies for different texts, and thereby sing hymns (or psalms) to a different tune if the standard tune was one that wasn’t familiar to the congregation.

      The Genevan Psalter predates that, and is from an era when congregational singing, as opposed to choral singing by trained choirs, was just beginning to be reintroduced in the churches.

      How many non-French people use the Genevan Psalter today? I think it’s fair to say that because there are very few French people left who are conservative Calvinists, let alone psalm-singers, the vast majority of people who today use the Genevan Psalter do not speak French.

      As for English speakers using the Genevan Psalter, I don’t know how many Canadian Reformed people read the Heidelblog, but their English-language songbook is nearly all Genevan psalms, along with 1) a few very old Dutch “hymns” translated into English that date back to the immediate post-Reformation era and are actually other parts of Scripture set to music, and 2) a larger but still fairly small supplemental collection of what American churches would recognize as “traditional hymns.”

      Also, almost any conservative Dutch-speaking person in the Netherlands who is a member of a conservative Reformed denomination will be used to singing from the Genevan Psalter. Even in the confessionally Reformed denominations in the Netherlands that allow hymnody (some do, some don’t), the Genevan Psalter is the backbone of the songs used in worship.

      As for the other large group of Reformed churches that once used the Genevan Psalter, I am much less familiar with the modern Hungarian Reformed churches and I don’t want to speak to things on which my knowledge is outdated. I did have the opportunity to discuss modern Hungarian Reformed views of worship back in the 1990s with two of the Hungarian Reformed bishops (yes, they do have bishops dating back to the Reformation era, but they function much less as what we would think of as a bishop and much more like a denominational executive on the regional synod level rather than national synod level) but the English of one of the bishops was quite poor. The other bishop was clearly trying to paint for me the most confessional and Reformed picture he could of his denomination in a post-Communist environment. How much of what they were telling me was what they hoped their churches would become as they got rid of Communist collaborators, and how much of it reflected actual reality? I don’t know. I sensed that, as many of us do who work in church environments that are in the process of recovering their orthodox roots but still have a long way to go, they may have been trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.

      My read of the Hungarians is that they are much more “traditional” than many Americans in the NAPARC denominations, especially the PCA, and their worship services and use of the Heidelberg Catechism reflect that, but being “traditional” is not the same as being personally converted or taking the professed confession to heart rather than as a statement of historical identity, or worse yet, as a statement of ethnic identity. What I heard those two bishops telling me about their worship and their use of psalms was good, but it was decades ago. Churches can and do change quickly, and it seems pretty clear that some of the current Hungarian leaders like Viktor Orbán see the church as an adjunct to promote traditional Hungarian culture and less as an instrument used by God for personal conversion of the people in the pews. That can quickly lead to a type of traditionalism and dead orthodoxy that may spend a lot of time promoting external things like psalmody without being accompanied by the personal conversion that singing the psalms is supposed to produce.

      As for the use of the Genevan Psalter in Chinese, Korean and Japanese churches — it’s available, but from my own personal knowledge I’m not aware that it is widely used, though some of the more confessional churches do have Genevan Psalters as a supplement in predominantly hymn-singing churches.

      It seems obvious that outside the Dutch Reformed tradition, the Genevan Psalter pretty much died out until recent years.

    • Thank you so much, both of you. I’ve just realised, this issue is of practical concern to me as well, as I am familiar with a church that has Scripture and hymns (including a handful of psalms, each of which has its own tune, a la Genevan Psalter model) in their language, but no singable Psalter, and know folk in that church who would just love to contribute towards the fulfilling of that need. Helpful characteristics are that whilst rhyming helps, folk will happily sing verses that don’t rhyme, and they adapt to a wide range of styles and ethnicity in the music they sing.
      However, constructing verses with identical metres within the psalm remains as much of a challenge to them as it did to the original Geneva versifiers and the translators that Michael Owens found so helpful. The Anglican chant system might work, as might the early charismatic movement approach of setting the words as they appear in the prose translation to a catchy tune (I get very skeptical about the source of “inspiration” when a setter gets given a tune that sets all verses of a particular psalm bar the one that shifts the attention from nature to the Word of God).
      I wonder about the feasibility of an approach that allows different metres within each psalm, providing a separate tune for each metre type.

      • John,

        There are multiple English language Psalters. To be sure, I’ve complained about the need for better Psalm tunes for a long time but it’s too much to say that there are no singable Psalters. The RPCNA has been singing a cappella from the Psalter for a long time and they’ve produced two modern Psalters that are singable. I have sung with them and used them many times. The URCNA has produced a Psalter-Hymnal that is singable. The Canadian Reformed still use the Genevan psalter, and some of those tunes are difficult but it can’t be called un-singable.

        Here is an older list of Psalters to which the URCNA PH could be added. The old 1912 Psalter included a lot of paraphrases but it was singable.

    • Dr Clark, Thank you so much for that reply – I actually use the Scottish Psalter in my own personal devotions such as they are, only occasionally altering words in the event of finding its paraphrase unacceptable, and have no personal problem with the tunes. Also Psalm Praise, although highly paraphrased and not a complete psalter, is perfectly singable.
      The language I was writing about is not English, and I would think most languages in the world are in a similar situation – I think the vast majority of missionaries underestimate the importance of a people group having a complete singable psalter (hymnbooks that may contain some psalms generally having priority) – Think of the missionary biographies you have read! You might like to make this a matter for prayer with your colleagues and students.

  2. Also take a look at a split-leaf Psalter offered for sale by the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).

    • A split leaf Psalter is the antithesis of a Psalter with dedicated tunes: With the latter each Psalm has its own unique tune linked to it (The Met Tab London also aims in its hymnbook to have a different tune linked individually to each hymn or psalm contained therein), whereas the former is designed to enable the congregation to sing any Psalm to any one of the tunes (of the requisite metre) it contains. A variant of the first is one volume with just words and a second volume with just tunes (The Tune Book).

  3. This passage stood out to me when I first read it nearly 20 years ago. Thanks for posting it.

  4. newly composed, to emphasize the break with the religious past, in contrast to Martin Luther’s practice of reusing old church melodies which he loved

    It would appear that this lesson has not yet been learned. (cf the comments above seeking the tunes of the genevan psalter! )

    Ive long complained that the tunes we have for our psalters (including many of the new metrical psalters recently composed and compiled) still rely on the tunes of the past.

    Please lord send us some new tunes!

    • John, I’m not in principle opposed to new tunes or new versifications of the Psalter. The tunes are not inspired. The Hebrew text **IS** inspired, inerrant, and infallible, but our translations are not, and the metrical versifications are a further step removed from the inspired text. I’m not at all wedded to the Genevan melodies, and if someone wants to write new melodies for the Psalms that increase the frequency with which at least some of the Psalms get sung, that’s a good thing.

      HOWEVER — there was a day, not that many generations ago, in which people from a Hungarian Reformed, Dutch Reformed, or Huguenot church background shared a common set of tunes for their Psalter. If we go back not just a few generations but a few centuries, a Dutch Reformed merchant could visit a Hungarian Reformed or French Reformed church and sing the same psalms, though using a different language. Also, within each of those language groups, a common metrical versification of the Psalms was used which allowed many church members to memorize large parts of the Psalter and sing a metrical version of God’s Word, not just in church services, but in daily life, in warfare, and on the stake when they were about to be burned for professing the Reformed faith.

      I cited the Dutch, the French, and the Hungarians because those are the three languages in which the Genevan Psalter came into the most widespread use. I’m quite aware that numerous other translations were made in the 1500s and 1600s, even into languages like Italian in countries and regions where the Reformation was largely stamped out. In the last few decades, translations have been made of the complete Genevan Psalter into Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, and I find it very interesting that one of the least Christian countries in the world — Japan — has one of the world’s three best-regarded experts on Bach. That man, who has an international reputation at the highest levels of the world of classical music, is theologically Reformed and undertook a translation of the Genevan Psalter into Japanese.

      If the tiny Japanese Reformed community can do that, what’s wrong with us in the English speaking world?

      The answer is that we simply don’t have that tradition in the English-speaking world. It wasn’t until the 1900s that a complete Genevan Psalter existed in English, and that was due to Dutch immigrants.

      For a number of reasons, the Scots Presbyterians chose to create their own Psalter separate from the Genevan tradition, and kept revising the text and the tunes so often that widespread memorization of most or even many of the Psalms was not a reasonable expectation.

      What would happen to catechetical memorization if the text of the catechism was being revised every generation or two, or even more often? Oh wait… we know the answer to that. It’s pretty hard to memorize something if the text keeps changing, and while a good case can be made that our “modern language” texts of the Heidelberg are better than the translations in use a century ago, the regular revisions have not helped memorization.

      The same applies to the Psalter.

    • John, this has happened. The composer of the tune “Ayrshire” was still alive on my thirtieth birthday. Alex Muir, who only died in 2010, composed a number of tunes, including the popular “Bays of Harris”. There are also catchy settings of Psalms as they occur in the KJV or other prose versions, i.e., relying on the tune rather than rhyme and metre to imprint the words on the mind of the singer.

    • Darrell, are your referring to Masaaki Suzuki (who is in Japan), Yo Tomita (who is in N.Ireland) or someone else I’ve not identified?

    • John Rokos, this might be helpful:

      Some key quotes from a secular reporter:

      “For years I’ve wanted to ask Maestro Suzuki about his Christian faith, which he proclaimed in the liner notes for the first CD of his Bach cantata cycle with the BCJ and again, 18 years later, in the 55th and last.

      As he wrote when he signed off: ‘With the help of His disciples, God left us the Bible. Into the hands of Bach He delivered the cantata. That is why it is our mission to keep performing them: we must pass on God’s message through these works, and sing them to express the Glory of God.’

      Whoa! When did you last hear a world-class conductor of Christian sacred music espouse the doctrines it conveys?

      Make no mistake about it: Suzuki is in the top flight of choral conductors (and, in addition, a magnificent harpsichordist and organist — he’s working on what may turn out to be a complete Bach organ cycle).”


      “Suzuki grew up in Kobe, which as Japan’s busiest port was one of the few cities where Christianity had a foothold. His parents were Protestant but it was his decision to join the Reformed Church.

      ‘I’m lucky to be there, because Calvinism is so practical for evaluating cultural activity in this world. Any type of music can be appreciated,’ he says.

      Really? But didn’t John Calvin discourage music in church? Aren’t his followers gloomy philistines? ‘No! His teachings are so badly misunderstood,’ sighs Suzuki.”

      Hearing a Reformed person talk that way is not a surprise. Hearing a Japanese person talk that way is. One often assumes that Christianity, in a very non-Christian mission context, ends up being “lowest common denominator” when it comes to doctrine and that’s even more so with application of faith to life. When dealing with people at the international elite level of any profession, let alone Christians at the elite levels of their professions living on a mission field, one expects to find a much less rigorous approach to doctrine and life than we might find in a heavily Christian area.

      Lack of rigor in doctrine and life is not AT ALL what I’m reading about Suzuki. I am far from being an expert on him, but from what I’ve read about him and his work for many years, it might say a bit about the “tyranny of low expectations” that we too often apply in our outreach and evangelism.

      Just because somebody is Japanese doesn’t mean they can’t be a hard-right Calvinist with a very strong view of applying faith to life. There are a lot of people in America who call themselves Reformed, including people who have been Reformed for many generations and whose ancestors have been Reformed since the Dutch broke from Rome, who don’t sound like Suzuki.

      • It’s certainly true that there are lots of caricatures of Calvin.

        I’ve responded to several of them here:

        When Suzuki says/implies that Calvin did not oppose “music” in worship, well this is a problem with the way people use the word “music” in this context. Often it means “instrumental music.” If that’s what people mean, then yes, that’s correct. They sang a cappella in Geneva as did the rest of the Reformed churches and as as did the ancient church (til the 8th or 9th century, when one organ was licensed, by the papacy, in Spain).

        If they mean “any singing,” then, no, that would be incorrect. They certainly sang in the worship service in Geneva although they did not sing as much as we do today and they certainly didn’t do it continuously for 20-30 minutes as many do today.

    • Thank you, Dr. Clark.

      My understanding is that Suzuki is responsible for producing Japanese lyrics for the Genevan Psalter tunes and has spent a very long time studying Reformed worship. His entire professional career is focused on Bach, and at the highest elite levels of classical music, but he’s made the deliberate decision to be Reformed rather than Lutheran, and there are reasons for that.

      I do not read Japanese and cannot comment from firsthand knowledge on Suzuki’s views of Reformed worship. However, from what I am told by those are much more familiar with the Reformed Church in Japan, or who have ties to the small RPCNA (Covenanter) presbytery in Japan, his views on that matter are soundly Reformed and far more conservative than most people who call themselves Reformed in the United States.

      I’ve read articles on Suzuki for a long time in various media; he gets much more attention (at least in English) from secular people who don’t understand how someone at the elite levels of classical music can be a conservative Christian than he gets from Christians, and I think a big part of that is how small the Japanese church is.

      Another part is that Suzuki’s views of music and of worship are very definitely out of step with those of most evangelicals because his is Reformed and applies that to his view of music and of worship.

      If there are problems with Suzuki I am certainly open to being corrected, but at least from what I read and from what I’m being told, he’s not only a confessional Calvinist but much more concerned about matters of Reformed worship than a large majority of people in the modern American Reformed church world, by which I mean the PCA. Making arrangements to get the Genevan Psalter translated into Japanese is not exactly a small project.

    • John, I have looked at the tunes in the Geneva Psalter. In the Scottish Psalter, the tunes are either in Major or Minor modes (read “diatonic scales”), with a couple of exceptions that are in Dorian mode. These latter present serious difficulty to precentors, especially to those who have only sol-fa notation that they can read (Bangor is often slightly altered in the books to put into Minor Mode, but Martyrs continues to be “difficult to sing”- that this tune is normally printed in duple time, whereas it’s by nature a stately tune in triple time doesn’t help). A sizeable proportion of Geneva tunes are not only in Dorian mode, but also Phrygian, Mixolydian, and Lydian modes as well. They may well be good tunes, but getting modern Western congregations to use them must present some challenge.

    • John Rokos, you wrote: “They may well be good tunes, but getting modern Western congregations to use them must present some challenge.”

      I’m glad David Koyzis has gotten into this discussion. Thank you for your input.

      Are there any Canadian Reformed people here who could comment on their experience of not only using the Genevan Psalter but using (almost) exclusively Genevan tunes? (Yes, I know there’s a small supplement of hymns, many of which are Scripture portions set to music, included in their Book of Praise.) I know that the Canadian Reformed members mostly learn their faith and church life at home being raised in the church, but perhaps some Canadian Reformed people would have some suggestions on how they teach the Genevan Psalter to their families at home and in church.

      I’m not going to minimize the problems of teaching **ANY** new tunes to a congregation. But in the current evangelical world where large numbers of church members are discouraged from actively singing due to a “performance based” model of worship in which the “song leaders” and “praise bands” dominate, and it’s become more and more common for the congregation to barely sing at all, I think teaching the Genevan tunes poses less of a challenge than might have been the case when a lot of laypeople could sing in four-part harmony because the typical middle-class family had a piano at home and gathered around it regularly to sing. Today, we need to teach singing to a lot of people from scratch since they have little experience with it.

      It’s not a problem for the Dutch Reformed who are used to congregational singing. But I am beginning to wonder if the “singing schools” that used to be used in the 1700s and 1800s to teach singing to new converts would be a good thing to reintroduce for Reformed churches in areas where few people are Reformed.

      A little side point: “singing schools” were a feature of Italian Protestant missionary work in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s for Italian-speaking churches planted by American missionaries among Italian immigrants to our large US cities. It was well understood that Italian immigrants liked to sing — and often sang bawdy secular songs but were good at it — but Italians had few opportunities to sing in the Roman Catholic Mass in that era unless they were members of a parish choir. Since virtually none of the Italian immigrants to the US in the 1800s and early 1900s had any prior contact with Protestantism, the idea of congregational singing in church was brand new for Italians and a lot of them loved it.

      Let’s not assume that just because something is hard, it’s not worth trying. I am not wedded to the Genevan tunes. I do support psalmody because God gave us a Psalter and we ought to be using it. The Genevan tunes have stood the test of time and it’s worth at least trying to use them. Most modern tunes die out after a few years or a few decades and there are good reasons for that.

      • It’s rather remarkable that the Scottish Psalter’s tunes contain only two that are plausibly in the dorian mode and that congregations and precentors would have difficulty singing them. By contrast, 55 of the Genevan tunes are in the dorian and hypodorian modes, while 17 are in the phrygian mode. This indicates the debt which the Genevan tunes owe to gregorian chant, something which, incidentally, Abraham Kuyper missed in his treatment of them in his Lectures on Calvinism.

        I have the 1929 split-leaf edition of the Scottish Psalter, containing numerous melodies, but many of these obviously date from after 1650. I’ve not explored the 1650 as deeply as I have the Genevan Psalter, so I don’t know which tunes were originally used for the Scottish Psalter. Perhaps someone here can provide this information.

        Incidentally, I can’t find a single Genevan melody that is in common metre. But the tunes for Psalms 100, 134 (OLD HUNDREDTH), and 142 are in long metre.

    • David, thank you for that. There seems to be some confusion on the internet as to what the Hypodorian mode is, the alternatives on there being Minor mode and Locrian mode. Not having found a single Locrian tune in the link Darrell gave us, I assume you must mean the Minor mode – Is that correct, or did you mean the mode starting a fifth below the Dorian, i.e., the Mixolydian?
      In addition to the modes you list, I could almost swear that I found a tune in the Lydian mode!

      • John, the old Dutch psalters tell us which modes the melodies are in. What we now know as the minor scale was once known as the aeolian mode. The dorian mode differs in that it contains a raised 6th, as does the hypodorian mode. I’m not a professional musician, but as far as I can tell, the hypodorian is identical to the dorian except that much of the tune is below the tonic. Yet the tune still ends on the tonic. The Genevan tune for Psalms 7, 23, 28, 40, 61, 77, 86, 109, 120, 129, and 146 conform to this pattern and are thus in the hypodorian mode. No Genevan tunes are in the lydian mode. As for the locrian mode, you are unlikely to find anything in that mode, except some experimental jazz.

  5. I have done my own work with the Genevan Psalter since the mid 1980s, finally completing a complete English versification last year with the assistance of a grant from the Stanford Reid Trust here in Canada. You can find a description of my project here:

    I believe that the reason the Scots opted for another approach than that of Geneva is that English has fewer words with feminine (unstressed) endings while the Genevan tunes boast a plethora of such endings. The Canadian Reformed collection is probably the best that can be done in English while remaining with the traditional rhyming schemes. However, my own work in many cases dispenses with those rhyming schemes and often with rhyme altogether. I am currently searching for a publisher for my collection.

    I regularly blog on the Genevan and other metrical psalms here:

  6. Regarding the lack of common metre tuners in the Genevan Psalter, I suspect it is due to the fact that, in latin languages, poetry usually requires larger verses (due to sentences in these languages usually being larger than in English). I’ve personally tried to use common metre tunes for metrifying psalms in Portuguese, but it was almost always impossible to fit sentences in them.

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