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Music in the Work of Calvin (Part One)

Author ,
Category Articles
Date December 6, 2019

This address by the most eminent of all Calvin’s biographers was delivered in the ‘Salle de la Reformation’, at Geneva, in April 1902. It was translated and printed in the Princeton Theological Review, October 1909, from which source it is here reprinted with very slight abridgement. The allusions at the opening of the Address are explained by the circumstance that Addresses on Calvin delivered in the same city shortly before by M. M. Brunetiere and Munz had been sharply critical of some aspects of the reformer’s work. It is on record that following this Address by Professor Doumergue ‘the harsh judgments of these lecturers were rapidly modified.’ Emile Doumergue (1844-1937) was, at this period, Dean of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Montauban, France.

* * *

I have been brought before you this evening, ladies and gentlemen, by circumstances at once encouraging and intimidating.

First of all I make my compliments to M. Brunetiere and I congratulate him on having impressed on the discussion a character so grave, elevated and altogether urbane. His example has been followed by M. Munz, and I shall endeavour to imitate it in my turn.

Then, I thank the innumerable adversaries of Calvin for having made Calvinism such a living question, for having recovered for our Reformer something which almost looks like popularity. Nothing like this has been seen for centuries.

Next, I felicitate myself that, by a mysterious sort of pre-established harmony, leading to identical conclusions from opposite points of view, assailants and defenders have found ourselves at one in drawing the attention of the public to the intellectualism of Calvin. The eminent critics who have addressed you — as well as others — have thought that, this point being universally reputed the weakest, it would be by it that it would be easiest to attack the whole system: just as I have thought that, this point being universally reputed the weakest, if I could show that it is sufficiently strong to resist all attacks, it would be precisely by it that it would be easiest to defend the whole system.

Finally, very respected hearers, I take the liberty to say to you frankly that my lively desire is to interest you; but that my more lively desire still is to convince you. Now, in history there is no true proof except authentic documents. I am going to bring them to you: texts, songs, pictures. Possibly these documents will seem to you sometimes too numerous, and even a little wearisome. But it has seemed to me that in a question so eminently Protestant, I ought to follow the Protestant method, which consists in placing the auditors in a position to decide for them­selves — against error, for the truth.

I shall commence by reading to you the very terms in which there has been brought against our Reformer the general accusation of anti-artistic intellectualism.

The honourable member of the Institute, a most competent critic, no doubt, in artistic matters, and the last you have heard speak on art and Protestantism, M. Munz, in his articles in the Revue des Revues of two years ago, after having gladly made an exception of Luther, has brought his criticisms to bear on ‘the haughty and cruel Calvin’, on ‘the most fanatical of the leaders of the Reformation’, on ‘the most implacable of the iconophobes’, who ‘at one blow has withered both heart and soul’. ‘Where and when do we see the author of the Institutes manifesting the least interest in any branch of art whatever ?’

M. Munz is a Protestant. He is not, however, a pastor. Now, a pastor, M. Douen, writes: ‘The Pope of Geneva, that dry and hard spirit, Calvin, lacked the warmth of heart which makes Luther so lovable.   .. His theology without bowels . . . is the foe of all pleasure and of all distraction, even of the arts and of music . . . Calvin is the type of authoritative dogmatism, anti-liberal, anti-artistic, anti-human, and anti-Christian.’

If a Protestant layman and a Protestant pastor speak thus, the language on Geneva of a free-thinker like Voltaire should no longer astonish us :

Ah, noble city, rich and proud and shrewd,
Where men can reckon, but can never smile,
You take your pleasure in Genevan psalms,
The ancient concerts of the goody king, —
In faith that God delights in wretched verse.
By preachers of the dull and deadly sort
Is sadness stamped upon the brows of all.

And we shall be, if possible, still less astonished to hear Father Main­bourg repeat: ‘Calvinism is a skeleton of religion. . . having no life, no unction . . . Calvin made a religion utterly dry and conformed to his own temperament.’

Jesuits, Voltaireians, Protestants, even pastors, are all in accord: there is only one opinion, it is an axiom.

An axiom, or a legend? To reach a decision, let us ask today, first, what Calvin thought of art in general and of music in particular; then what Calvin did for music.


What did Calvin think of art?

Well, gentlemen, to suppose that he gave it no thought at all — this absence of artistic preoccupation could find at least excuses.

I call the first of them, the evil of the times. Calvinism has ‘sadness stamped on its brow’. Its visage is pale. Sometimes all its being is tense with an inexpressibly heavy strain. It is even draped in weeds. It is all true. Calvinism is not the religion of the poor woman, mother of the gay Villon, who kneels in the midst of the gold and bright colours of a vaulted and brilliantly lighted chapel, and in her comfortable ignorance, addresses her prayers to the ‘exalted goddess’. It is nevertheless the religion of a poor woman — but the mother of the pastor Le Clerc, who, present at the torture of her son, at the moment when the red-hot iron scorched his brow, cried in the enthusiasm of her Biblical faith, ‘Hail to Jesus and his standard-bearers!’ Calvinism is a religion of martyrs. And these Calvinists, able to meet, between two massacres, only in the forest or the desert, are asked why they have not ornamented their sanctuaries with statues and pictures, why they have not built Romanesque or Gothic Cathedrals! — I certainly feel the right to respond with the Dutch Calvinist, Dr Abraham Kuyper, alluding to the death of Goudimel at Lyons on the night of St Bartholomew: ‘The wood is reproached for its silence, when they have killed the nightingale.’

There is, however, a second excuse of a different nature. I mean the inevitableness of reaction — not only from the abuse of ecclesiastical painting and sculpture, but from the abuse, less known but perhaps even more scandalous, of music.

Examples: While one portion of the choristers intoned a Sanctus or an Incarnatus, others, accompanied by the crowd, sang words like these: Robin loves me, Love presses me too hard. And in the Vatican, the choir­leader would speak to the Holy Father of the Magnificat, ‘Margot, in a garden’, or of the Mass, ‘0 Venus, the beautiful’.

Moreover, the very decrees of the Council of Trent sufficiently attest these aberrations, as the historians most favourable to that great assembly recognize. The exertions of Palestrina against ‘the lascivious and impure music’ (these are the expressions of the Fathers) were powerless. And how could it have been otherwise, when the Papacy itself continued to provide certain voices for its choir by the commission of a special and here unnameable crime?

A very significant proof of the persistence of these strange musical manners is found in a Collection of Spiritual Songs, taught by the royal missionaries to the converts of the diocese of Alais, in 1735, two hundred years after the Reformation. The booklet has no music, but in its place there are given in each instance such indications as these: At Songs V, VI, VII, the Pater, the Ave Maria, the Credo: ‘to the air of, Birenne, my love’, At Song XI, the Passion of Jesus Christ: ‘to the air of, Follies of Spain.’ At Song XVI, in honour of the Holy Virgin: ‘to the air of, Take, my Phyllis, take thy Glass.’ At Song XXVIII, Paradise: ‘to the air of, Charming Gabrielle.’ At Song XLV, Sentiments of a Converted Sinner: ‘to the air of, Let us follow, follow Love.’ At Song LI, sentiments of a heart which finds nothing but God to love: ‘to the air of, Big Gosier said to Gregory.’

Assuredly, if Calvin had had the same feeling as many of the members of the Council of Trent, (and those certainly not the least clear-sighted) and had believed there was only one way to extirpate such abuses ­to wit, absolutely to proscribe modern music, what reproach could be brought against him even — or particularly — by the Catholics?

I have pointed out these possible excuses, gentlemen, that you may feel more strongly the merit of Calvin in rendering them needless.

In his Institutes and in his Commentaries, Calvin sets before us what is in effect a very original and very beautiful theory of art. This is it: Art is the gift of God’s Common Grace to man.

Common Grace! So much has been said of special grace (that which is the result of predestination), that the theologians themselves have ended by ignoring common grace, which nevertheless is not less real, and the role of which is not less considerable. In effect, it is by this common grace that God dispenses ‘the excellent gifts of his Spirit to all the human race’,1 and ‘casts some rays of his light even upon unbelievers’. Even the most accursed, the sons of Cain, are not deprived of this common grace, which, on the contrary, distributes to all ‘some gifts and graces’, ‘graces which are to be highly prized’, which enrich the pagans ‘liberally with excellent graces’, ‘evident testimonies of the goodness of God’, even with ‘the admirable light of truth’ the brilliancy of which astonishes.2 Briefly, it is this common grace, distinct from special grace, which is the basis of civil society — distinct in its turn, and for this reason, from religious society — with its science, its industry, its philosophy, and its politics.

Theologians and historians, it has been said, have undertaken simply to amputate from Calvinism this common grace. And there certainly is no room for astonishment that, after two or three such amputations, nothing will remain in the sight of the public but a mutilated body, hideous and very repellent. Only, this is no longer Calvinism.

Very well, gentlemen, among the gifts of this common grace are the arts which are ‘instilled by God into our understandings’, and which make us ‘contemplate the goodness of God’. ‘God is the sole author and master of all these arts.’3 All arts proceed from God, and ought to be held as divine inventions.’4

The objection is made, it is true, that by this word ‘arts’ Calvin means only the liberal arts and the mechanical arts. But this is inexact. Calvin does not exclude from the number of arts the arts properly so-called, those which serve not only ‘common use’ or ‘commodity’, but simple pleasure. The declaration is formal: ‘Because the invention of the harp and other musical instruments serves rather for pleasure and delight than necessity, it is not nevertheless to be considered altogether superfluous and still less does it deserve to be condemned.’5

You have fully understood, gentlemen? Calvin does not condemn either pleasure or delight: he even declares that pleasure and delight are not superfluous things. All that he condemns is ‘the pleasure which is not united with the fear of God, and the common needs of human society’. But there is no Christian socialist who would disavow such a restriction; and all other artistic pleasure is legitimate.

From art in general let us pass at once to music, and let us take into our hands the famous preface to the Psalter :

In truth, we know by experience [by experience and not by theory] that singing has great force and power to move and influence the heart of men to invoke and praise God with more vehement and ardent zeal . . . Among other things adapted for men’s recreation and for giving them pleasure [artistic pleasure again], music is either the foremost, or one of the principal; and we must esteem it a gift of God designed for that purpose . . . There is scarcely anything in this world which can more turn or bend hither and thither the ways of men . . . And in fact we know by experience [the facts of experience again] that music has a secret and almost incredible power to move hearts [still, the heart] . . . When melody goes with it, every bad word penetrates much more deeply into the heart . . . just as a funnel conveys the wine into the depths of the decanter, so venom and corruption are distilled into the very bottom of the heart by melody.6

The heart again, and always the heart! And in the dogmatic pages of the Institutes, the heart reappears, we must remark, with a frequency more and more singular. The word, it is said, and song are good on one condition — ‘that they follow the sentiment of the heart’ — ‘that they come from the sentiment and the depths of the heart.’ Then — ‘Singing is a good means of inciting and influencing the heart.” But ‘the tongue without the heart is very displeasing to God.’

How could M. Douen speak of a theology without bowels? How could M. Munz ask: ‘Where and when do we see the author of the Institutes manifesting the least interest in any branch of art whatever?’ How could M. Brunetiere contend: ‘Horror of art is and will remain one of the essential traits of the spirit of the Reformation in general, and of the Calvinist Reformation in particular’?

I cannot tell.

To be continued.

This article was first published in the January 1977 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. Opera Calvini (Brunswick ed.), xxiii, pp. 99, 100: Commentarius in Genesin, ch. vi, verso 20.
  2. Opera Calvini, iii, pp. 315,316: Institution Chretienne, II, ii, 15.
  3. Opp. Calv., xxxvi, p. 483: Commentarius in Isaiam prophetam, xxviii. 29.
  4. Opp. Calv., xxv, p. 58: Commentarius in quinque libros Mosis, Exodus, xxxi. 2.
  5. Opp. Calv., xxiii, p. 100: Com. in Gen., iv. 20.
  6. Opp. Calv., vi, p.120: La forme des prieres et chantes ecclesiastiques: Epistre au lecteur.
  7. Opp. Calv., iv, pp. 418-421: Institution chretienne, III. xx. 31, 32, 33.

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    This address by the most eminent of all Calvin’s biographers was delivered in the ‘Salle de la Reformation’, at Geneva, in April 1902. It was translated and printed in the Princeton Theological Review, October 1909, from which source it is here reprinted with very slight abridgement. The allusions at the opening of the Address are […]

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    This address by the most eminent of all Calvin’s biographers was delivered in the ‘Salle de la Reformation’, at Geneva, in April 1902. It was translated and printed in the Princeton Theological Review, October 1909, from which source it is here reprinted with very slight abridgement. The allusions at the opening of the Address are […]

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