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Music in the Work of Calvin (Part Two)

Category Articles
Date December 10, 2019

This second half of the 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. Emile Doumergue (1844-1937) was, at this period, Dean of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Montauban, France. Part One may be read here.

 * * *


What did Calvin do for art?

Calvin made the Psalter.

Before Calvin, the French Reformation had no ecclesiastical singing. The idea of the Psalter dates from 1537, and from the memorial which Calvin, with Farel, presented to the Council of Geneva. Finding that the prayers of the faithful were ‘so cold that it ought to turn to great shame and confusion’, he asked that the Psalms might be sung, ‘that the hearts of all might be moved and incited’.

Troubles — exile — paralyzed the activity of the Reformers. But scarcely was Calvin established at Strasburg than he set himself to carry out his programme. Arrived in September, he announces to a friend, in the month of December, that he is about to send the Psalter to the press.

Whence did he obtain the words? He became a poet; and, finding in manuscripts more or less correct, a dozen Psalms translated by Clement Marot, he availed himself of them.

Whence did he obtain the music? Struck by the beauty of certain Strasburg melodies, which, he said, ‘pleased him very much’, he availed himself of them also.

And this was the first Psalter, the Psalter of 1539, the single remaining copy of which, that is known, is now to be found in the library at Munich.

For the further translation of the words, Calvin adopted, as they appeared, the Psalms of Maret, whom he was accused of having ‘Calvinized’ at Ferrara. Then Theodore Beza finished the work of Marot, and Calvin, as impatient in 1551 as thirteen years before, in 1538, sent on the translations of his friend, one by one, ‘by the first courier’, as he specifies.1

And, finally, for the further composition of the melodies? Ah, here we find a legend in possession, even in the most scientific Protestant books. According to it, the composer Bourgeois had to flee from Geneva to Paris (but this is erroneous; he withdrew to Lyons), to escape the bickerings of Calvin (this, too, is erroneous; he left because the Council refused to increase his insufficient salary), because Calvin was furious at Bourgeois for setting the Psalms in four parts (which is also erroneous, since, shortly afterwards, it was Calvin himself who requested the Council for an authorization for Bourgeois to publish a new work). To execute justice on this legend and to illustrate the relations of Calvin and Bourgeois, only one word is needed, a little word which I have found in the old records of your archives — yellow, dust-covered, hard to read, but often so eloquent, so vivid.

Bourgeois had displeased the Council, who were unjustly incensed with him, and condemned him to prison. The Minutes note the decision, and then, at the same meeting, the same Minutes begin, a half-page further on, another paragraph: ‘Afterwards Master Calvin came in.’ Afterwards! Now, this is what this little word means. At once upon the Council’s making its strange decision, one of the councillors, no doubt a friend of Calvin’s, knowing his sentiments toward Bourgeois, left the court-room and ran to the Rue des Chanoines. He explained the situation in two words. Calvin, who was dictating a letter or some commentary, stopped in the middle of a sentence: his memory was sure to take it up again and complete it an hour or two later. In haste he put on his coat, seized his square cap, and in a few seconds was at the Hotel de Ville. At once he had himself announced to the Council. At once he entered: ‘Afterwards Master Calvin came in’! And it was he who explained that Bourgeois was not in fault. His interruption, however, only partly calmed the Council. Bourgeois remained in prison twenty-four hours, and when he was set at liberty the Council made ‘gracious remonstrances’ . . . to Calvin himself.

It is not hard to understand, from this, how, in spite of Calvin’s protection, Bourgeois left Geneva. But the Psalter was finished, the complete Psalter, that of 1562, the year of the massacre of Vassy; and here is Psalm 65, translated by Theodore Beza, with the melody of Bourgeois and the harmony of Goudimel . . .

Here, gentlemen, my imagination reverts to that first, thin volume of 1539, lying there isolated, exiled, in the Bavarian library, and I am filled with an inexpressible respect. I think of the little grain of mustard seed transformed into the immense tree, to the branches of which, growing ever stronger, the birds from every quarter of heaven gather to rest and sing. I think of the patriarch Abraham, alone, old, wasted, against all human prevision becoming the father of a people as the stars of the heavens for number. Growth, multiplication, veritably prodigious! It was from the Psalter of 1539 that, little by little, the Psalter of 1562 grew. The same year of its publication saw twenty-five editions of it issued. In four years sixty-two editions followed. The bibliographers tell us of fourteen hundred editions, and translations multiplied themselves as marvellously as editions. The Calvinistic Psalter was translated into English, Dutch, Danish, Polish, Bohemian, Rhaeto-Romanic, Ladin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Gascon, Bearnais, Malay, Tamil, Sessouto, Latin, Hebrew, Sclavonian, Zend. In less than two centuries there were issued in Holland alone more than thirty editions, and Germany, the land of the admirable choral, jealous of what it calls ‘the siren of Calvinism’, rivalled Holland.

The siren of Calvinism! This expresses the opinion of enemies, systematic insulters like Florimond de Raemond. ‘Nothing’, says he, ‘has so opened the way to the novelties of these new religions . . . The new singing, sweet and insinuating, of these rhymed Psalms has been the chain and cordage . . . by which they have drawn souls.’

The siren of Calvinism! Above all, this expresses the opinion of friends — friends as little sentimental as a professor, a professor of theology of the seventeenth century, Moses Amyraud: ‘From the mingling of so many voices’, he writes, ‘there is formed, I do not know what harmony, the sound of which has sometimes been enough to ravish passers-by – so melodious is the sound of this singing and so adapted is it to rouse in the mind extraordinary emotions. For ourselves, we may certainly speak of what we have experienced from it. There are times when the several words, animated in this manner, have almost drawn our souls out of themselves. In such sort that I do not believe there can be on earth a more beautiful image of what we hope for some day in Paradise.’

In very truth, gentlemen, what book, except the Bible, has received such honour? And what imagination can picture the millions and millions of souls, of all countries and tongues, who have found consolation, joy, strength, heroism in these marvellous songs – from the Calvinists of Geneva and France to those Calvinists of Scotland who sang them to the roar of the waves on the rocks of St. Andrews, and those Calvinists of Holland who sang them to the terrible onset of the old Spanish troopers, and those Calvinists of England who sang them on the ships sailing out to America — down to those Calvinists who are singing them still down in the south of Africa, on the banks of the Orange River, or in the passes of the Drakenberg?

This is the Psalter which Calvin made, the Calvinistic Psalter.


Here, gentlemen, let us stop and listen. Let us listen to the Psalm, not slow, dragging and lagging, monotonous, cold, wearisome, stupid and stupifying — not to the Psalm which, little by little, like a worn out piece of furniture, decrepit, displeasing, unsuited to our modern parlors, we have clipped, restored, mended, abridged and finally cast out of our apartments and our books of songs to relegate to some lumber-room — but to the Psalm, true, vital, young, and strong, sung as a word which has a meaning, which expresses a deep and lively sentiment, which bursts from a heart vibrant with ardour, with assurance, with hope, with joy, with enthusiasm . . . in short, let us listen to the true Psalm of Calvin.

Here we are, gentlemen, on a fine afternoon in May, 1558, on the great promenade of the students of Paris, the Pre-aux-Clercs, on the banks of the Seine. Some students are singing the Psalms, and their singing is so fine that their comrades gather and sing with them. The same scene is repeated the next day. Only, the lords of the court — Chatillon, Conde, the King of Navarre — mingle with the singers. It is a procession of seven or eight hundred people which unrolls itself, and the immense and delighted crowd listens with transport. What is it? The sound of the Psalm, sung in chorus — ‘that unexpected harmony’, as Michelet puts it, ‘that sweet, simple and strong singing, so strong as to be heard a thousand leagues away, so sweet that everyone thought he heard in it the voice of his mother.’ And while to the echoes of the Pre-aux-Clercs, there were answering the echoes of the Pre Fichaut of Bourges or of the promenades of Bordeaux, the old historian of the University of Paris, Bulee, said: ‘In the singing of the Psalms, the Protestants laid the foundations of their religion’; and Florimond de Raemond said: ‘It is from this event [the appearance of the Psalms] that the Church of Calvin may be dated’ — the Church of the Psalms.

Here is Psalm 1, the melody and harmony by Bourgeois . . .

From that moment, the Psalms have been indissolubly bound up with the life, public and private alike, of Calvinists, and, as has been remarked, it would be possible to make a calendar, in which all the salient events of the history of French Protestantism should be recalled by a verse of a Psalm.

Here is that famous verse, for example, of Psalm 118 :

This is the happy day
That God himself did make;
Let us rejoice alway
And in it pleasure take.

Now, in describing the battle of Coutras (1587), won by Henry of Navarre, the son of Jeanne d’Albret, from the Duke of Joyeuse and the Catholic army, d’Aubigne expresses himself thus:

Of the two artilleries, the last to come, that of Huguenots, was the first in position, and commenced to play before nine o’clock. Laverdin, seeing the damage which it did, rode towards his general and cried out, while still some distance off: “Sir, we are losing by waiting: we must open up.” The response was: “Monsieur the Marshal speaks the truth.” He returned at a gallop to his place, gave the word and charged.

On the other side, the King of Navarre having had prayer offered throughout the army, some began to sing the Hundred-and-eighteenth Psalm: This is the happy day.” Many Catholics of the White-Cap cried out loudly enough to be heard: “‘s death! They are trembling, the poltroons; they are making confession.” Vaux, lieutenant of Bellegarde, who had more frequently rubbed shoulders with these people and who alone rallied for the combat, said to the Duke: “Sir, when the Huguenots behave thus, they are ready to fight to the death”. And some hours later the victory was theirs.

But this same song, ‘This is the happy day’, has sustained the Calvinists in other combats, more dangerous, more difficult. It is heroic to cast ourselves at a gallop without fear into the midst of the battle. It is more heroic, laid on a bed of agony, to receive, calm and smiling, the assault of the last enemy which man has to conquer on this earth. Such a hero, d’Aubigne, whose narrative we have just read, showed himself to be. His widow relates: ‘Two hours before his death, he said with a joyful countenance and a mind peaceable and content, “This is the happy day”.’ There is something more heroic still. Listen! Far from the excitement of the combat, unsustained by the affections and care of friends, face to face with the mob howling with rage and hate, on the scaffold, at the foot of the gallows, here are the martyrs of the eighteenth century — the Louis Ranes, the Francois Benezets, the Francois Rochettes — who, with their glorious souls, raise toward the heavens where their Saviour listens to them, the song of triumph: ‘This is the happy day!’

Yes, gentlemen, Psalms and martyrs go together, just as the Word and the heart from which it flows; and it is through the sound of the Psalms that we are able to follow all this incomparable history.

The martyrs are arrested. Here are the fourteen men of Meaux, who were surprised in the room where they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper. They are hurried into carts: they are borne away to the most terrible sufferings. But, forgetful of everything but the outrage done to their God, trembling with a holy indignation, they cast to the fanatic people the words of the Seventy-ninth Psalm :

The heathen into thine own heritage
o Lord, have come; and by their foul outrage
Defiled thy holy house; Jerusalem
Is made a heap of scattered stones by them.

Slain are thy people, Lord,
Slain by the cruel sword,
­Their bodies, for the meat
Of ravening birds cast forth,
And to the beasts of earth
Their flesh flung out to eat.

The martyrs are in prison. Anne du Bourg put upon bread and water, separated from all her friends, even shut up in a cage, set herself to sing Psalms; and it is the sigh of the Hundred and Thirtieth Psalm which escapes from her soul :

From the bottom of my heart,
From all my sorrow’s deep,
To thee I raise my plaint, ­
Lord, hear me as I weep:
0, surely, Lord, ’tis time,–
I cry both night and day —
bend thine ear to hear
The while to thee I pray.

The martyrs are on the death cart. Here are five young students, treacherously arrested on their return from Geneva to their post of evangelization. On the road which led from the dungeon to the funeral­ pyre, what word could express their overflowing joy but that of the Ninth Psalm — which the Psalter describes as ‘a triumphant song in which David returns thanks to God for a certain battle which he had won, and magnifies the righteousness of God, who avenges his people in his own good time and way’:

With all my heart I will proclaim
o Lord, my God, thy glorious name;
Thy marvellous works no equals know,
I fain their wondrousness would show.

In Thee alone my joy I see,
I have no comfort but in thee;
o God, Most High, I fain would raise
To thy great Name unending praise.

The martyrs are on the platform of the scaffold. Here is Jean Bertrand, forest-watchman: ‘The hangman jerked the cord about his neck rudely. But Bertrand let this insult and violence pass, and said to him: “God forgive you, my friend”; and began to sing from the Twenty-fifth and the Eighty-sixth Psalms, the verses suitable to the time and state he was in.’ He sang:

To thee, my God, I lift my heart,
In thee my hope is placed.

And again:

My God, bow down thine ear to me,
And hearken to me graciously.
o answer me! for none can be
In sorer straits and poverty.

‘His countenance was beautiful, and his eyes were lifted to heaven. He placed himself with high courage on the seat that was prepared for him on the end of a piece of wood, and said these words: “What a fine place you have prepared for me! — 0 happy day!” And when the fire was lighted, he cried out and said: “My God, give thy servant thy hand: I commend to thee my soul”.’ And holding God thus by the hand, he ascended to heaven.

The martyrs are in the flames. They have been imprisoned, tortured; their tongues have been cut out. Here is Jean Rabec, of old a minor friar: ‘The criminal officer . . . and others . . . came to the jail . . . and commanded that his tongue should be cut out and he be prepared for execution. The executioner took him and fastened him to a hurdle behind a cart, a pitiable spectacle. And Rabec, raising his eyes to heaven, prayed to God . . . the blood pouring from his mouth and he being much disfigured by this blood. He was stripped, and wrapped with straw before and behind, and a quantity of brimstone was spread on his flesh. Lifted into the air, he began the Psalm: “The heathen have come into thine own heritage”, quite intelligibly, despite his tongue having been cut out . . . And being thus lifted up, he remained for quite a number of minutes, without the fire being lighted, continuing the Psalm . . . When the fire was lighted Rabec continued his Psalm, and was lowered and raised again several times, so that, his entrails having partly protruded, he still spoke on, though no longer having the figure of a man.’

The heathen entered have thine heritage . . .
Unto the heavens, let the prisoner’s sighs
Into thy holy presence, Lord, arise:
And oh, preserve by thine almighty power
Those who are brought to their appointed hour.

There remains, gentlemen, the most celebrated of our Psalms, that which has received the name of the Battle-Psalm, the Calvinistic Marseillaise, the Huguenot Luther-choral, that supreme cry of confidence which traverses and animates this whole epoch, as moving as it is grand:

Let God but only show his face,
And all his enemies apace
Afar shall scattered be.
And those who hate him, everywhere
Shall of his dreadful wrath be ware,
And from his presence flee.
As smoke before the driving blast,
So God shall drive them, flying fast,
And none can cause them stay:
As wax before the burning fire,
So shall they melt before his ire
All utterly away.

The melody of this Psalm, in which we find today the rumbling of the storm, the crash of the lightning and the far-away rolling of the thunder, has a truly curious history. It was composed, about 1525, for the pacific Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm, by the gifted chorister of the Cathedral of Strasburg, Thomas Greiter, who had become a Protestant. Calvin, on becoming acquainted with it, was charmed with it, and set to this melody his own Psalm 36, which he soon replaced by that of Marot. And it was only in 1562 that Theodore Beza took this melody away from Psalm 36 and gave it to his translation of Psalm 68. From that moment the Battle-Psalm was in existence.

The Huguenot armies adopted it: they took it to the battles of Dreux, St. Denys, Jarnac, Moncontour, Ivry. Then all fell silent. The Revocation, that hearts might be broken, began by closing mouths, until the time came when, the extremity of sufferings being reached, down there in our ever glorious Cevennes, men, women, maidens, children raised themselves up, seized by a mysterious enthusiasm. They heard voices, they fell into ecstasy; they prophesied. And all of a sudden, the Battle-Psalm sounded out on the summits of the Aigoual. Then the bravest soldiers of the great King stopped, turned their backs, seized with a sudden terror. It became necessary to treat with the insurgents, and, to human view, the Camisards, saving Protestantism, saved also liberty of conscience!

Let God but only show his face!

Such, gentlemen, is the art the theory of which Calvin laid down, and such is the song of which Calvin was the inspirer and the propagator. This is what Calvin thought of music, and did for music.

But the time has now come when a final offensive movement of the legend pushes us to a final and general conclusion.

But, in the end, cries this legend, is it not incontestable that Calvin was the foe of art, since, in his Institutes, this declaration is found in so many words: ‘The songs and melodies which are composed to please the ear only, as are all the quaverings and trills of Papistry and all that they call broken-music and composition, and four-part songs, in no wise accord with the majesty of the Church and cannot be other than gravely dis­pleasing to God.’2 Have we not here, in the end, the confitentem reum?

By no means, gentlemen, and decidedly the legend has been unfortunate here. This famous text is found only in the French translation of 1560, a translation which abounds in errors, contradictions, even nonsense, and which, naturally, Calvin did not review. This text is absent from the Latin edition of 1559, the only one which has authority. Calvin said: ‘The songs and melodies which are composed to please the ear only in no wise accord with the majesty of the Church, and cannot be other than gravely displeasing to God.’ The author of the translation interpolated: ‘as are all the quaverings and trills of Papistry and all that they call broken-­music and composition and four-part songs.’ What importance has this interpolation?

Moreover, even were the text authentic, the legend would not be advanced, for it does not at all mean what it has been made to mean. Calvin would not be condemning here ex professo either harmony in general, or four-part singing in particular, but only a certain harmony, which he would carefully specify — ‘the four-part singing. . . of Papistry’. Nothing more.

In reality, gentlemen, Calvin, after the example of the Lutherans, whose musical sense is not contested, and on the advice of Goudimel, to whom no one denies artistic genius — Calvin simply desired that in the churches, the Calvinists should sing ‘all and well’, as M. Douen himself recognizes.

In other terms: singing in unison (this is for the music) and singing in the common tongue (this is for the words) — such is the democratic singing which Calvin confined himself to requiring with more energy and vigour than all the other Reformers. He has given expression to it himself thus: ‘We should sing with the heart and the tongue3 . . . not with the tongue without the heart . . . not in the Greek language among the Latins, nor in Latin among the Frenchmen and Englishmen . . . but in the common language of the country, which all the assembly understands4 . . . Spiritual songs cannot be well sung except from the heart. Now, the heart requires the understanding. And in this . . . lies the difference between the singing of men and that of birds. For a linnet, or a nightingale, or a popinjay will sing well, but it will be without understanding. Now the proper gift of man is to sing, knowing what he sings. On the intelligence ought to follow the heart and the affection.’5

And, gentlemen, by these great words, full of heart and of good sense (as full of heart as of good sense, and as full of good sense as of heart), our Reformer did nothing less than draft the programme of a real artistic revolution — which, thanks to the providential conjunction of these two geniuses, so well suited to understand one another, Calvin and Bourgeois, has transformed the Catholic, aristocratic, hierarchic singing, behind the screen of the choir, into a Protestant, democratic, lay singing of the whole congregation.

Catholic singing was, in effect, without measure. It was not proper, it was said, for the devil to beat time in the sanctuary. Bourgeois composed his melodies in a two-time movement, lively and animated.

Catholic singing made monotony its law: there was no tone in the plain-song but only modes. Bourgeois introduced the two distinctive modes of popular, fluent music, and gave birth to modern tonality.

Catholic singing, finally, made no account of the words. It mingled the religious words, in Latin, of the priests with the jovial words, in French, of the people. Bourgeois restored to the melody its importance, its gravity — the gravity of the words themselves.

And it is in the face of this revolution, inaugurating modern, democratic music, that it is said: ‘The work of Calvin, the intellectualist, was that of an aristocrat!’

I keep, gentlemen, to artistic, even to musical ground. I do not respond: Calvin did not aristocratise religion, because he democratised doctrine — henceforth the divine election chooses believers without distinction of class or knowledge, princes and tailors, doctors and wool­combers, and, making them superior alike to the civil and ecclesiastical hierarchy, opens to this glorious democracy the gates of eternal felicity: because he democratised theological method — henceforth the basis of religious knowledge and certitude is no more scholasticism with its erudition and its syllogisms, but the testimony of the Holy Spirit which makes the humble woman, the artisan (Calvin would say, ‘not merely a man of the middle class, but the most stupid and rude swine-herd’)6 capable of confounding the Sorbonne, its monks and its doctors: because he democratised the Church — henceforth, in no other, even Protestant, Church, will the principle of universal priesthood be pressed so far, abolishing every distinction of superiority, establishing the equality of pastor and people, bringing under the censure of the simplest members of the Consistory, the members of the Council of Geneva, the son of Jean d’Albret, even the Duchess of Ferrara. . .

No, at this time I limit myself to responding: ‘You are wrong and the sufficient proof is that Calvin democratised religious singing, that is to say, the very voice of religion.’

This was the moment when Calvin’s friend, Hotman, published at Geneva his Franco-Gallia, that pamphlet which proclaimed the im­prescriptible sovereignty of nations over themselves with such vigour that it would be necessary to come down to the Contrat Social to find in our literature a republican political work of greater influence. It was the moment when Calvin’s friend, John Knox, published at Geneva that treatise which he himself entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which made Bloody Mary tremble, and which Elizabeth never forgave. It was the moment when Calvin’s friend, Goodman, published at Geneva his How Superior Powers ought to be Obeyed by their Subjects and Wherein they may Lawfully be by God’s Word Disobeyed and Resisted, expounding the right of obedience and of revolt, in which he wrote: ‘Kings and governors are a part of the people.’ It was the moment when Calvin’s friend, Duplessis Mornay, published at Geneva his Legitimate power of the Prince towards the People, and of the People towards the Prince, and closed by summing up the aspirations of all democracy, present and future, in these two words, thenceforth prophetic: Justice and Charity. ‘Justice demands that hands be laid on tyrants who outrage right; charity requires that hands be extended to the oppressed.’ It was the moment, finally, when Calvin’s friend, disciple, successor, Theodore Beza, published at Geneva his Rights of Magistrates towards their Subjects, and concluded: ‘the people are not born for the magistrates, but, on the contrary, the magistrates for the people.’

Now, certainly, this was a good deal! There were formulated the principles of modern democracy, that truly immortal charger, which, conceived in the study of the Rue des Chanoines, and sent out, like our Martyrology, from the presses of Geneva, made its way through Europe, crossed the ocean with the Plymouth Fathers, and returned to France in the cartridge-box of Lafayette, disfigured, no doubt, mutilated, but still recognizable under the title of ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, in 1789. It was a good deal: but it was not enough.

For what makes social revolutions is not merely the head of intellectualists; it is especially the heart of peoples.

My thoughts go back to Jericho. The Israelites were assembled, with all their men, with all their forces. They were powerless. The trumpet of faith, the trumpet of the Lord, sounded, and the walls of Jericho fell down.

Stronger than Jericho was in the sixteenth century the citadel of absolutist and sacerdotal aristocracy. Weaker than the ancient Israel was the hand of that new Israel whom frightful massacres were decimating, and kings and princes were humbling on land and sea. But a sound more powerful than that of all the pamphlets, a sound mysterious and loud, rose from the very bottom of the people’s heart and soul — the Calvinistic Psalms! The King of France heard the Huguenots singing them. The King of Spain heard the Gueux singing them. The King of England heard the Puritans singing them. The Christian democracy, the true democracy, the only democracy which can not merely destroy but rebuild, the Calvinistic democracy, re-awoke all the echoes of the old world, with its notes of vengeance and of triumph. And then — this was the part of music in the work of Calvin — then, what crumbled was not Jericho — it was Rome.

This article was first posted in the February 1977 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.


  1. Opp. Calv., xiv, p. 28.
  2. Opp. Calv., iv, p. 420.
  3. Opp. Calv., iv, p. 419.
  4. Opp. Calv., iv, pp. 420, 421.
  5. Opp. Calv., vi, p. 171.
  6. Opp. Calv., v, p. 405: Responsio ad Sadoleti Epistolam.

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