Genevan psalter

The Genevan Psalter is a collection of metrical psalms created under the supervision of John Calvin. Metrical Psalms are rhymed versions of the songs from the Book of Psalms, found in the Bible.


Before the Protestant Reformation the singing of the Psalms was generally done by a select group of performers, not by the entire congregation. John Calvin understood that the entire congregation was to participate in praising God in the worship service. Already in his famous work Institutes of the Christian Religion of 1536 he speaks of the importance of the singing of Psalms. Later in Articles for the organization of the church and its worship in Geneva, January 16, 1537, Calvin writes the following: "it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love." For this reason he wanted to create a song book in a form easily accessible to the people.

After being forced to move away from Geneva in 1538, Calvin settled in Strasbourg. He joined the Hugenot Congregation there where he also led numerous worship services. It was in Strasbourg where he got familiar with the German versification of the Psalms written by Martin Luther and others. Calvin took these songs to his French congregation for which he wrote some metrical versifications himself. His own versions of the Psalms were apparently not of sufficient quality and he turned to the French court poet, Clément Marot who already versified most of the psalms in French during the first part of the sixteenth century.

The 1539 edition

In 1539 the first edition of Calvin's Psalter was published. It bore the title "Aulcuns Pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant" and contained 22 psalms and hymns, including 13 versifications of Marot, the ten commandments, the song of Simeon and the Apostolic Creed set to music. Most of the melodies therein were familiar tunes used in the German church in Strasbourg at that time. Some of these melodies, presumably composed by Wolfgang Dachstein or Matthias Greiter. In the current collection of the Genevan Psalter the following melodies have survived: Psalm 1, 2, 15, 32, 33, 36, 51, 67, 68, 69, 103, 114, 115, 130, 137 and 143.

The 1542 edition

In 1541 Calvin returned to Geneva where he published a new psalter in 1542. Guillaume Franc, cantor and music teacher in Geneva, contributed numerous tunes for this edition including Psalm 6, 8, 19, 22, 24 (also used for 62, 95 and 111), and 38

The 1543 edition

Clément Marot moved to Geneva in 1543 and was commissioned by Calvin to create rhymed versions of all the Psalms, he was unable to complete this and died in the fall of 1544. His work was continued by Théodore de Bèze. The 1543 edition bore the title "La Forme des Prieres et Chantz ecclesiastiques" More melodies composed by Franc (Psalms 138 and 140) appeared as well as one by Pierre Certon (Ps 43).

The 1551 edition

Based on the introduction of this psalter "Pseaumes octantetrois de David" we can conclude that the supervising composer of this edition was Louis Bourgeois. It is not exactly clear how many of the melodies were actually composed by him, but it is generally assumed that most of the new additions were from his hand.

The 1562 edition

Finally in 1562 a complete Psalter was issued with rhymed versions of all 150 Psalms. Some of the earlier melodies were replaced. The last 40 melodies found herein are ascribed to a certain Maistre Pierre, probably Pierre Davantès. Many of the the lyrics were updated or replaced and all of them were written by Marot and De Bèze.

The worldwide use of Genevan Psalter today

The melodies from Geneva are still widely in use today in churches all over the world. Especially the melody written by Bourgeois, known as The Old 100th or "Doxology" is found in numerous hymnals everywhere. Most of the other melodies from the Genevan Psalter are still used in Calvinist churches in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Scotland, Canada, The United States, South Africa and Australia.

In the Netherlands, already in 1565, some 40 Genevan Psalm melodies are found in the Lukas d'Heere hymnal and eventually all of them were used in the reformed churches there. After 1773 the dutch churches started to sing these melodies with 'whole notes' only, removing the original rhythm from the music. This practice disappeared gradually with exception of some very conservative churches still singing them this way today. Many of the Calvinist churches founded in North America were founded by the dutch, taking with them these Genevan melodies. Probably the only group of Christians in North America that still uses the Genevan Psalter in its entirety are the Canadian Reformed Churches. They sing from their own Book of Praise, the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, containing English versifications for all the Genevan tunes. Dutch settlers in South Africa also founded calvinist churches there where still today many of the Genevan Melodies are being used as well.

In the German Evangelisch Reformierte Kirche we can find a complete collection of the Genevan Melodies. Some of these melodies are also found in the general hymnbook for the protestant churches in Germany. Ironically some of these reformed psalm melodies are even found in some catholic hymnbooks in use in Germany.

Music Historical Significance

The Genevan Psalms are predominantly used within the Calvinist churches. In these churches the role of church music is often far less significant than in e.g. Lutheran churches. One result of this different approach is that most of the singing in calvinist churches is done in unison. Harmonies and instrumental renditions were exclusively used within the home or for concert performances. Hence the number of musical arrangements based on the Genevan Psalm melodies is far smaller than those based on the church music from other church traditions. The most well known harmonies, based on the Genevan psalter are the 4-part choral renditions composed by Claude Goudimel. Less known are the compositions of Claude Lejeune from the same era and the arrangements of Clément Janequin and Paschal de l'Estocart. The Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck wrote various psalm variations for organ and psalm motets for choir. Anthonie van Noordt, another Dutch composer wrote organ works in a similar style, based on these melodies. Orlando di Lasso together with hsi son Rodolpho composed three-part renditions of the psalms by Caspar Ulenberg, whose melodies were mostly based on the Genevan Melodies. In North-Germany, Sweelincks pupil Paul Siefert composed two volumes of psalm motets.

The Polish composer Wojciech Bobowski, who later converted to Islam modified a number of psalms to the Turkish tuning system. In Italy the Jewish composer Salamone Rossi wrote motets based on the Genevan Melodies. A small number of Genevan psalms found their way into the Lutheran church tradition. Hence we find a number of these melodies in the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach and others. More recent composers inspired by the Genevan psalter are: Zoltán Kodály, Frank Martin en Arthur Honegger amongst others.

Notes on the Genevan Tunes

In the complete edition of 1562 only 124 tunes were used for the 150 Psalms. Hence some of them are used repeatedly. 15 tunes occur twice, 4 tunes occur three times and 1 occurs four times, in the following combinations:

*psalm 5 and 64
*psalm 14 and 53
*psalm 17, 63 and 70
*psalm 18 and 144
*psalm 24, 62, 95 and 111
*psalm 28 and 109
*psalm 30, 76 and 139
*psalm 31 and 71
*psalm 33 and 67
*psalm 36 and 68
*psalm 46 and 82
*psalm 51 and 69
*psalm 60 and 108
*psalm 65 and 72
*psalm 66, 98 and 118
*psalm 74 and 116
*psalm 77 and 86
*psalm 78 and 90
*psalm 100, 131 and 142
*psalm 117 and 127

Musical Characteristics

The Genevan Melodies form a strikingly homogeneous collection. Besides the fact that the melodies were written in a relatively short time span by a small number of composers, they have a number of characteristics in common.
* They are based on the so-called church modes
* The melodic range is within one octave
* The note values are restricted to half notes and quarter notes (with exception of the final note)
* Every melody starts with a half-note and ends on a breve (also known as double whole note)
* Regular meter and bar-lines are absent
* There are very few melismas (only Psalm 2, 6, 10, 13, 91, 138)


* Book of Praise, Anglo-Genevan Psalter, ISBN 0-88756-029-6

External links

* [ Genevan Psalter]
* [ Introduction to the Genevan Psalter]
* [ History of the Genevan Psalter]
* [ The Genevan Psalter and its Use at Providence Church]
* [ Genevan Psalter at]
* [ Book of Praise: Anglo-Genevan Psalter (PDF)]

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