The Beauty of Simplicity

In our preceding article we embarked upon a survey of the musical situation in the Church at the time of the Reformation. Our first point was that the music in the Protestant worship service, like the preaching, had to be in the vernacular. This departure from the Latin called for the establishment of a whole new body of church song, the appointment of trained musicians and poets for the writing of the new liturgical music, and the continuous revisions of and additions to the new collection.

In continuing this survey we should point out that the music of the Catholic Mass had developed by the time of the Reformation to the point where the significance of the Word was lost. This degeneration of interest in the Word was a gradual thing, an almost imperceptible movement covering the span of centuries. For a period of about 100 years most of the important composers had been writers of church music. With few exceptions, these men wrote almost exclusively for the Church, and most of them earned their livelihood working for the Church or for ecclesiastical authorities. Their experiments, the novelties, their serious works, and often their lighter works, were written for the Church. This was natural, since almost the only media for performance were those groups of players and singers who were in the pay of the great cathedrals or church schools.

Polytextuality and Polyphony

The liturgical music of the Church became increasingly elaborate. The test of a composer’s worth often lay in the ingenuity which he displayed in his writing. Particularly at odds with Calvin’s concept of the importance of the Word was the widespread practice by many composers of simultaneously using more than one set of texts in a composition. While one voice sang the text and tune of a secular song, another voice would sing with its own melody the Latin text from the Catholic Mass. This polytextuality and polyphony, difficult as it was to write, and however much it may evoke our admiration for the brilliant composers who possessed this dexterity, was hardly fit for use in a Protestant Church with its emphasis upon the textual content of the piece. The Roman Catholic Church itself recognized the evil inherent in this music. The Council of Trent in 1564 took belated action and even seriously discussed the complete abolition o( polyphonic music from the Church because of the current disregard by composers for the religious text. It was Palestrina who took the lead in refining the Catholic church music and re-establishing to a certain degree the compatibility of Word and music.



The Lutheran Church also recognized the problem of textual importance for the congregation. However, the problem was too great and the cure for it was too drastic for Luther himself to be able to arrive at a solution. The polyphony-loving Germans were not quite ready to eliminate all such music from the worship service. While the mighty chorales were sung by the congregation in simple syllabic style, the performance of more elaborate music by choir and organ was still encouraged. The love for this music and the motivation for its inclusion in the German Lutheran service is well demonstrated by this quotation from Luther’s writing:

Is it not singular and admirable that one can sing a simple tune or tenor (as the musici call it) while three, four, or five other voices, singing along, envelop this simple tune with exultation, playing and leaping around and embellishing .it wonderfully through craftsmanship as if they were leading a celestial dance, meeting and embracing each other amiably and cordially. Those who have a little understanding of this art and are moved by it, must express great admiration and come to the conclusion that there is hardly a more unusual thing than such a song adorned with several voices.

Luther thus left the door open for a continuation of the polyphonic tradition in the Lutheran Church. The substitution of complete German texts for the Latin text of the Roman Catholic Mass and the introduction of the simple congregational chorale were the chief immediate contributions of the Lutheran Reformation to the historical development of Protestant church music.

Calvin and “Measured Verse”

John Calvin, arriving a generation later than Luther, was able to study the musical situation under different circumstances. He had been in France and Italy before settling in Geneva and had been exposed to the best and the worst in the field of church music. During his several years in Strasbourg he had seen and studied the: activity o( the Lutheran Church there. He knew the musical strength and weaknesses of the Lutheran Church. In addition, he was well acquainted with the music of the Ro· man Church. When he arrived in Geneva he found a Church with no liturgical music whatsoever. The way was thus open for him to make a fresh start, unencumbered by any local musical situation.

Calvin had been exposed in France to the work of such poets and musicians as Ronsard, Baid, Jannequin, Le Jeune, Goudimel, and others, who had profoundly affected the course of French music by the development of the principle of vers mewrez (measured verse). This principle of writing music “note against note” called for composition according to strict scansion, with all the syllables of the verse being sung simultaneously by all the voices. This method of writing, quite different from the freedom accorded the several voices in polyphonic music, was adopted by Calvin as the answer to his need. These French poets and musicians, in their efforts to return to the simple clarity of the pre-Christian Greek poetry, had unwittingly solved the problem of textual clarity for the Christian church. The adoption of measured verse, a syllable for every note, with a unified rhythmic scheme throughout the song, signified the beginning of a new era for church music.

The adoption of this type of music, however, called for a great change. A whole new collection of music had to be written. There was no such music available for congregational, organ, or choral use. The music of the Roman Catholic Church, even though the Latin texts could be translated into the vernacular, was still too elaborate for use in the simple church service. The principle of association, too, entered the picture. Calvin made every effort to develop a style of music which was distinctive to his movement. As a result, nothing in the music, the text, or the performance of these, could be confused with the music, the text, or the performance of the Roman Catholic Mass music. The fact that today, some four hundred years later, the music of the Genevan Psalter is still readily recognized for its distinctiveness is evidence that Calvin and his co-workers succeeded in their aim.

Calvin’s Psalter

In dwelling so extensively upon the simple syllabic relation of the music to the text in Calvin’s day, we have neglected to mention the source of the text itself. It is readily apparent that Calvin loved the Psalms. His Church was a persecuted Church, and persecuted people have always found comfort in the Psalms. While still in Strasbourg Calvin began to translate and versify the Psalms when he first decided to write his own song book. However, we are inclined to believe that those who assert that the Calvinist may sing only the Psalms in the worship service must be in error. In his first Psalter published at Strasbourg in 1539 Calvin included, in addition to the Psalms, a setting of the New Testament Song of Simeon, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed. In the 1542 edition we find a setting of the Lord’s Prayer. Other songs, such as the Song of Mary and the Song of Zechariah also appear in various editions. The Rev. H . Hasper, distinguished Dutch authority on Calvinist Psalmody, has stated that if Calvin had lived longer he undoubtedly would have continued to add to the collection of songs in his praise book.

Calvin had seen enough of the dangers of doctrinal error which could crEep in through the subjectivity of hymns based upon human experience to realize that the songs of his church should be based upon actual scriptural text. The Bible, filled with unlimited material for sermons, is likewise a boundless resource for song. His insistence upon doctrinal purity was best realized in song by strict adherence to scriptural text. He thereby carried into practice in one more way the principle of the supremacy of the Word. The natural beauty of that Word was enhanced, not submerged, by the simple beauty of the measured melody. Syllable against note, note against syllable, the two elements combined in the creation of a new religious art form which was one of the greatest cultural contributions of the Protestant Reformation.

Revival of Psalm Singing

Calvin’s interest in the singing of Psalms is still with us today. As psalm-singing churches, the Christian Reformed and others are carrying on a great tradition. However, while singing the versified psalm texts, we have neglected to a great degree the great music which was originally written to be sung ill the Reformed churches. The task of translating the Hebrew Psalms into English verse to match the rhythm and the accent of the Genevan Psalm tunes has apparently proved too difficult for our poets. These majestic tunes become almost unsingable if their natural accents are not reflected in the text. We hope, however, that our increased knowledge of modal harmony, our better understanding of the character of the French language, and the greater facility of our Reformed poets and musicians will result in newer and better translations of the Psalms to be sung with t.he great old Genevan melodies.

The task is not insurmountable. After many years of effort, Dr. H. Haspel and his Committee on Psalm Reform of The Netherlands Gereformeerde Kerken have finally produced a Psalter in which the accents of each line of verse match beautifully the accents of the original Genevan melodies. The result has been a revival of Psalm singing in the original rhythmic style which has given new life to congregational singing in The Netherlands. That committee is now at work applying its principles of translation to all Western European languages in the hope that this revival of Psalm singing may sweep the Western world.

Safeguards for Church Music

As a Church which sings an increasingly large number of hymns, we are going in the direction which Calvin himself may have gone had he lived longer. (He died within two years of the completion of the Psalter.) As a matter of orthodoxy, we must concern ourselves with the content of our hymns. One wonders whether a subjective type of text dealing with an individual’s religious experience is appropriate for congregational worship. Might it not be more fitting for home or private use? Cannot mass praise and petition to God be better expressed in the more objective song taken from the Psalms or the hymns found in Scripture itself? At all events, extreme care must be exercised in our choice of text. Doctrinal purity, proper restraint in expression, and the loftiness proper to religious liturgical exercise must be present in every hymn used in the worship service.

Of almost as great importance is the music to which the text is set. We have seen how Calvin adopted for his own the principle of measured verse as it was practiced by the sixteenth century French composers and poets. This principle made the music subservient to the text. The music in its simplicity became a vehicle for the words. Subject to the laws of harmony and rhythm, the devices of musical expression were used for only one purpose, that of delineating more beautifully the meaning of the text in music than could be done in speech. Truly beautiful church music will enhance the meaning of the text, seeming to grow from the text.

Although this principle has been quite universally accepted by hymn writers and has been followed in the selection of psalm and hymn tunes for our praise books, it is not always considered in the choice of music sung by choirs or soloists. We must learn to distinguish between music designed for worship, for the home, or for the concert hall. Admittedly there are times when the sheer beauty of a piece of music can be extremely satisfying and uplifting. Music for the Church, however, must always be considered first of all from the standpoint of its relation to the Word, its aptness as the clothing for a religious thought. As such, we must question any technical devices which tend to hide or obscure the meaning of the thought. Polyphony for polyphony’s sake, counterpoint for counterpoint’s sake, chromaticism for color’s sake, exotic rhythms for variety’s sake these are all extraneous and should have no place in the music designed for worship.

This does not mean, however, that the choir, for instance, is condemned to the performance of simple psalm and hymn tunes. If that were true there would be no need for a choir. There is much music written for the choir which satisfies all the requirements for Calvinistic church music and still is technically beyond the congregation. Levels of pathos, jubilance, contentment, serenity, joy, sorrow, exultation, and praise can be attained by the choral rendition or scriptural texts which can never be reached by a congregation. A great mass of choral repertoire by Reformed and other Protestant composers has developed which we should not be deprived of in our worship services. The cardinal principle which we must observe, however, is that the music must be a fitting vehicle for the Word and must enhance, not cloud, the beauty of the Word.