15 May 2009

Kuyper on the Genevan melodies

Abraham Kuyper
I have recently reread Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism, delivered in 1898 at Princeton Seminary. Although it's a marvellous book meriting more than one reading, there are some quirky elements that have not stood the test of time. Although his chapter on "Calvinism and Politics" obviously holds special interest for me, this time I took note of his treatment of the Genevan Psalms in "Calvinism and Art." Here the author uncritically repeats an opinion that has been widespread for a long time, namely, that the tunes chosen for the Psalms in the 16th century were well-known popular melodies already familiar to the people:

The men who first arranged the music of the Psalm for the Calvinistic singing were the brave heroes who cut the strands that bound us to the Cantus firmus, and selected their melodies from the free world of music. To be sure, by doing this, they adopted the people's melodies, but as [Orentin] Douen rightly remarks, only in order that they might return these melodies to the people purified and baptized in Christian seriousness. Music also would flourish, henceforth, not within the narrow limitations of particular grace, but in the wide and fertile fields of common grace. The choir was abandoned; in the sanctuary the people themselves would sing, and therefore Bourgeois and the Calvinistic virtuosi who followed him were bound to make their selections from the popular melodies, but with this end in view, viz., that now the people would no longer sing in the saloon or in the street, but in the sanctuary, and thus, in their melodies, cause the seriousness of the heart to triumph over the heat of the lower passions.

Though Kuyper was in error here, his account parallels the oft-repeated tale that Martin Luther's EIN' FESTE BURG was originally an old German drinking song. Kuyper continues:

It was this same Bourgeois who had the courage to adopt rhythm and to exchange the eight Gregorian modes for the two of major and minor from the popular music; to sanctify its art in consecrated hymn, and so to put the impress of honor upon that musical arrangement of tunes, from which all modern music had its rise [emphasis mine].

Both of these assertions were long ago discredited, although the latter misconception was likely due to Kuyper's familiarity with 19th-century Dutch arrangements of the psalms which masked their modal character. Prof. Karel Deddens corrects the record:

Already the first edition of Strasbourg, 1539, was supplied with melodies. We have already mentioned the name of Matthias Greiter, who composed several melodies, e.g. the melody of Psalm 119, which was used by Calvin for his rhymed version of Psalm 36, while Beza later on used this melody also for his rhymed version of Psalm 68.

Almost all other melodies originated in France. The composer of most of them was Louis Bourgeois, a cantor at the Church of Saint Pierre in Geneva; he had been attracted by John Calvin himself to work on the Psalms. Louis Bourgeois composed melodies on the so-called church modes.

The melodies are of an extremely high quality. As for the church modes, already in that time they had a very long history. Thus it is absolutely not true that the Psalm melodies were based on street songs of that time or on airs and tunes which were popular then. For many decades this theory has been repeated, but it is totally wrong.

Here is more from H. Hasper's Calvijns Beginsel voor den Zang in den Eredienst (1955):

During the past century the question has arisen again and again where the tunes of the Genevan Psalter may have come from. In his standard Clément Marot et le Psautier Huguenot . . . 1879 . . . Orentin Douen [whom Kuyper cites] answered this question by saying that they had been borrowed from popular tunes and street songs. This statement, pronounced with great authority but substantiated with insufficient evidence, has always been pretty generally accepted. . . . It is the great merit of Emmanuel Haein to have consigned the views of Douen to the realm of fancy. . . .

Kuyper did not have the benefit of Haein's work and thus did not know any better. However, we certainly do and need not make the same error.

2 comments:

CMWoodall said...

I've heard the oft repeated theory that the Wesleys took the saloon tunes and baptized them with doctrinal lyrics.
Did that trend begin with the Wesleys? I can see even scholars imposing that back into earlier eras.

Thanks for pointing it out.

almunday said...

When the Salvation Army set their songs to popular tunes of the time he was criticised by some. But he responded by asking why the Devil should have all the good tunes.