25 Feb 2013

The Huguenot battle anthem: Psalm 68

Ernst Stolz' recording journey through the Psalms has now brought him to Psalm 68, famous as the anthem of the French Reformed Christians in their struggle with their persecutors. This is one of the most durable of the Genevan tunes and seems to have had an influence on the familiar 17th-century tune, LASST UNS ERFREUEN, often paired with the text, All Creatures of Our God and King.

22 Feb 2013

The Hungarian Reformed Church

Many North American Christians are unaware that the Reformation had an impact in east central Europe. Hungary was one of the countries affected by it, and this influence has lasted to the present. The Reformed Church in Hungary has a number of unique characteristics setting it apart from other churches. Its confessional standards are the ecumenical Heidelberg Catechism and the Second Helvetic Confession. It is one of only two explicitly Reformed churches to have bishops, although these bishops are little more than district superintendents and make no claim to be in apostolic succession. In fact, as its website puts it, "the church exists in its congregations." It is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. As the map indicates, the Reformed Church encompasses congregations scattered throughout the pre-1920 Lands of the Crown of St. Stephen, which extend from the Adriatic in the west to the Carpathian Mountains in the east, and from the borders of Poland in the north to those of Serbia in the south. In Hungary proper Reformed Christians make up the second largest church body after the Roman Catholic Church, while in Romanian Transylvania, they make up the largest Hungarian-speaking church denomination.

Why are Reformed Christians so concentrated in the east? These were the lands controlled by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century, whereas western Hungary was under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. The Habsburgs imposed the Counter-Reformation within their territories, while the Ottoman authorities were rather more tolerant of religious diversity within their lands. (Recall that they had taken in the Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain in 1492.) Thus the Reformation flourished in the latter but was suppressed in the former.

A dozen years ago I guest lectured at one of Redeemer's sister universities. There I encountered a student in one of the classes who had a Hungarian name but carried a Romanian passport. He was a Reformed Christian who lived in a region of Romania with an ethnic Hungarian majority. Despite his Romanian passport, he told me that he felt himself to be Hungarian, which, as I understand it, is not atypical of the Hungarian-speaking populations in Romania. Thus to be a Reformed Christian in that country brings with it a Hungarian identity as well.

The geographic distance between the Hungarian Reformed and other Reformed Christians is undoubtedly exacerbated by linguistic distance as well. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish and Estonian but completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages surrounding it in central Europe. I have considerable admiration for such people as Frank and Aria Sawyer, who teach at the Sárospatak Reformed Theological Academy and long ago mastered this difficult language.

In North America the Hungarian Reformed are represented in two bodies: the Hungarian Reformed Church in America and the Calvin Synod, a confessional body within the United Church of Christ. Reformed Christians in Hungary still sing the Genevan Psalms in Albert Szenczi Molnár's 16th-century versifications. If their North American counterparts have given this up, they would certainly do well to re-appropriate a tradition that has served their brethren in the old country so well over the centuries. If they should ever look for a usable English translation, I would be happy to provide them with one, however partial it may be at present.

Incidentally, although I have no known close Hungarian family relationships, my genealogical records indicate that my wife, daughter and I are all lineal descendants of Kings Geza I through Istvan V of Hungary.

20 Feb 2013

Molnár's psalter online

I have recently been alerted to the existence of a scanned copy of the Psalterium Hungaricum of 1607, containing the texts of Albert Szenczi Molnár's Hungarian versifications of the 150 Psalms and the Song of Simeon from Luke 2:29-32. Once you are in the site, click on the OMNIA EX UNO icon until you are at the first Psalm. Then click on the word Fotó at the upper centre of the screen to see the first of the scanned pages. Then click on the right arrow above the image to continue through the scanned volume. This was posted in 2007 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of this edition.

18 Feb 2013

Update: Goudimel and Martinů

Two more Goudimel arrangements of the Psalms from Ernst Stolz. Psalm 66, of course, has the same melody as Psalms 98 and 118, while Psalm 67 shares its tune with Psalm 33.

The 20th-century composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) composed his Česká rapsodie (Czech Rhapsody), Cantata for Baritone, Mixed Chorus, Orchestra and Organ, H. 118, in 1918. At the end of the following movement Martinů quotes the Genevan tune of Psalm 23. I've not yet heard the entire piece, but I understand that at one point the baritone sings Jiří Strejc's text of this psalm.

14 Feb 2013

Singing the Psalms through adversity: Hungary

The following appeared in the 11 February issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly "Principalities & Powers" column:

I love the Hungarian people. Among their many national virtues, they boast some of the greatest musicians, such as Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), who did so much to shape 20th-century music by drawing on their country’s unique folk idioms. There is a substantial Reformed Christian minority in Hungary, and they are well known for their love of singing the Psalms. In fact, it can be justly argued that psalm-singing carried them through four decades of communist tyranny.

Last year saw the 450th anniversary of the completion of the Genevan Psalter. Although the Psalter’s texts were originally written in French verse, they were quickly thereafter translated into a number of other languages, including German, Dutch, Czech and Hungarian. The remarkable polymath, Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634), was responsible for the Hungarian version. A pastor, linguist, poet, writer and translator, Molnár (whose surname means miller) was born in Senec (Szenc), near what is today the Slovak capital of Bratislava, and would come to exercise a formative influence on the development of the Hungarian language.

Molnár travelled widely during his life, visiting and studying in a number of European centres associated with the Reformation. His metrical translation of the Psalms was inspired by the German-language Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser and was published in Herborn in 1607. (The Reformed Christian legal theorist Johannes Althusius had published his Politics in Herborn a few years earlier but had moved to Emden before Molnár's arrival.) Molnár died in Kolozsvár in Hungarian Transylvania, now Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Amazingly, Molnár is reputed to have completed his translation of the Genevan Psalms in less than 100 days, which must surely set a speed record, given that this would require him to translate at least a psalm-and-a-half per day. Molnár’s texts have stood the test of time and are still sung by Hungarians today. The extent to which they are sung can be judged by the increasing numbers of performances posted to such sites as youtube, the sheer number of which might lead the casual observer to assume that the entire Hungarian nation is organized into hundreds of thousands of choral groups.

One of the best-known of these is the Cantus choir of the Reformed College in Debrecen, a major centre of Reformed Christianity in eastern Hungary. The College was founded in 1538, and the Cantus in 1739. The Cantus has recorded choral performances of the Psalms, including Kodály’s arrangements of Psalms 33, 50, 114, 121, 124, 126 and 150, whose continuing popularity appears to be undimmed by the passing of the years.

Hungary suffered much in the 20th century. In 1920, following its loss in the Great War, it was deprived of nearly three-quarters of its territory, leaving nearly a third of Hungarian-speakers in the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as in a newly enlarged Romania. During the Second World War it suffered under a pro-fascist government, followed by 40 years of communism, interrupted in 1956 by a failed effort at freedom quickly crushed by Soviet tanks. However, once Mikhail Gorbachev ended Moscow’s sphere of influence over its “allies,” Hungary was the first to move towards democracy and to begin dismantling the Iron Curtain.

After the chains of oppression had fallen away, outsiders discovered that Hungarians were still singing from the Genfi zsoltár, their sturdy voices ringing out their complaints, petitions, thanksgivings and praises to God, despite the efforts of an officially atheistic régime at silencing them. Small wonder, then, that many of us admire the Hungarians, so many of whom have persisted in giving voice to God’s Psalms in the face of such adversity.

10 Feb 2013

Isaac Watts: compulsive versifier

It seems that I am not the only person to suffer from the compulsion to versify psalms. Isaac Watts got there first some 300 years ago, as recounted in this article: Isaac Watts, Father of English Hymnody. An excerpt:

From an early age Isaac had a propensity to rhyming, and often even his conversation was in rhyme. His father became quite annoyed at this and told him to stop. When the rhyming persisted, the father started to whip the boy, and little Isaac cried out:
"O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make."

5 Feb 2013

Stolz: Psalm 65

Ernst Stolz has posted a delightful performance of Psalm 65, which sounds as if it were composed with recorders in mind.