Sunday, August 22, 2010

Seemly So to Do

We have often talked about psalm paraphrases, which in many places
were first used for congregational singing, but not so much about the tunes that were sung with those paraphrases.

John Calvin believed that congregational singing in the language of the people should be an integral part of worship, and that such singing would help to reinforce the message of his sermons. The psalms were chosen because there could be nothing questionable in their doctrine, and this argument was used for a long time to come in order to discourage the singing of anything but psalms.

The Genevan Psalter was developed under Calvin's supervision over many years. The earliest edition (1539) contained only 22 selections, but gradually all 150 were paraphrased and set to 126 different tunes in the 1562 edition.

Calvin had also given much thought to the music to be used. In the preface to one edition, he wrote:

...we find by experience that (music) has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts in one way or another. Therefore we ought to be even more diligent in regulating it in such a way that it shall be useful to us and in no way pernicious.

He believed that the psalms needed their own tunes, which should not be derived from or even suggestive of secular music. There have been various claims that some tunes from the Genevan Psalter were arranged from popular tunes of the time, and this is still apparently a subject of debate, though a few of the tunes do seem to have been derived from common chants used in the Catholic church.

The tunes and texts of the Genevan Psalter have survived to our time, some more widely used than others. Initially they were intended to be sung in unison in worship, and harmonized versions were only to be used at home. Over the centuries there have been many different arrangements and harmonizations, though some churches even today still sing them in unison. In our internet age, there are many sites devoted to Calvin's psalter, even some which still maintain that only the psalms should be sung in worship.

Today's tune comes from the Genevan Psalter, by Louis (or Loys) Bourgeois, who was the musical editor of the 1551 edition and composed several of its tunes. The name by which we know it today comes from its pairing with this paraphrase of Psalm 100, which was written by William Kethe for the Anglo-Genevan Psalter used by Protestant refugees in Geneva from England during the Catholic reign of Mary. At any rate, it is probably the oldest tune we know and sing regularly.

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to you, God, with cheerful voice:
Serve you with mirth, your praise forth tell,
We come before you and rejoice.

We know that you are God indeed;
Without our aid you did us make:
We are your folk, you will us feed,
And for your sheep you will us take.

We enter then your gates with praise,
Approach with joy your courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless your Name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? We know our God is good,
Your mercy is for ever sure;
Your truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.

Wiliam Kethe, 1560; alt.
Louis Bourgeois, 1551

Though the melody is by Bourgeois, the great number of harmonizations done in the last 450 years make it difficult to assign this one to anyone in particular.


AuntE said...

I have no problem singing the Psalms! However, (You knew that was coming, didn't you?) the convoluted way some of them were put into meter is brow wrinkling at the least. My favourite (if that's the right word) example is in the 3rd verse, second line:

"Approach with joy your courts unto"

Please tell me it made more sense then than it does now!?!

Anonymous said...

Of course it makes sense (then as now). Just read it in context (the previous line). We (let us) approach . . .