What is the Book of Praise ? -T.M.P. Vanderven

From the Clarion January 24, 1997

It took 25 years to complete the Genevan Psalter.

The Reformation took hold of Geneva in 1536. And within a year the Genevans felt an urgent need to provide the congregation with songs of praise appropriate for use in worship services. By 1562 the reformed church of Geneva had its complete Psalter which included rhymings of the 150 psalms plus a number of scriptural hymns and canticles.

The driving force behind the Genevan Psalter was John Calvin himself. He was fully convinced of the immense importance of allowing God’s people to participate in the public prayers during the weekly services (contrary to the Roman practice in which the congregation was largely silent). Calvin distinguished two types of public prayers: those spoken and those sung. He therefore worked hard to give the congregation its own liturgical voice by means of a Psalter in the language of the people.

Various other well-known reformed theologians were involved in the development of this French Psalter, among them William Farel (who persuaded Calvin to stay in Geneva) and Theodore Beza (the first principal of the Reformed College in Geneva). Rhymings came from Calvin, and later from Clement Marot. In addition, Calvin was able to attract a number of able musicians to create the melodies: Louis Bourgeois, Maitre Pierre (about whom little is known), and Matthias Greiter. In 1562 at least 30,000 copies were printed! The tremendous success of the Genevan Psalter also translated into an 8% profit, which was used to help the poor of the city.

The Genevan Psalter remained in use in French-speaking reformed churches until the middle of the 19th Century. The psalter was translated into Italian, Dutch, German, and Portuguese, and in more obscure languages such as Gascon (Northern Spain), Malay, and Tamil. The reformed churches in Holland adopted the Genevan Psalter in rhymings by Datheen ( app. 1566). And this version remained in use in these churches until 1773. With the spread of the Dutch trading colonies, the psalter travelled to Asian countries. Reformed churches were founded in various Dutch colonies, resulting in local versions of the psalter. Interestingly, a modern version of the four-part settings of the 150 psalms by Claude Goudimel was published in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) for the reformed churches in that country (Mazmur Edisi Harmoni, 1987).

Since 1773, the Dutch reformed churches have revised their psalmbook a number of times, adding more hymns. Yet the tunes of the original Genevan Psalter have been maintained. The Canadian Reformed Churches decided to follow in these historical footsteps, and may now boast an English version of the Genevan Psalter, their Book of Praise: An Anglo-Genevan Psalter. It is the general consensus of musicologists across the world that this collection of psalm tunes is of the highest calibre, unequalled by other psalters.