Here the notes I used for a talk on Claude Goudimel and the Genevan Psalter for our Reformation Celebration on October 31st of 2009.
While Claude Goudimel was not directly involved in putting together the Genevan Psalter, and, in fact, he wasn’t even converted from Catholicism until the Genevan Psalter was nearly complete, he was one of the most influential men to help spread Calvinism through Europe in the late 16th century.
So before I talk about Goudimel directly, let me summarize the history of the Psalter up to the time Goudimel began to work it. The seeds for the Psalter were sown in 1532 when Clément Marot, a popular and gifted French poet began settings a few Psalms to meter while employed at the French court in Paris (thirty years before the Genevan Psalter was finally finished). They were sung as popular poetry in the Catholic court. Calvin met Marot in 1536 and after hearing his verse and witnessing the congregational singing in Bucer’s church in Stassbourg, he began work on what would become the Genevan Psalter. Calvin took Marot’s 13 Psalms, put six more into verse along with Nunc Dimittis, Decalogue, and Nicene Creed and commissioned two German musicians from Bucer’s church two write simple melodies. This first Psalter was published in 1539. Marot the poet came to Geneva for a few years and the work proceeded and resulted in an expanded Psalter in 1542 and 1543. Marot died in 1544 leaving the Psalter far from done.
Five years later, Theodore de Beza, a scholar and Calvin’s eventual successor in Geneva, continued the work. Beza steadily worked away at the project, finally finishing the entire Psalter in 1562. Beza’s Psalms are very accurate and contain a high degree of fidelity to the original text, especially considering they are translations and put into meter. By 1562, the Genevan Psalter was considered “complete.” It contained all 150 Psalms, the Nunc dimittis and Decalogue set to 125 different tunes, each in a different meter.
Up to this point, Calvin had been the driving force behind the whole project. He had not participated in any of the musical or poetic work in the final edition, but it was his idea from the beginning and he worked tirelessly finding and inspiring qualified men to continue the project.
The completed Genevan Psalter was a monumental accomplishment in Christian history. This was probably the first time in history that all the Psalms were collected together and set in manner simple enough for the average person to sing.
This Psalter was used extensively in Geneva but it took men like Claude Goudimel spread the Psalms and with it, Calvinist ideas and theology through Europe and eventually across the world.
Goudimel was born around 1514 in Eastern France and received his education at the University of Paris. He was known as one of the best French composers of his day and composed quality in the form of both secular chansons and complex sacred music for the Roman Catholic Church. As a Catholic musician, he composed 5 settings of the mass, 3 magnificats, and several motets, AND several complicated pieces based on the tunes from the Genevan Psalter written for catholic use (until the Genevan tunes were outlawed by catholics). He seemed to be sympathetic with Protestants in the 1550’s, and he converted from Catholicism in 1560. The important work that Goudimel really accomplished was the harmonizationed versions of the Psalter that he produced between his conversion in 1560 and his death in 1573. He harmonized the complete Psalter three times. The first setting, finished in 1564 is the simple, hymn-like settings that we sing here at RCC. The second setting finished the following year, was a little more musically complex and his third and final setting was much more polyphonic and complicated. He was still finishing this harmonization when he was killed by Catholics in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.
While these harmonizations of the Psalter where not actually intended to be used in congregational worship, they where what really made the Psalter popular with the middle to upper classes in France and through Europe. Goudimel wrote in the preface to one edition that the music was to be used in the home for worship and recreation. It used to be a very popular recreational activity among the middle and upper class and even students to get together and sing and play in parts. Music was changing at a rapid rate during this period and music was more easily available with printing press so singing was kind of the “video games” of the 16th century (at least for college students).
These harmonizations became immensely popular in France and quickly spread through Europe. Calvinist theology often accompanied the Psalms , especially in Holland and Germany. They were translated into German very quickly and were seen as such a threat to Lutheranism that Dr. Cornelius Becker made his own version of the Psalms in German that would eventually result in Heinrich Schutz’s Psalter from which we sing today.
Since the 16th century, the Psalter has spread to Germany, Holland, Italy, England, Scotland, Hungary, Belgium, to the Americas, Canada, and even to South Africa, Australia, and have recently become popular in Japan.