Monday, September 6, 2010

Hymns of the Soul

Leon Wencelius, "The Word of God and Culture," in The Word of God and the Reformed Faith: Addresses Delivered at the Second American Calvinistic Conference held at Calvin College and Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 3, 4 and 5, 1942, pp. 169-171:

Music is born of joy. It is the direct manifestation of the soul happy to know itself united with God. Do not the angels sing of His glory and His sovereign goodness in their celestial choirs, and did not see the Lord himself like to sing those "hymns of the soul" which are the psalms with his disciples? Music is the art most capable of rendering glory to God. It is the most dynamic of arts, capable of moving all the senses profoundly. It is capable of setting the soul on fire, and when it attains its end, it reaches bliss in the most perfect serenity.

Music can have for its object either the praises of God or the joy of man who lives in the universe. Secular music, in the realm of general grace, has a role analogous to that of painting and of sculpture. It gladdens the soul and represents its emotions, but like the plastic arts it, too, can be corrupted. It, too, can swell the heart with vanity, flattering the singer, while nursing his pride, and develop in him hypocrisy, the taste of immoderation, thus corrupting him. In just such a way the Tyrians soothed their ears with voluptuous and perverse songs.

The Word of God teaches us that God should be the object of our songs. They must praise his creation in "profane" music and glorify salvation in religious music. Here again, the very history of the Reformation shows us how the Calvinistic civilization of the XVIth century was aware of music in the field of Culture.

From the time of his arrival in Geneva Calvin recommended the singing of psalms. He looked for translators and composers and set himself to work upon them. But when he discovered the psalms of Marot, he gave up his own translations in favor of those of the poet. Calvin discovered the most appropriate melodies for the interpretation of the spiritual truth of the Psalms, first among these were the noble airs of Bourgeois and of Goudimel.

As an Alsatian I am happy to point out that the tune of the songs which became the national anthem of the Huguenots was given to Calvin by an Alsatian composer, Greiter; and so Strasburg, which later gave France its Marseillaise, can be even more proud of having given to the Huguenots the melody of their famous Psalm 68: "Que Dieu se montre seulement!"

We are at the time of Calvin in the presence of a real Renaissance of sacred music. The people of the XVIth century enthusiastically adopted the psalms. They were sung by everybody, even by Charles V when he passed Paris, and especially along the pré aux clercs, by all the fervent youth of Paris. Faithful to Calvinist sobriety, the composers of the Psalter searched for the simplest possible melodies. They discovered, according to the work of a French critic of music, the predestined forms in which the religious fervor and though contained in the psalms flow with the greatest possible harmony. Once the theme was found, the composers were to treat it in the most simple manner, note against note. Music became simple and its notation underwent a complete transformation. The principal melody changed from the tenor to the soprano voice. The expression which established harmony between song and words was discovered and was to lead to the oratorio. Music, heretofore reserved to the clergy, now became a universal art, thanks to the Reformation. The Psalter, call[ed] the "siren of Calvinism" by its enemies, captivated many souls and its harmonies soon spread over all the world. The history of the Psalter was to parallel that of Calvinism and it is interesting to note that at the present moment, together with a renaissance of Calvinism, there is apparent a growing taste on the part of modern Calvinists for the old psalms of the XVIth century.

We may conclude by saying that music is a form of culture inspired by God in order to glorify the creation and its Creator.

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