Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sweelinck and the Genevan Psalter

The Reformation of the 16th century wasn't only a theological, but also a liturgical revolution. As an Antwerp refugee in the 16th century wrote from Calvinist Strasbourg: "Here, everyone sings, all sing together, men as well as women, and everyone has a book in hand". Despite the differences between the German reformer Martin Luther and his French counterpart Jean Calvin they had two things in common in regard to liturgy. They wanted the whole congregation to sing rather than a selective number of professional musicians, and they wanted the congregation to sing in the vernacular.

This was a clean break with a tradition of many centuries in which chants in Latin were sung by professional singers - only men - and the congregation kept silent. The result was a large number of hymns and metrical psalms which were written and composed by poets and composers of fame. Strangely enough the German hymns are much better known than the metrical psalms which were collected in the Genevan Psalter, printed in 1562.

But music lovers know more melodies from the Genevan Psalter than they may realise. The French metrical psalms were translated into German by Ambrosius Lobwasser, and several melodies have become famous, largely due to the fact that they have been used by composers like Bach. Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele is the Genevan melody of Psalm 42. The probably most famous of them all is O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which is Psalm 68 in the Genevan Psalter. This collection also contains some hymns, one of which is a metrical version of the Ten Commandments. Its melody has been used for the German hymn Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, best known from Bach's organ chorale Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit.

In addition the melodies of various Psalms have been derived from gregorian chant. Psalm 141, for instance, is based on the early-medieval hymn Conditor alme siderum. And one of the best-known sequences of the old church, Victimae paschali laudes, returns in the Genevan melody of Psalm 80.

The close connection between the Genevan Psalter and the German hymns on the one hand and the gregorian chant on the other hand indicates that those who state that the melodies of the Genevan Psalter are easy stuff and of little musical value just don't know what they are talking about.

If it was, why would a composer of the class of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck make the effort to set all of them polyphonically? And he was just one who used the melodies of the Genevan Psalter for his compositions. French composers of fame of the late 16th century also wrote music on these melodies, among them Paschal de l'Estocart and Clément Janequin. There is really no reason why the repertoire which is based upon the Genevan Psalter, should be ignored. But that is the reality nevertheless. Very few recordings have been devoted to this repertoire. Even Sweelinck's settings are not very well represented on disc.

That is going to change. The Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, directed by Harry van der Kamp, is devoting itself to a project of recording the complete vocal works of Sweelinck, called the Sweelinck Monument. The secular music has been recorded and recently the first volume of the Psalms has been released. For the time being these recordings are only available on the Dutch market, but they will appear on the international market at a later time.

This project cannot be valued enough. The quality of the music is first-rate, and historically Sweelinck's Psalm settings are important as they are the last specimens of the Franco-Flemish school which dominated European sacred music for such a long time. The madrigalisms which Sweelinck uses to depict elements in the text, reflect the influence of the Italian music of around 1600. As one may expect from the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, the performances are of the highest standard, with observation of what we know about the performance practice in Sweelinck's days, for instance in regard to temperament. As we know who the first singers of these Psalms were there can be no doubt that they were performed with one voice per part, and that is how the ensemble performs them. In the interest of those who are not familiar with the Genevan Psalter every setting by Sweelinck is preceded by the original melody.

This project testifies that the Genevan Psalter is musically valuable and should be given more attention to. I have grown up with these Psalms and still sing them every week in church. But it is worrying, and - listening to the settings by Sweelinck and others - simply incomprehensible that more than a few people are willing to exchange them for that dreadful revivalist stuff. Maybe the Sweelinck project will give them food for thought.

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