Sunday, May 6, 2012

John Calvin and Music

The French reformer John Calvin - or Jean Calvin as he is called in French - doesn't have a particular good reputation. This is partly due to aspects of his theology, which are often misrepresented. In musical circles he is generally considered as an enemy of music, or of arts in general. This has to be considered a misrepresentation as well, which is largely based on a lack of knowledge of his influence in musical matters and on a comparison with the German reformer Martin Luther whose great interest in music is well documented.

Luther was musically knowledgeable and even wrote some music himself. Nothing of this sort is known about Calvin, but one has to assume that he had at least a basic knowledge of music as this was part of the education of the higher echelons of society. In regard to the role of music in the liturgy the difference between Luther and Calvin isn't as big as one may think. Both wanted the congregation to sing. Whereas Martin Luther encouraged poets to write hymns which could be easily memorized and composers to set them to music, John Calvin took the initiative to create a rhymed version of the Book of Psalms. And just like Luther wrote some hymns himself, Calvin also rhymed several psalms. The result of his efforts was the so-called Genevan Psalter, with rhymed versions of the Book of Psalms by Clément Marot and Theodore de Bèze. The melodies were written by various composers. Not all of them are known, but one of them was Louis Bourgeois.

Calvin was more radical in his rejection of the Roman-Catholic religion and practices, and this had its effect on liturgy. Whereas Luther maintained the use of Latin and adopted parts of the old liturgical repertoire, sometimes translated into German, Calvin did away with all remains of the old religion. The singing of the congregation was the only kind of music which he considered appropriate, and this was confined to singing Psalms in monodic fashion. That doesn't mean the rhymed Psalms escaped the attention of composers. Several reputable composers, like Clément Janequin, Claude Goudimel and Claude Le Jeune, wrote arrangements and polyphonic settings of the melodies from the Genevan Psalter. These were written to be sung in private, in the homes of Protestant families or in their social gatherings. This practice was followed in the Netherlands which developed into the European stronghold of Calvinism.

It was here that the Genevan Psalter was widely used and is still used until the present day. The French melodies were adopted and set to new versifications in Dutch. Like in France before composers used the melodies for arrangements and polyphonic settings. The very fact that a famous composer like Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck created polyphonic settings of the complete Psalter bears witness to the quality of these melodies which are not as simple and unsophisticated as some seem to think. In addition they were used for instrumental arrangements, for organ (Sweelinck and Anthoni van Noordt), for recorder (Jacob van Eyck) or lute. The latter were from the pen of Nicolas Vallet, a French-born lutenist who sought refuge in Amsterdam for religious reasons. He was one of many French Protestants (Huguenots) who emigrated to the Netherlands.

The fact that music based on the Genevan Psalter is less well-known has largely to do with the character of the music-scene in the Netherlands. It was a decentralised state, and a middle-class society without a powerful aristocracy maintaining their own courts and chapels and ruling parts of the country. This is one of the explanations that no large-scale compositions were written on the basis of the melodies of the Genevan Psalter, unlike Lutheran hymns which found their way into motets, sacred concertos and cantatas from the late 16th century onwards. The towns were the heart of the Republic, and music making at home or in the collegia musica was at the centre of music life in the Dutch Golden Age, the first half of the 17th century. Here the psalm settings by Sweelinck were sung as well as other religious music reflecting the spirit of the Reformation.

The whole vocal oeuvre of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck has been recorded in recent years by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam. I hope to review the various recordings of this project in the near future. Last April another Dutch ensemble, the Camerata Trajectina, performed a programme under the title "Calvin and Music" which included some of Sweelinck's settings of the Genevan Psalter, but also French settings by Goudimel and Le Jeune. In the second half of the programme various sacred songs were performed, on free poetic texts by some of the best poets from the Dutch Golden Age, like Jacob Cats. Although originally Calvinism resisted the singing of anything that was not directly based on the Bible, the practice of making music at home encouraged poets to write texts which could be used by the faithful. These were often set to existing melodies. For a modern audience it is quite odd to hear Dowland's Can she excuse my wrongs on a text about the Last Judgement, but this was common practice at the time, and one has to assume that most people who sang such songs didn't know the original texts.

The concert gave a very interesting survey of the sacred repertoire which was sung in the Netherlands. It wasn't only musically revealing - showing which music was popular and used for new texts - but also offered an insight into the religious life of Dutch Calvinists of the 17th century. Camerata Trajectina gave fine performances, fortunately showing the sensitivity not to ridicule the 17th-century texts. There is certainly much more to find, and it would be worthwhile to further explore this kind of repertoire.