Thursday, August 1, 2013

So What's with the Genevan Psalter?

Back in Debrecen, I had been advised to look for Dr. Istvan Almasi, a musicologist well-acquainted with the Genevan Psalter. It was not difficult to find him, generous with his knowledge and gracious with his opinions. Below are some excerpts from a refreshing interview.

Dr. Istvan Almasi, Musicologist – Kolosvar (Cluj Napoca)
June 9, 2003

When I described the first part of the project, to collect testimonies and record psalm singing, he smiled and nodded, but when I suggested the possibility of creating a new version of the Psalter, he was adamantly opposed to what he described as yet another attack on the Psalter. I explained the position that a new, updated version would attract a new, younger audience. He willingly explained his.
Farkas Utca Church, Kolozsvar, Romania

"The 1607 Molnar translation of the psalms was a wonderful gift along with the original melodies and rhythms. However, especially in Transylvania, the Psalter was a victim of theological and social trends. Enlightenment thinking, rationalism, greatly affected the church. Whether related to this trend or to a reaction to it, I am not certain, but in the 1777 Kolosvar edition of the Psalter, the number of psalms was first reduced, and the last full Debrecen edition was published in 1778. By the end of the 19th century, only forty psalms remained in the Transylvanian Psalter."

What Happened?

"In reaction to the Enlightenment, Renewal trends stemming from the Pietistic movement swept through the church bringing with it a whole host of Anglo-Saxon hymns and songs. The melodies of these new songs were much easier to sing than the more complicated, modal music of the Genevan Psalms. Many of the tunes were profane, that is, popular music sometimes from bars and dance halls. It was the music of the people. The effect of this music was to dramatically change the taste in church music."

If the music tastes had changed so much, did the remaining 40 Genevan tunes play a role in the preservation of faith?

 “You may be absolutely certain that the singing of the Psalms did help preserve faith during the Communist era!” Although there were only forty psalms left, they were well-used!"

How was the church affected by Communism?

"Although there were some people of strong character who resisted Communism and remained faithful, many more succumbed to the fear and pressure, either leaving the church altogether or collaborating with the state." In his opinion, the assertion that the pressure of Communism strengthened the church does not reflect reality. "Communism was a disaster for the spiritual life of the people, for the church, and for society in general. During that period, lacking pastors, many congregations faltered."

Can you tell me more about the history of the Genevan Psalter in Hungarian Reformed Churches?

Farkas Utca Church, Kolozsvar, Romania

"The scales, modes, moved from the large 6th interval of the Dorian scale to the reduced Aeolian scale." He sang the changes. "In 1542 the first edition, Bourgeois tunes appeared, followed by Goudimel’s harmonies in 1556. Those harmonies were brought to the Hungarian Reformed Church by Marothi and have been used in the village of Szaszcsavas for 200 years."

He attributed the practice of slowly singing the psalms in unison and without the original rhythms to the poor training of cantors and the low level of general musical instruction. The introduction of the organ also played a part in the demise of good psalm singing. Because organists were often poorly trained, they slowed down to pick out the notes; the congregations slowed down as well.

"Though this psalm singing may be ugly to the trained musician’s ear, it is sung from the heart. I am happy to
be among such singers and to worship with them even if their singing is not perfect rhythmically or in beautiful harmonies." He noted that in Hungary, mid-20th century musicians attempted to restore the integrity of the Genevan Psalter resulting in some positive changes.

How would you describe the Reformed heritage? 

It is purely a matter of dogmatics and theology. Any attempt to assign cultural baggage to being Reformed is utter nonsense.

I have heard several people, especially here in Transylvania, describe their reformed identity in cultural and even ethnic terms. Can you help me understand this?   

It is a historical matter. Hungary became largely Protestant as a result of the Reformation. During the 17th century Counter-reformation, the Roman Catholic Habsburgs, Austrians, tried to crush this threat to their authority and waged war on Protestant Hungarians. This is when the political and ethnic content joined the religious definition. In Transylvania Hungarians who were anti-Habsburg were also anti-Catholic and thus considered Reformed. Existing as an oppressed minority has reinforced this understanding of being Reformed.

What Do You Think? Two Versions of Psalm 25

In all the documentation of our interview project ten years ago, I called it The Psalm Project. When the Dutch Psalm Project came to Calvin College a couple of years ago, I was immediately drawn to the name. At the same time I remembered Dr. Almasi’s exclamation that such a project would be an attack on the Psalter. He also said, “Music has the power to capture and transform in a way that no other medium can. Teaching the psalms to children depends on the love for the psalms and the ability to lead them to Christ.” Maybe that's the key.

Below are links to two recordings of Psalm 25, a contemporary one by The Psalm Project performed at Calvin College. The other is by Ernst Stolz, a Dutch musician who responded to a hearer's lament that the psalms should be sung by advising all listeners to sing in their own languages. Sing along if you like.

1. The Psalm Project’s Psalm 25. If you would like to hear more, search for them on YouTube.

2. Psalm 25 from the Genevan Psalter  (Ernst Stolz) Search for his name on YouTube to find many nice recordings of early music.


  1. I like the old version better because it is a string instrument. Lydia