Notes on James Jordan lecture “Calvin and Music”

Just got back from this tonight. It turned out to be mostly a history of the Geneva Psalter (the hymnbook Calvin published) and how it’s origin could be traced back through several interesting sources. This is what I scribbled down:


If this lecture were called “Calvin ON Music”, it would be over in about 5 minutes. He didn’t have much to say about it directly. Luckily, I’ve titled it “Calvin AND Music” so I can talk about lots of interesting things surrounding it.

Luther, as a monk and trained to be a priest had quite a bit of musical training. So the Lutheran’s had a strong musical emphasis from the get go. Calvin on the other hand, was trained as a lawyer. He didn’t know anything about music, but he was smart enough to recruit some folks who did.

The dualism of Calvin is his heavy emphasis on the Bible versus all the Renaissance philosophy he soaked up. He falls into the “soul = good, body = bad” Platonic trap on many occasions. This led him, especially early ton, to think music was carnal and dangerous. His pal Zwingli was especially this way, even though he was a trained musician.

After he got kicked out of Geneva, he went to Strasbourg and met up with Martin Bucer. It turns out Bucer had been heavily influenced by Luther and was singing all kinds of fun stuff. Calvin decided after a while that it was pretty cool and bought it back with him later.

Despite Calvin’s appearance of “Bible Only” psalm singing, it turns out he included a setting of the Nicene creed in his first collection of music.

Church music should be a “unique style”. Actually, the church has always believed this throughout the ages. It shouldn’t be weird, but should be distinguishable from the folk stuff you might sing at home or at a party, or hear on the radio.

A lot of ideas about singing in church can be traced back to the Jewish Temple worship.

Calvin thought that music in church should have “gravity” and not be light and frivolous. Jordan used several examples to prove that this didn’t mean the music should be slow and solemn. In fact, it was often loud and lively.

Jordan made fun of the dreamy Gregorian chant that we hear on CDs now. Historians have a lot of reasons to believe that chant in the mediaval period was more nasal, choppy and rhythmic than we have come to think of it. It was more punchy.

The Psalter degraded the worst with the Scots, who had a split leaf (top and bottom) hymnal so you could hack any melody together with any text. Eek.

The part in the bible about David playing harp for Saul and chasing away the evil spirit? Calvin never commented on it. Too bad.

Also, the part about God “inhabiting the praises of his people” and the singers going before the army in II Chronicles? Also conspicuously missing from any of his commentary. (At this point, I would like to add that I’m not at all surprised. A lecture on music in the Bible from a charismatic Christian is likely to bring up these verses in the first 10 minutes. They demonstrate the seemingly supernatural and spiritual aspect of music. Calvin was REALLY uncomfortable with these ideas, so he didn’t say boo about them.)

Calvin was in the “no musical instruments” camp, despite numerous references to the use of them all over the bible. As you can predict, this broke down quickly after his death and reformed churches all over the place were hooking up pipe organs.

I liked this part: The scandal of 1st century church was that they dared to have temple music (singing psalms WITH instruments) in their own homes. The synagogues had no instruments – only the temple.

Also, Calvin was for all unison singing. This was being conservative too. The old Gregorian chant tradition was unison. For a loooooooooooooong time there was no harmony. Why? Because nobody thought of it? Whatever. More likely it was because of the verse in the bible about the dedication of Solomon’s temple. All the Levites sang “with one voice”. Got that? No harmony fool! This didn’t last real long either.

So there was this French poet named Clement …something. He wrote some songs bashing the Pope and got kicked out of France. Then he wrote some psalm settings. Some friends of his passed the music around and it made it’s way to the court of the king. Suddenly, it became really popular and spread like wildfire (in the secular world, oddly enough). Somehow, Calvin got hold of some of these new hip tunes/poetry and built them into his psalter. Clement later joined Calvin in Geneva and wrote some more poetic psalm settings for him (in French of course). He later died under mysterious circumstances in Italy. Oooooohhooohoooo.

By the way, chanting = singing. Don’t be deceived by how we use the words today. Back then, they mean the exact same thing.

Somewhere in here, Jordan made reference to how it was fun in the 1960s to listen to Gregorian chant and smoke weed.

3/4 time is perfect time, because of the trinity. Y’all know that, right?

Guillaume de Machaut and other composers of that time were not writing dreamy chant music, but more punchy stuff.

He mentioned some (recent) French scholar who dug through all the songs in Calvin’s psalter and tried to figure out where the melody fragments came from. It turns out nearly all of them were old-school plainchant tunes that bad been rhythmically spiced up a bit. The point being that Calvin was very conservative. He wasn’t aiming to shake things up with something crazy and new.

My fav, Thomas Tallis got a shout-out at this point. Gosh, it reminds me how much more I like the early English composers than the French and German ones. Wow.

At this point, it was question and answer time.

Someone asked him what he thought of gospel music. He said that it’s probably OK if you’re singing gospel because your great grandfather did. If you’re doing it to be fun and trendy though: bad motives. In general, he didn’t like it. Says it has “weak words”. The theology of stuff you sing in church should be “accurate”.

Another person asked about choirs. Calvin had no choirs. The reformers were very much on the “we’ve GOT to get the congregation singing again” train. It was backlash to years of non-participation in (many, not all) Catholic churches. However, as much as Calvin didn’t like choirs, it’s pretty plain there are choirs in the bible. There also seems to be some indication that you didn’t have to be a Levite to sing in the temple choir in the OT. Nevertheless, Jordan was personally very much for congregational singing and didn’t think choirs should take up too much time with performances during the worship service.

He mentioned that after Vatican II, the Catholic’s threw out a bunch of their musical tradition and replaced it with bad Irish folk tunes. There are quite a few Catholics (I know some!) that are NOT diggin’ that.

Several times during the lecture, he had the crowd stand and sing a particular hymn to demonstrate a stylistic point he was discussing. They had passed out copies ahead of time. Liked that.

Dismissal to pie and refreshments in Friendship Square. Candles everywhere!

I walked down to Bucer’s for a bit. The band Cadenza Collective was laying down a nice groove. Good stuff.