Reformed Church Music


During the Reformation in the 16th century music in the church took a new direction. John Calvin's Genevan Psalter has been sung by the church ever since.


1.    Introduction

The Christian church did not separate theology and music. It is useful to model ourselves on the theological thoughts about music of the early church. It can be useful and instructive to take note of the information available.
Before the year 1800, the comments about music were primarily about vocal music (Instrumental music was seen as derived from vocal music, but that changed around early 1900). Another remarkable point is that until 1800 there was no difference between secular music and church (spiritual) music. 
Until the 18th century, music in the world was typical church music. (And so, important developments in the music, such as polyphony, took place in the church music.) 
It is impossible to discuss the music of the entire church history in detail. Only a few key points are highlighted.

2.     Ancient Times and Middle Ages

The vision of Aurelius Augustine (345 - 430) on church music had large impact on the music of the church.
- He promoted the singing of praises to God;
- Augustine stressed the importance of singing not just with the mouth, but also with the heart and deeds.
- The praise in singing is a foretaste of the abundant joy of our prospective live on the new earth.
Augustine was convinced - as well as many other patriarchs - that singing praises to God's holy name was indispensable for personal faith and the up building of the congregation (1 Corinthians 3: 16).  Singing of songs is inseparably connected to people who know that they received new life in Jesus Christ.
In the Middle Ages the divine origin of music was beyond all doubt. The entire creation was full of musica. Through this, the creation was in totality involved in the praise of God (Psalm 19: 1-5). When we make music we agree on and join in the praise of God by the entire creation. We make the creation sound.
We also participate in God's praise by the angels. We join the heavenly liturgy in the praise by the angels. We make music in joining the (on earth inaudible) praise by the angels. Augustine already mentioned that on earth we get a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy. (see also  the form for the Lord's Supper)
Making music, man knows himself united with the cosmos which exists for the greater glory and honor of God. Moreover, redeemed man knows himself united with the heavenly liturgy. Making music, the human being comes to the only purpose and destination for which he is created: bringing praise  to God.
(The important and interesting mathematic approach of Pythagoras, Plato, and others in the the Greek ancient times we leave out of consideration at this point. However, a good understanding of this material is important for the full understanding of Augustine.)

3.     The Reformation

The mathematical approach of the ancient times and Middle Ages was discontinued after the Reformation.
The reformers all agreed that music is a gift from God. Luther mentions in one of his Tischreden: "Musica optimum Dei donum (Music is the supreme gift of God)". Therefore the purpose and destination of music are predetermined.  
Music is strongly connected to creation. We see that during creation and in creation the purpose of music is to praise God. Therefore music fulfills an important role in the Christian life. When we praise God, the congregation is strengthened and man will reach the fullness of his purpose and destination. 
Calvin agrees with Plato on the ethical influence of music. He says that almost nothing on earth can influence the morale so much as music. Luther says that musica puts of the devil. Calvin, too, agrees with this idea in his sermon on Psalm 149 (verse 6). God gives victory when we sing praises to His name. 
Calvin teaches us that music and recreational/renewal are closely associated. Singing praises and glorifying God's holy name and experiencing spiritual joy, God renews our lives. To do this, He provides us with a most important gift in creation: music. Luther also writes about these things and with him the musicians in the Lutheran church, for example Johann Sebastian Bach. (Gruentlicher Unterricht des General-Basses, 1738.)
Luther makes a comment that we have to get accustomed to praise God's name. It does not go automatically. Calvin elaborates further on this, and he warns us not to follow our sensual urges. Calvin follows the line of Augustine but takes it a step further by making a difference between church music and worldly music. Calvin argues that in the church service we appear before God and His holy angels and we need to adopt and apply a holy style of music. Calvin is concerned about the abuse of music.
Calvin was also very positive about music. Two key points in Calvin's view about music are:
- Songs are to strengthen faith and therefore songs have a proclaiming function. (Nowadays one can hear that songs in the worship service must have a rule of response, but Calvin but Calvin had a different opinion.)
- Calvin expresses clearly that a song has a larger effect on the human being than the spoken word. He recognizes that the song intensifies the spoken word. Music touches both mind and emotions. Calvin assesses that the song has a wider range that the spoken word. 
Music that serves the proclamation of the Word needs to be aimed at the proclamation, and pointed at the text. It is not just enough to have a nice melody to sing a song. Unity between music and text was important for both Calvin and Luther. In the Genevan tunes the unity between text and melody is brought about by selecting different keys (or modes) for specific texts dictated by the character of the text and the melody. 
Calvin believed that the best we have in terms of words is that which God Himself has given us: the Scriptures. Therefore, he insisted that congregational singing was singing the versified Psalms and other portions of Scriptures (Song of Mary, Song of Simeon, etc.). In terms of music, Calvin believed strongly that music should be the ancilla, the handmaiden, of the text. No catchy tunes, but suitable music, which enabled the singer to focus all his attention on the words. At the same time, however, the melody had to have poids et majesté (weight and majesty), since it was sung in the presence of God and His holy angels.

Calvin says in his sermon about Psalm 148 that the sun and other created things can not produce any sound by themselves, that we can notice, since they have no understanding of the beauty God laid in them. But in our eyes they are as a songbook with musical notes. The book itself does not speak, but for us the book serves to sing from. In the book we receive the musical notes and the words we can sing. In this way God represents this book to us, wherever we go, so that we can join in the song of praise and together with the angels in heaven, proclaim His power.


4.    After the Reformation

Until the 16th century music was approached by way of theology. In the 17th and 18th century (the Enlightening) the church lost the leading position in society and science. Music was approached more and more from a humanistic point of view. In the (Protestant) churches music was no longer of fundamental importance. Neither did theology generally reflect on the origin, nature and purpose of music. 
In the 19th century the worldly philosophers and musicians gave music more religious value, because for some people music was religion. Music was something supernatural. The musicians and composers were also elevated to people with supernatural qualities.
Music culture became individualistic. There was no arguing possible about music, because you cannot argue about taste. People assumed that (the essence of) music cannot be rationally approached, because playing music and listening to music creates subjective feelings. Many composers before the 18th century (and composers of today) are convinced that music is a profession (competent in writing notes).
Music was an expression of individual emotion inside and outside the church. The church viewed music as a vehicle to express religious feelings and emotions. Music was seen as an emotional expression from men to God. Music and singing in the church was thus degraded and received minor priority.
Since most church music written in the 18th and 19th Century did no longer refer to the Creator, the most important reason for having music in the worship service lost its claim. When music got the role to edify the believer, the condition that believers liked music became relevant. Believers who did not like music, and were not edified by music, did not see the importance of music in the church.