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The Psalter (3): The Geneva Psalter

The Wittenberg Hymnal was comprised of songs that were inspired by the Psalms and other parts of the Bible, but they were not as close word-for-word as possible. Nor did this songbook have a song and tune for every Psalm in the Bible.  

When John Calvin fled to Strasburg, Germany in 1538, he set out to make a psalter of his own. He wrote a few songs but quickly learned his talents did not lie in poetry and song writing. He turned to a French court poet Clement Marot, who had already written poems versifying many Psalms.  

Versions of this songbook were published in 1539, then 1542, and 1543, each time with more psalter numbers. Theodore Beza took over versifying the psalms for Clement Marot, who had died by this time, while Maitre Pierre and Louis Bourgeois helped with composing the tunes.  

By 1551, it was published again. This edition had the tune known as “Old 100th” that we still use in our Psalter today (Psalter #268). By 1562, the Genevan Psalter had songs and tunes for all 150 Psalms, the first complete Psalter. Only four years later, in 1566, the Genevan Psalter made its way to the Netherlands to be used by the growing Calvinist churches there.  

The Genevan Psalter had a huge impact on psalm-singing and congregational singing. Most modern Psalters are inspired by the Genevan Psalter and probably contain a number of melodies from it 

Tunes from the Genevan Psalter are very similar to each other. They are written with a very simple rhythm with only half notes and whole notes, with a longer note at the end of the lines. Many in the congregation back then would not have their own printed songbook so the tunes had to be easy to sing and memorize.  

In our Psalter, numbers 189, 268, and 353 come from the Genevan Psalter. But those are not the only tunes that are from the Genevan Psalter. Psalter numbers 414 to 432, a total of 18 tunes, are all tunes that were originally written for the Genevan Psalter, then used in the Dutch Psalter, before eventually making their way into our Psalter.  

In my church, we sing from Psalter 425 at a baptism, and this is one of the tunes from the Genevan Psalter. When we sing this song, we can be reminded of the many covenant generations that have sung this same tune, though with different words and different languages, for over 400 years.