For over 450 years, churches, families, and individuals throughout the world have used some or other version of the Genevan Psalter to pray and praise using the Psalms. In fact, this is the only psalter from Reformation times that is still being published in its entirety, and currently its popularity is increasing in various languages throughout the world. Now, with the New Genevan Psalter, English-speaking Christians have a beautiful and accurate version to use and to teach their children.
During the upheaval of the Reformation, some congregations developed a fresh approach to church music. No longer did the worshipers merely listen to a choir singing in Latin. Rather, the whole congregation sang Psalms to God in their own language. This new and profoundly moving experience was described by a young visitor to Calvin’s Strasbourg congregation:
The psalm or prayer is sung by everyone together, men as well as women, with a beautiful unanimity…. You must understand that each one has a music book in his hand; that is why they cannot lose touch with one another. Never did I think that it could be as pleasing and delightful it is. For five or six days at first, as I looked upon this little company, exiled from countries everywhere for having upheld the honor of God and his Gospel, I would begin to weep, not at all from sadness, but from joy at hearing them sing so heartily and, as they sang, giving thanks to the Lord that he had led them to a place where his name is honored and glorified. No one could believe the joy which one experiences when one is singing praises and wonders of the Lord in the mother tongue as one sings them here. (as quoted by Emily R. Brink in Psalter Hymnal Handbook)
In Geneva, too, such congregational singing developed and new melodies were composed specifically for the different Psalms. The children were taught these songs first and they led the entire congregation in singing. Genevan melodies spread rapidly throughout Europe, finding a solid home in the Netherlands and thence trickling into North America. However, the English words were never quite right, often retaining some immigrant awkwardness and occasionally adding to or subtracting from the Biblical text.
In the past decade and a half, great pains have been taken to pair beautiful, Biblically-accurate words with the old Genevan melodies. The New Genevan Psalter is the result. This songbook contains all 150 Psalms as well as the four canticles included in the first Genevan Psalter: the Ten Commandments and the Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon.
Getting to Know the Music
Despite the fact that the Genevan tunes spread like wildfire throughout Reformation Europe, they are not well-known in today’s English speaking world. This is partly due to the fact that other melodies were used to sing Psalms in English. However, since the Genevan tunes were composed to suit the words and emotions of each Psalm, it is worth some effort to get to know them. (See also the extensive resource list below.)
So here are the beginning verses of three of the Psalms from this songbook, with links to the performance of Bach Collegium Japan (singing in Japanese). I encourage you to listen while reading, or better yet, singing along.
Here is the joyful and majestic praise of Psalm 150:
And here is David’s—and our—confession of sin from Psalm 51:
Finally, here are the trusting and comforting words of Psalm 121:
As you have just experienced, the New Genevan Psalter is indeed a splendid contribution to worship music, both for church and personal use. With a bit of effort that will be amply repaid, all English speaking Christians can now use it to sing and learn the Psalms and teach them to their children. Christians of all denominations will find that the New Genevan Psalter encourages prayer, praise, and memorization; in fact, in Reformation times even Roman Catholics used the original versions.
From a homeschooling point of view, these songs are also a moving way to experience some of the awe of the Reformation and can be used to that end in both history and music classes. Although the New Genevan Psalter will be a blessing to all Christian homeschools, it will appeal especially to Charlotte Mason and Classical Education homeschoolers.
May the New Genevan Psalter enhance the praise of our God whether we use it individually, as families, as homeschools, or as churches.
For more information and to purchase, please visit the website.
Annotated Resource List for the New Genevan Psalter
To help you get to know the Genevan melodies and to introduce you to the background of the Genevan Psalter, I have listed some audio, accompanist, and general resources below.
The Genevan Psalms from the Bach Collegium Japan, in the public domain, are available online. This brilliant collection highlights the different emotions of the Psalms well as the sublime beauty of the music.
The comprehensive Dutch site Psalmboek.nl presents all the Psalms in various languages (click on ‘Engels’), with the Genevan melodies (click on the notes at the upper right corner of the box or on the word ‘Psalmen’ to toggle between the music and the list of psalms), and with organ accompaniment at the bottom right (I recommend the M60 Ritmisch option). The English words available here are almost all from the New Genevan Psalter, except for a few changes discussed here.
At the Dinteloord website (also in Dutch) you can find an organ version of each of the melodies of the New Genevan Psalter, including its four canticles. The canticles are listed under ‘Enige Gezangen’ just below the list of 150 Psalms. ‘The Ten Commandments’ is ‘De Tien Geboden Des Heren’, and the Songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon follow immediately after.
Finally, a wide variety of downloads is available for each of the Psalms at The Genevan Psalter Resource Center. The Hungarian guitar version, available for some of the Psalms, is a highlight here.
Free Sheet Music for Accompanists:
From J. Slagt, all 150 Psalms (click on ‘Download Psalmen’ on the left sidebar).
From Dennis Teitsma, all 150 Psalms (with a helpful introduction) as well as music for the four canticles. The Ten Commandments is Hymn 11, The Song of Mary is Hymn 17, The Song of Zechariah is Hymn 18, and the Song of Simeon is Hymn 22.
From Gerrit Veldman, all 150 Psalms (under ‘Zettingen en korte voorspelen’) and much more.
Harmonizations available for purchase are listed on the New Genevan Psalter website, and more are listed on the Book of Praise website. Note that the Book of Praise includes all 150 Psalms of the New Genevan Psalter as well as its 4 canticles which form part of the hymn section, as explained in the above paragraph about Dennis Teitsma’s sheet music.
For more information about the unique and subtly complex Genevan tunes, do read the Preface to the New Genevan Psalter. One interesting point is that the music was sung in unison, and following that tradition the New Genevan Psalter shows only the melody line as shown above. Further resources are also mentioned.
As is probably obvious by now, the New Genevan Psalter is based on a larger work, the Book of Praise: Anglo Genevan Psalter of the Canadian Reformed Churches. Denomination-specific materials have been removed so that the New Genevan Psalter is suitable for all English speaking Christians and churches. The Book of Praise site includes many helpful links.
The excellent Genevan Psalter Resource Center is the most comprehensive online resource about the Genevan Psalter throughout the ages and across the world, although not all of its links work.
This review by Dr. R. Scott Clark links to many other articles about psalmody.
Dr. Emily Brink discusses ‘The Legacy of the Genevan Psalter’ in an accessible and informative paper.
Those interested in how congregational singing was meant to function in Reformed worship services will enjoy Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff’s article about liturgy.
Finally, Wikipedia’s discussion of the Genevan Psalter covers a lot of ground and has some interesting external links including a ten hour YouTube playlist.
This review and resource list is linked to 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge, Saturday Reviews, Booknificent Thursdays, Literacy Musings Monday, and The Book Nook as well as Finishing Strong Trivium Tuesdays, Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Works for Me Wednesday, Mom to Mom Monday, Monday’s Musings, Missional Weekend, R&R Wednesdays, From House to Home, Homemaking Mondays, Make Your Home Sing Mondays, Faith Filled Fridays.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book and have expressed my own opinions.