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John Calvin’s Preface to the Genevan Psalter

AS for public prayers, there are two kinds of them – the one is expressed in words only, the other with song; and this is no recent invention, for from the first origin of the church, this has been the case, as appears in history. And even St. Paul does not speak of verbal prayer alone, but also of singing. And in truth, we know by experience that song has great force and power in moving and inflaming the heart of man to invoke and praise God with more vehement and ardent zeal.

It should always be seen to that the song should not be light and frivolous, but that it have weight and majesty, as saith St. Augustine; and also that there is a great difference between the music that is employed for the enjoyment of men at table, and in their houses, and the psalms which they sing in church in the presence of God and his angels. But when the form here given is rightly judged of, we hope that it will be found holy and pure; seeing that it is simply constructed for the edification of which we have spoken, as well as that the use of singing may be greatly extended. So that even in the houses and in the fields, it may be to us an incitement and an instrument or means to praise God and raise our hearts to him; and to console us in meditating on his power, goodness, wisdom, and justice, which is more necessary for us than we know how to express.

For the first, it is not without cause that the Holy Spirit exhorts us so carefully, by the Holy Scripture, to rejoice ourselves in God, and that all our joy should rest there as its true end. For he knows how truly we are inclined to please ourselves in vanity. Thus while our nature draws and leads us to seek all means of foolish and vicious enjoyment – on the contrary, our Lord, to separate and draw us from the allurements of the flesh and of the world, presents to us every possible means to fill us with that spiritual joy which he commends so much to us.

But amongst other things which are suitable for the recreation of men, and for yielding them pleasure, music is either the first, or one of the chief, and we must esteem it a gift of God bestowed for that end. Therefore, by so much the more, we ought to see that it is not abused, for fear of soiling and contaminating it; turning that to our condemnation which was given for our profit and good. Even were there no other consideration than this alone, it ought to move us to regulate the use of music, so as to make it subservient to all good morals, and that it should not give occasion for loosing the bridle of dissoluteness, that it should not lead to voluptuousness, nor be the instrument of immodesty and impurity.

But further, there is scarcely anything in this world which can more powerfully turn or bend hither and thither the manners of men, as Plato has wisely remarked. And in fact we experimentally feel that it has a secret and incredible power over our hearts to move them one way or other. Therefore we ought to be so much the more careful to regulate it in such a manner, that it may be useful to us, and in no ways pernicious. For this reason, the ancient doctors of the church often complained that the people of their time were addicted to disgraceful and immodest songs, which, not without cause, they esteemed and called a deadly and Satanic poison for corrupting the world.

But in speaking of music, I include two parts, to wit, the words, or subject and matter; secondly, the song or melody. It is true that all evil words, as saith St. Paul, corrupt good manners, but when melody is united to them, they much more powerfully pierce the heart, and enter in: just as when by a funnel wine is poured into a vessel, so poison and corruption is infused into the depth of the heart by the melody.

What then is to be done? It is to have songs not only pure, but also holy, that they may be incitements to stir us up to pray to and praise God, and to meditate on his works, in order to love him, fear him, honour and glorify him. But what St. Augustine says is true, that none can sing things worthy of God but he who has received power from himself. Wherefore when we have sought all round, searching here and there, we shall find no songs better and more suitable for this end than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit dictated and gave to him. And therefore when we sing them, we are as certain that God has put words into our mouths as if he himself sang within us to exalt his glory. Wherefore Chrysostom exhorts all men and women and little children to accustom themselves to sing them as a means of associating themselves with the company of angels; further, we must remember what St. Paul says, that spiritual songs cannot be sung well but with the heart; but the heart requires the understanding: and in that saith St. Augustine lies the difference between the song of man and that of birds, for a linnet, a nightingale, and a jay, may sing well, but it will be without understanding.

But the peculiar gift of man is to sing knowing what he says. Further, the understanding ought to accompany the heart and affections, which cannot be unless we have the song imprinted in our memory, that we may be ever singing it.

This present book [the Genevan Psalter, 1543], for this cause, besides what otherwise has been said, ought to be particularly acceptable to every one who desires, without reproach, and according to God, to rejoice in seeing his own salvation, and the good of his neighbours; and thus has no need to be much recommended by me, as it carries in itself its own value and praise. Only let the world be well advised, that instead of songs partly vain and frivolous, partly foolish and dull, partly filthy and vile, and consequently wicked and hurtful, which it has heretofore used, it should accustom itself hereafter to sing these heavenly and divine songs, with good king David.

Touching the music, it appeared that it should be simple in the way we have put it, to carry weight and majesty suitable to the subject, and even fit to be sung in church as has been said.

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