A Very short History of the Genevan Psalter

Psalm were always sung and/or recited, in ancient Israel, in the synagogues, in churches and monasteries. They were prayers and served as such in the respective liturgies. In the 16th Century the translation of the biblical psalms into the vernacular, already very popular in de Middle Ages, got an enormous boost. Versifications of popular Psalms were soon sung on popular tunes (f.i. in combination with 'Noels'). Ever since the French court-poet Clément Marot started with his 'Poetic Paraphrases', it became a 'hit', also in 'high culture'. His first 30 Psalm poems - in manuscript - were copied and started to circulate, esp. among the  'Evangelicals' (Reform-oriented, Humanist christians). They were first published surreptitioulsy in Antwerp (1540 - De Gois) and then officially in Paris in 1541 (Roffet) . When Marot lived in Geneva for a while (1542) another 20 were added, published in 1543 (Lyon and Paris). Texts only. 


Published without melodies (as Poems, Trente Pseaumes, 1541), people tried to sing them on already familiar tunes. But this proved almost impossible. In the clandestine edition of 1540 (Antwerp) the editor  could hardly find a few tunes that did the job for some Psalms, and even then... The metric scheme (number and length of the lines, subtle rhymes etc.) was too intricate. Only a few of his 30 Psalms were 'normal', simple, straightforward poems. Psalm 10 was the exception: Marot had poetised the text of the Bible using his own chanson 'Dont vient cela' (contrafactum). See the setting by Jean Louys. And - complicating the effort - every poem had a different structure. After first trying to solve the problem himself with the help of some friends (Strasbourg, 1539), John Calvin is to be credited for engaging professional musicians (cantors') to compose proper melodies: Guillaume Franc, Loys Bourgeois and (probably) 'Maître' Pierre Davantès ('cantores' in Geneva) did the job, between 1541 and 1562. No copy of the first 'proper' edition of  Marot's 50 Psalms with tunes, as a 'hymnbook' (Geneva 1543) survived. Next to the Psalms, also rhymed versions of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Canticle of Simeon and two 'Graces' (prandial prayers), and for a very short time: The Creed and the Angelic Greeting werd part of some editions of the Psalter. 
NB: Bourgeois, the 'melody-man' also published polyphonic settings. And Goudimel, famous for his several editions of musical settings of the entire Psalter, is often credited for composing the tunes, which he didn't.


The texts are generally  by Clément Marot (49 Psalms and some canticles) and Théodore de Bèze (the remaning Psalms, 1551-1562). However, since Marot's death in 1544 other poets also tried to complete the versifications of the remaining Psalms. These psalters were printed (and used mainly) in Paris, Poitiers, and Lyon. Some composers (f.i. Lupi, Jambe De Fer, Poitevin) composed melodies for these texts. Polyphonic versions of these also appeared. The melodies and texts were superseded in 1562, when the complete Psalter of Marot/Bèze was published and for sale in all of (francophone) Europe. 

Further reading

  1. An updated version of Pierre Pidoux's summary of his work on Genevan Psalter, I published online: Pierre Pidoux, 'History of the Genevan Psalter', Reformed Music Journal 1/1-3  (Jan-July, 1989)
  2. On Clément Marot (and Théodore de Bèze) I refer to my website dedicated to this amazing French poet: www.clementmarot.com/psalms.htm

Pierre Pidoux

In the 1960's, musicologist Pierre Pidoux gathered all information about music and editions of Psalms in his magnum opus : Le Psautier Huguenot (2.vols). 

This is still the work of reference but - of course - on many points outdated. He made some errors, but more important: many lost Psalters were found, and even ones he didn't know of... 

Since an updated reprint is unthinkable (the books document the 'state of the art and science' at that time), I published some of the 'corrections' and additions online: Le Psautier Huguenot. These should be collated with the printed versions of 1962 (which can be downloaded from www.archive.org 

biography of Pierre Pidoux