Non-literate societies are often dependent on music for transmitting news and ideas because of music’s ability to enhance memory. Sixteenth-century reformers were aware of this, but they had to compete with secular and Roman Catholic music that often contradicted Reformed doctrine. Highly influenced by the Strasbourg-based Martin Bucer and the writings of Saint Augustine, John Calvin insisted that Biblical Psalms, set in vernacular poetry, were most appropriate for both corporate worship and private devotion. The result was a series of metrical psalters that were intended to be performable by everyone. Some editions had explicitly liturgical designs, but most were intended for secular use as substitutes to secular ballads. The melodies that appeared in these psalters were usually simple and employed ranges that rarely exceeded an octave. It has generally been assumed that these narrow ranges would have allowed men, women, and children to sing the psalms together comfortably, singing in octaves with one another. However, a closer look reveals that the ranges of many metrical psalm tunes may have been difficult to sing. The following study explores the psalters produced by three centres of early modern Calvinist psalmody: Geneva, England, and Scotland. It argues that singers likely selected pitch ranges that were most comfortable rather than strictly adhering to those printed in metrical psalters. Despite this flexible performance practice, printers and editors faithfully reproduced the tunes in their original ranges. This sheds light on the shadowy origins of metrical psalm tunes, some of which were known before they became metrical psalms.

Author Biography

Timothy Duguid is a lecturer in Digital Humanities and Information Studies at the University of Glasgow. His current research interests lie in the intersection between digital humanities and historical musicology. He holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Edinburgh in the area of early modern English and Scottish liturgical music, with particular focus on metrical psalmody. His work on Reformation history and early modern music resulted in the creation of a performing edition of the Wode Psalter, an early modern music collection, and he was associate editor for the digital project “Letters in Exile: Documents from the Marian Exile.”

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