Why churches in the Netherlands sing in unison

Martin Luther wanted 4 part singing in church services, which the people slowly but certainly should learn with their own voice. He even sang in 4 part at home, with his wife and children and his students. Sadly it wasn't successful back then and singing in 4 part in church services never became a success with him. Contrarily to Martin Luther, it was Calvin's deepest conviction that God wants the entire congregation to sing in unison, and nothing else, to His glory (see, for example, Romans 15:6). Therefore Calvin looked for suitable unison melodies. Apparently he thought that exclusively this (singing in unison in church services) was for God's glory and maybe/probably he thought that only then everyone could sing along, when using monodies, so that all the people, small and large, men and women, led by the cantor, sang their psalms and Bible songs, without any distraction from polyphony, because that's how he saw it; as an unwanted distraction. Calvin's starting point is that whole the congregation should sing. He therefore rejects choir singing and polyphonic singing in church services, although he has promoted them outside. He is concerned that congregational singing will become overgrown by the complexity of the voice structure, as found in the Roman liturgy (of course he did not want the practice to look like what took place in the Roman church). He opts for unisonal singing, the unison melody, and strictly precscribes that for in church services. It is also known that Calvin was against the use of organs in church services. They are, according to him, also not necessary to make worship more sublime. In the Roman Church people were more concerned with it than with the Word. And so, to avoid this danger, Calvin prefers to avoid the organ and organ playing. In his time the organ appears in the context of vain display and worldly merrymaking. 'People think that they please God and that they can make Him dance as if He were a little child. That is why there is no organ playing when the congregation sings. Let us sing a cappella', says Calvin (Source).

So, Calvin - and for our regular church music in the Netherlands we mainly deal with Calvinists - was much stricter than Luther in his views and wanted to use only unison songs (Source).

Calvin was not so much concerned with the harmony of the sound, as with the harmony of the heart with God. Singing in unison, according to Calvin, heightens the effect of the text on the mind and the heart, and expresses the conviction that all worshippers belong to the priesthood of believers. With Calvin the music always remains secondary to the text. Since human beings are the only creatures endowed with speech, the peculiar gift of understanding words should be used with care, he thought. Therefore Calvin discourages the use of polyphony, whereby the text may be confused and too much attention drawn to the music. The tune should be a simple means to convey the text. In Calvin’s view, chromatics, rhythmic variations, and other complications of the music hinder the impact of the text (CO 31, 324). He alludes, for example, to 1 Corinthians 14:13-19, in which the apostle Paul admonishes the readers to worship God in a clear, understandable way that edifies the believers (read: singing in unison). For where there is no understanding there can be no edification. He goes on to say that “what was the custom in the time of the law (the use of all kinds of instruments in the temple), in no way has a place among us today; we must abstain from those things which are not only superfluous, but without substance. What should be sufficient is the pure and simple melody, one suited to the heart and the mouth of each one of us, of the praises of God (Calvin thought that should be unison, but in fact each singing its own part applies more towards that). Strangly enough, and contradictory to this argument, he also prescribes the singing of only Psalms, and the law, which is considered to be an Old Testament preoccupation as well (Source).

Calvin further states his idea of the role of singing and of the danger of distraction in Book III of the Institutio, (chapter 20, sections 31 and 32), quote:

"It is fully evident that unless voice and song, if interposed in prayer, spring from deep feeling of heart, neither has any value or profit in the least with God. But they arouse his wrath against us if they come only from the tip of the lips and from the throat, seeing that this is to abuse his most holy name and to hold his majesty in derision. Yet we do not here condemn speaking and singing but rather strongly commend them, provided they are associated with the heart's affection. For thus do they exercise the mind in thinking of God and keep it attentive, unstable and variable as it is, readily relaxed and diverted in different directions, unless it be supported by various helps. Moreover, since the glory of God ought, in a measure, to shine in the several parts of our bodies, it is especially fitting that the tongue has been assigned and destined for this task, both through singing and through speaking, For it was peculiarly to tell and proclaim the praise of God. But the chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one common voice, and as it were, with the same mouth, we all glorify God together, worshipping him with one spirit and the same faith. And we do this openly, that all men mutually, each one from his brother, may receive the confession of faith and be invited and prompted by his example. And surely, if the singing be tempered to that gravity which is fitting in the sight of God and the angels, it both lends dignity and grace to sacred actions and has the greatest value in kindling our hearts to a true zeal and eagerness to pray. Yet we should be very careful that our ears be not attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words. Such songs as have been composed only for sweetness and delight of the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God in the highest degree (Source)."

In the Institutes Calvin writes that when people sing together at church, they must sing with one voice as though they sing with just one mouth, to worship God in one spirit and in one faith 1. Based on this view, he insisted that the church in Geneva sang only in unison, without any musical accompaniment. He strongly states that when we sing our minds must only focus on the words we say to God, and the melody of the song should not distract us from the words we say to God 2. Singing in harmony, in his opinion, is a distraction and therefore should be prohibited in the context of worship. Calvin did not allow the use of musical instruments in church. He thought that the use of music in worship only belonged to the Old Testament people. He thought that musical instruments were needed by the people in the biblical time, but is no longer necessary for the people today 3.

I personally think Calvin was totally wrong when it comes to the theological aspect of singing in unison. Praising God with one voice, in the old- as well as the New Testament, does not mean and should not be understood at all as singing (or playing) in 'unison'. No, it obviously refers to the state of the mind and heart, to unitedly, be one in thinking and have the total united focus of praising God "with one voice" ; that is with one's whole heart, sould and mind. It requires the utmost form of harmony, so to say, among worshippers. Ironically, the fact is that the opposite is actually true. Singing in harmony does create this so needed effect, as any choir singer will know, and Luther and Bach understood like no other. Conductors and choir members do understand this effect of 4 part singing in total harmony also (see, for example John Rutter here). Maybe it is because Calvin was not really musical himself, that he misinterpreted this. Anyway, thanks to him, regular churches in the Netherlands only sing in unison still, even to this very day. However, with todays technical possibilities it would be much easier to learn a congregation to sing in 4 part harmony, then back in the time. It is not impossible at all, nowadays, which some churches (coming forth from the 2nd reformation) totally prove and whose churchgoers consider it entirely normal to sing in 4-part unison, and who don't know any better than that (For example the Plymouth Brethren, Mennonites and members of the 'Church of God' in America). I think it is about time that churches correct this misintepretation, and start learning their congregations to sing in 4 part harmony. If church leaders, and music leaders in churches won't agree and not take a steps forward, it will never happen. But, it is about time, I think. We, like nothing else, need more unison today, and the effect of singing in 4 part harmony can not be underestimated, while it totally has been neglected for way too many years. It needs to change. That's why I promote it. I also, personally, do know and understand the effect of singing together in harmony (from my own experience; I grew up with 4-part singing in de so called 'Vergadering van Gelovigen'). Certainly as Christians, as brothers and sisters, we should bond together and be as one, love one another like family. What could better help with that than singing in harmony? Why choose a key no-one is really comfortable in? It is about time to let everyone sing in its own voice and together, as one, we'll lift up our (individual) voice to (best possible way) and praise the One that has been and will be forever. Amen.

1. [Calvin, Institutes, 3. 20. 31.]
2. [Calvin, Institutes, 3. 20. 32.]
3. [John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), Psalms 81:3]

Email: gertim . alberda @ gmail.com (without spaces)