The Music Of The Puritans

ON THE DAY they left Leyclen for America, so one of the Pilgrims reported, “We refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with the voice, there being many of our congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard.” Sailing the open ocean, the Puritans set their night watches with a psalm, and sang loud of God’s mercy in the morning. Tradition has allowed the Puritans very little of human understanding or aesthetic cheer. Bony-fingered bigots, incapable of, and spiteful against, the pleasures and the arts—theirs is not an inviting myth. In their music they are revealed in braver, more Haltering lights and colors: cultivated amateurs, knowledgeable in an exquisite Sixteenth-Century art; singers, in congregation, of some of the most exhilarating song ever to spring from an embattled folk. With this song Huguenot martyrs, lowered and lifted over slow flames, drowned out the Latin chants of their tormentors. In the New World the mirthful and exultant Puritans—men who had, as they said, “consolations strong enough to hold up their heads above water when the waves rise highest and the raging billows make the greatest noise”—raised the chorus.

The congregational song of the Sixteenth and early Seventeenth centuries was the sublimest there has ever been. The thrill, in religious exaltation, of singing familiar yet new and great music, with masses of one’s fellows, gave the triumphal cry of a liberated faith. Man threw off his shackles, and he sang. Not only in chorus, or in extremis of love and need, but every day, everywhere a tune was struck up, the psalms sounded. Here and in Europe men hummed them in the street or as they invited their souls in country solitudes. To the “temper’d soll tunings” of lute and viol, ladies murmured them to their lovers.


Rabbinical tradition has it that the harp of David hung above his bed at night, that the night winds sang through the strings, and that David spoke his inmost thoughts to the strains. In the Fourth Century St. Ambrose remarked of these night thoughts of David: “This is the peculiarity of the psalter, that everyone can use its words as if they were completely and individually his own.”

When the light of the Italian Renaissance beamed out over Europe the appeal of the psalms took on a new luster. Man, with what he could sense of himself and his sensible world, was the inspiration for thought and art. What more natural, in this quest for the personal, than to turn with redoubled passion to the Book of Psalms, the very archetype of personal poetry? Before the song of David became the battle cry of the Reformation, it was the darling of the Renaissance.

The song versions of the psalms, which were to be sung on our wild shores by Pilgrims and Puritans, first sounded in the freethinking, Italianate court of Marguerite of Navarre. Clément Marot, poet of rondeaux and epigrams, used the meters and even the phrases of his love lyrics for his sanctes chansonnettes, adapting them to the popular tunes of the day. The courts of France smiled with delight, and members of the king’s household each had a favorite. Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II, sang the De Profundis to the tune of “Baisez-moi donc, beau sire.”

Adapted by Calvin for his psalters, Marot’s verses had wide currency among English Protestants, as did the tunes that went with them. This music voiced most eloquently that great changing of European man which created the Reformation. As he turned from the soaring cathedrals with their mysterious interior shadows and glimmering hall-lights, that excited his imagination, to the splendid Renaissance pile with its sun-soaked halls and logical proportions, that satisfied his physical eye, so he turned from vaulting, manyvoiced music, with its unsatisfying scales, its feeling of limitlessness and incompleteness, that left him planing between earth and heaven, to Italian song which would express his human emotions with conviction and finality.

When the American Puritan Thomas Hooker said “the mind and understanding toucheth the Lord directly”; when Calvin insisted on unisonous singing with one note to a syllable, so that no word could possibly get lost, both men were expressing the same historymaking impulse that was putting Italian composers diligently to work to give the human word convincing expression, to render it in music as it might spring spontaneously from a man’s lips. Some of the psalm melodies, harking back to another age, are modal, arhythmical, illusive; some, very much of their own time, and beyond, are diatonic, unequivocal, marching home to a foregone conclusion. Some are most beautiful in delicate polyphonic settings, some more magnificent thundered out in majestic unison.