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“The sweetest work of my life guiding my hope to heaven”

If Claude Goudimel is today one of the most iconic composers of the Reformation in the 16th century, it is not easy to work out how he got there.

Constance Luzzati
Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

Goudimel was born in Besançon around 1520 and died during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Lyon. Associated from 1549 with the Parisian printer du Chemin, he was the reviser of the profane polyphonic chansons published in the collections to which he was, after Clément Janequin, the main contributor. He introduced to his publisher P. Jambe de fer and M.A. Muret, composers who had been committed to the Reformation since 1552: was this an accident or an act revealing his acquaintance with reformed circles?

His “Premier livre de psaumes en forme de motets” [First book of Psalms in the form of motets] appeared in 1551 and was followed by seven more. He set Marot’s translation to music worthy of the great Catholic motets, in several parts with complex polyphony, intended for singing by professionals. The fact that he set the Psalms in French is not enough reason to proclaim him Reformed as early as 1551, all the more so when he later composed five masses and some Catholic motets. On the other hand, protestant composers have always written Catholic music too (Bach at their head), and some Catholic composers have written music in the vernacular. However, the preface to this first book of Psalms testifies to a kind of conversion: “We see [music] today so depraved and disguised by lascivious, filthy and indecent songs, that many good minds are entirely corrupted and emasculated. I do not want for that reason to accuse those who have exercised themselves in composing motets, psalms and sacred, authentically faithful, canticles: in imitation of whom inspired by goodwill, and Christian affection, I have set myself the duty of spreading abroad the praises of the Creator.” Which did not prevent him from continuing to publish “lascivious and indecent” songs for another four years, or from collaborating with Certon, Janequin and Muret on the musical supplement to Ronsard’s “Amours” of 1552. We might put forward the hypothesis that Muret, a composer but above all a poet and a great Latinist, condemned for heresy in 1553, contributed to Goudimel’s discovery of Reformed ideas.

He moved to Metz in 1557, where he belonged to Reformed groups, which were very active in the town. He was linked by patronage and by the dedications of his works to some protestant families (those of A. Senneton and L. des Masures). He developed a new kind of music: the psalm for four voices in simple counterpoint. The harmonisation was “note for note”: all the voices sang in the same rhythm, which made performance straightforward and the text easily intelligible. In this way Goudimel set to music the whole of the Psalter in 1564, building his polyphony on the melodies of the newly-published Genevan Psalter. They were not intended for liturgical singing, but for domestic edification: “We have added, in this little volume, three voices to the melody of the Psalms: not in order to have them sung in church, but in order to rejoice in God especially at home […] “.

The “Psaumes en contrepoint fleuri” [Psalms in ornate counterpoint] of 1668 are less fitted to the Calvinist perspective: the melody of the Psalter survives, but it is surrounded by vocal lines that are more densely written, liable to mask the text. But they are more “orthodox” than the extremely beautiful “Cantiques spirituels” which Goudimel composed with the poet des Masures, who was habitually published in Geneva, but who had these hymn settings rejected there because they were too distant from the psalter. If these hymns took a long time to spread among the Swiss churches, the harmonised psalters went far beyond their domestic use at the end of the 17th century. The text has since been modernised, but the music sung in the parishes is still often that of Goudimel.

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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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