6. The rhythm of Genevan psalms

a. ‘Het calvinistische psalter. Een onderzoek naar ritmische verschijnselen in tekst en melodie, en de consequenties daarvan voor de nieuwe psalmberijming’ [The Calvinist Psalter. An investigation of rhythmic traits in text and melody, and their consequences for the new rhymed translation], Kerk en Eredienst XIII (1959), 238-256. Reprint in Het Orgel 58 (1962), 29-34.

b. ‘Het ritme van de Geneefse psalmmelodieën’ [The rhythm of the Genevan psalm melodies], Het Orgel 79 (1983), 378-383.

The articles in Dutch with a combining text you can find here in pdf (415Kb)


The basis of French versification is the number of syllables, not a pattern of accents. Outside of the obligation to place a word accent on the rhyme syllable, and in longer lines also on the syllable immediately before the caesura, the French poet is free in the placement of word accents in the verse. The generally extremely variable pattern formed by the word accents in a verse, I call the text rhythm. It appears however that a composer of a French song often normalizes the variety of the text rhythm to a regular succession of accented and unaccented syllables – maintaining of course the obligatory accents on the rhyme syllables and on the syllables before the caesuras. Since in French the accent is less firmly bound to a certain syllable of a word than in a Germanic language, the text in a French song is adapted with no difficulty to the melody. These normalized  rhythmic patterns, that we can find in the melodic scheme of a French song, I call the verse rhythm.

Statistical study of the rhythm of the melodies of the Genevan Psalter shows that these melodies assume an alternating verse rhythm, usually iambic, sometimes trochaic. The sequence strong-weak is generally indicated by two consecutive semibreves or two consecutive minimae, with in the second case the first minima on the downbeat of the tactus minor in tempus imperfectum, which is the basis of all the melodies (see the second of the articles referenced above, point 3a). Variety is achieved by introducing now and then a succession of two ternary metra (see point 3b and 3c), by application here and there, either in masculine – rather frequent – , or in feminine rhyme – less frequent – , of discant cadences with their characteristic syncopes (see point 3d and 3e), and by the use of a syncopated tied anticipation of the first note in a number of trochaic lines (see point 3f ). The final tones of the lines are always, even in the case of feminine rhymes, the goal of the melodic movement, and they fall on the downbeat. Normally these are semibreves followed by a semibreve rest, breves in other words, since such a rest form with the preceding note one rhythmic entity:  it is simply a breathing mark. The long notes in the melodies, the semibreves, are used in the first place to mark the ends of the lines, and, in the event of caesuras, to mark the ends of the line segments. They also show the structure of a melody, e.g. they indicate a division in the melody that is not related to a caesura, or they round off a melody or melodic section formally. Finally, they appear also to be used to mark important words in a line from the first strophe of a psalm.

There are however some ten melody lines in which the rhythm contradicts the alternating verse rhythm. In each of these cases the melodic form seems to be determined by the text rhythm of the first strophe (see point 9 in the first of the above referenced articles). These lines demanded extra attention in the Dutch rhymed translation of the French Psalter, since in Dutch, as in other Germanic languages, the word accent is tied to the root. Here it was necessary, in order to allow the melodies to maintain their expressiveness, to avoid a collision between word and tone, to conform to the text rhythm of the first strophe of the French psalm, which had determined the form of the melody in the first place – ergo not simply to rhyme alternatingly. The goal of my article was to point this out.