Bach chorale's secret French connection

As the French presidential election approaches On An Overgrown Path travels to the Languedoc region of that fine country, and, totally unexpectedly, uncovers a Bach chorale's French connection. Nîmes has some of the best preserve Roman public buildings in Europe. The jewel in the crown is the 1st-century temple known as the Maison Carrée, shown in my photo above, which has survived virtually intact because it was fortunate enough to stay in use for a remarkable range of activities including a meeting hall, stable, Catholic church and archive.

The miraculous Maison Carrée is mirrored across the central piazza by Sir Norman Foster's remarkable 1993 Musée d'Art Contemporain and Médiathèque (photo below and background of header photo). This inspired building is, as the Lonely Planet guide says, 'everything modern architecture should be: innovative, complementary and beautiful.' The Maison Carrée itself dates from 19 BC and was originally dedicated to Caïus Caesar and Lucius Caesar before being rededicated as a Christian church in the fourth century. The tides of religion have ebbed and flowed over Languedoc across the centuries, including the Manichaean doctrine espoused by the Cathars in the 11th and 12th centuries which resulted in the Albigensian Crusade.

In the 16th century the tide turned once more bringing the new Protestant heresy down the Rhône from Calvin's Geneva. Tolerance was again out of fashion among Catholics, and the rallying call for the persecuted Protestants in their prison cells and wilderness assemblies was the Huguenot Psalter. This remarkable work, which is also known as the Genevan Psalter, appeared in its definitive form in 1562, and became the most successful hymnbook of all time.

The Huguenot Psalter set out to reintegrate laymen back into the liturgy by translating the Psalms into the vernacular, and setting them to simple melodies. Calvin wrote in the preface that the Psalter contained 'songs not merely honest but holy', and that it avoided what was 'in part vain and frivolous, in part stupid and dull, in part foul and vile and consequently evil and harmful'.

As the Calvinists had no musical legacy they created their own drawing on a wide range of sources including French folk-songs. And in a remarkable piece of reverse osmosis some of the resulting chorales were incorporated back into the Lutheran mainstream, one notable example being "Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sind" (Bach VII, No. 58). Among the composers who transcribed melodies from the Huguenot Psalter were Samuel Mareschal, Pascal de l'Estocart, Philibert Jambe de Fer and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck.

The exciting news is that children's voices of the Maîtrise de Nimes have recently recorded a selection from the Huguenot Psalter titled Resveillez-vous chacun fidèle. (The title is taken from Psalm 33 - Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous). This very beautiful, and desirable, new release (left) is sung in French, and was recorded at the historic Protestant Temple of Le Vigan in the Gard under the direction of Vincent Recolin, and uses the two manual organ in the Temple.

This CD is typical of the cultural melting-pot that is Europe today. It is released by the enterprising K617 label which is run by Le Couvent Centre for baroque music in the north-eastern Moselle region of France close to the German border, and in truly global fashion Le Couvent specialises in baroque music from Latin America.

Resveillez-vous chacun fidèle is much more than a useful exploration of little known early music. The Huguenot Psalter contributed to the development of the chorale form which reached its peak with Bach. This lovingly sung and recorded CD is an important addition to the catalogue, and can be bought online from the FNAC website where short audio samples are also available, or online from K617. As Martin Luther said: 'God preaches the Gospel through music too.'

* Founded in 1990, the Maîtrise de Nîmes brings together young people who are trained in choral singing between the ages of eight and seventeen within the framework of a general school education at the Institut Emmanuel d'Alzon in Nîmes. The Maîtrise provides an artistic education which enables the children to practise a wide range of musical activities. There is an emphasis on baroque music, but the schools activities have also included performing Jacques Loussier's Mass Lumières in 1966 at the inauguration of the inspirational new cathedral at Evry that I wrote about here recently. The photo below shows the choir in front of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, which features in my header photo. The age of the choristers ranges from 9 to 17.

* The Huguenot Psalter was a product of the Calvinists, and Brother Roger, who founded the Taizé Community which has featured here several times, was also a Calvinist and was born in Switzerland. Music is a central feature of the Taizé liturgy as well.

Top two photographs taken by Pliable and copyright On An Overgrown Path. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Now read how France said no - with help from Father Joe


Pliable said…
Help please!

Can any readers suggest where I can buy a recording of Jacques Loussier's Mass Lumières (also known as his Baroque Mass).

It must be one of the few recordings totally deleted. The only copy I could find was on a ludicrously priced eBay auction.
Pliable said…
Some background information to this story has come to my attention.

In the sixteenth century Nîmes was a major Protestant stronghold and was the scene of a major massacre of Catholics in 1567.

Three-quarters of the population of Nîmes converted to Calvinism, or Huguenotism as it was known in France, and there was extensive persecution of Catholics in the surrounding areas.

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