Herman de Kler The history of organ music and the accompaniment of congregational singing
Het ORGEL 96 (2000), nr. 4, 27-36 [summary]

Den Haag Grote kerk. Painting of Bartholomeus van Bassen in 1639For centuries now the traditional ‘gereformeerde’ (reformed) way of singing psalms and hymns has been described negatively. Constantijn Huygens called it ‘yelling’ and recalled lack of consistency with respect to pitch and meter. Others criticised the slow tempo and the lack of rhythmic variety. These, however, were part of the heterophony: the congregation sang unaccompanied, applied dynamic changes to express the affects of terms like ‘Scripture’, and took its time. It was an intriguing procedure: creative chaos led to new harmony.

Historians followed the critics of this practice. Can one draw other conclusions from the intellectual observations of the critics as well? In 17th-century psalm settings, composed for secular organ concerts, the cantus firmus of the Genevan psalter is used exactly; the arrangements can hardly serve as instructive with regard to the way the congregation sang. In improvisations this way of singing was sometimes imitated, but 18th-century accompaniment books cultivated heterophony as well. This indicates that the need to reject it was not as strong as some historians believe.

The continuous and enthusiastical playing of profane music on the organ fit the church very well, considering its function as a public building, open to anyone. It is undesirable to reject this practice now because a small group did so then.

Major changes occurred for the first time when, after the Second World War, so-called ‘rhythmic singing’ was introduced. The traditional way of singing, which originated in the middle ages, represented then a cultural lag. Congregational singing was modelled into unison chorus singing. The history of congregational singing in The Hague is an excellent example of this development.