Holding Fast to the Psalms: Stories from Hungary

The book of Psalms, embodied in the Genevan Psalter, has nourished Reformed Christians for centuries. This spiritual heritage has a special place in the hearts of Hungarian Reformed believers who have survived the harsh years of Communist repression and domination. Their stories testify to the influence of the psalms in the ordinary and extraordinary details of their lives.

In a recent set of interviews with Reformed believers in Hungary, I asked what the psalms meant to them. Some of those interviewed were surprised that I would even ask whether the Psalter was important for them, because the answer was obvious—of course! They had been wrapped in the tapestry of faith into which the Genevan Psalter was woven—in some places obvious and clear, in others as a deep background color—but always present.

Starved and barely able to walk, Antal Pap stayed back with the others whose broken bodies were of no more use in the Siberian slave labor camp. Too exhausted to speak, they sat on their bunks trying to ignore the gnawing hunger that was their daily fare. Incoming mail, infrequent but welcome, dispelled the silence one day. Antal was pleased to see the postcard from his brother-in-law, Ferenc Visky, a young Reformed pastor working in Romania. His expression changed, though, as he read the message: “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it. Psalm 81:10.”

Ferenc Visky recalls what happened:

I could write only a very little because little was allowed, so I quoted a text from the Psalms. Antal got the postcard and began to read it while sitting on his bunk. Open your mouth? Easy for you to say, he thought, you with your full stomach and rested body! If you could see me here at death’s door, all skin and bones, you wouldn’t say that. How could you send such a letter to me?

As Antal sat, angered by the message, the huge back door of the barrack opened, and a soldier entered, pushing a two-wheeled cart heavily loaded with food: carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, canned meat. Famished and exhausted, Antal watched with hungry eyes. The soldier was watching him as well, not paying careful attention to his load. Rickety and unstable, the cart turned over and all the sacks opened, spilling their treasure in front of Antal.

Antal dragged himself up from his bed and began to pick up the precious food from the floor while the soldier balanced the cart. As Antal was about to replace the last of the food, the soldier motioned to him to leave it on the floor. At first he didn’t understand what to do, but when the soldier opened wide his mouth and pointed, it was obvious. The soldier wanted Antal to have the food left on the floor.

Ferenc Visky’s love for the language and music of the psalms began at home. As a very young child, tucked in a corner of his parents’ bedroom, he fell asleep with the florescent words of Psalm 73:28 glowing into his memory from a picture on the wall: “But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the sovereign Lord my refuge.” These words have guided his life and that of his wife, Julia, as well. The couple has been shaped by the commitment they made when they married in 1947 to live soli Deo gloria. The words of Psalm 115:1 became their guiding star: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory because of your love and faithfulness.”

That love has sustained them through the six hard years of Ferenc’s imprisonment in a notorious Communist prison; during Julia’s detention, along with their seven children, at a labor camp at the Danube Delta; and during the ensuing decades of surveillance, betrayal, and interrogation.

A Musical Heritage

As in many Christian traditions, the musical heritage of the Hungarian Reformed Church continues to be passed along within families.

The Viskys passed along the heritage of the Psalter to their children by incorporating the singing of the psalms into their daily family worship every morning, noon, and evening. To this day, whenever a guest is present, they sing the benediction of Psalm 122: “For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’” They seek to provide an encounter with God for every guest who enters their home.

Almasi Istvan, a retired musicologist now living in Cluj-Napoc, Romania, reflected on the significance of that musical heritage. “You may be absolutely certain that the singing of the psalms did help preserve faith during the Communist era!” he says. Istvan is confident that the intrinsic depth and beauty of the Genevan Psalter could continue to capture the hearts of young people today if taught with love. “Music has the power to capture and transform in a way that no other medium can, but the teaching of the psalms to the young depends on the teacher’s love for the psalms and the ability to lead the children to Christ,” he says.

Three generations of the Timar family in Nagyida, Slovakia, can trace their family’s musical heritage back five generations to eighty-nine-year-old Jolan Kiss, the matriarch of the family. Jolan knows 135 of the Genevan psalms, many learned from her grandmother, who could sing all of them by heart. Jolan’s daughter Maria knows nearly a hundred, and Maria’s daughter, a pastor in a Reformed congregation in Slovakia, shares their love for the heritage of the Genevan psalms. When we asked Jolan to sing some of her favorites, she didn’t hesitate a bit, singing several, including Psalm 90, the best-known psalm among Hungarian Reformed people. The music of God’s grace is like the dew, she says, very refreshing on a hot, hot day!

The strength, stability, and endurance of the people of Nagyida during the difficult days of Communism is due in no small part to the community’s faithfulness in passing along their Reformed tradition—including the Genevan psalms—to the young. What’s heard in the home surely shapes the music of the soul and the heart of the community.

The Role of the Church

What is taught and sung in the church also shapes and strengthens believers. The Hungarian Reformed Church inducts new members into the church in an age-old process. Even today, when young people cast their lot with God’s people, they participate in a two-year confirmation process. Typical confirmation classes include the study of church history and a survey of the historic confessions of the church and the Heidleberg Catechism. Young people memorize Bible passages and learn several Genevan psalms by heart. The exact number of psalms memorized depends on the musical ability and inclination of the pastor, but always includes a minimum of four of the most loved: Psalms 23, 25, 42, and 90.

Summer Music Camps

Teaching the music of the church takes place in a more concentrated form at summer church music camps. One such camp, headed by Sandor Berkesi, director of the Debrecen Cantus, is held each summer in the city of Miskolc, Hungary. During the 1960s, musicians like Berkesi realized that the ideology of the regime was slowly and surely eroding church life; the younger generations no longer knew and loved the music of the Genevan Psalter. In the words of musicologist Istvan Almasi, “Communism was a disaster” for the life of the church and its members. Some speculate that at least two generations were lost to fear, intimidation, and finally apathy. Out of this concern emerged the concept of summer music camps to restore and re-teach the musical heritage of the church—including the Genevan Psalter—by training well the church musicians of the future.

A young pastor described her experience at the Miskolc camp in the 1990s. Anita Barnoczky, a new Reformed Christian, wanted to learn more about the Reformed musical heritage, so she participated in an intensive three-year summer program for church musicians and cantors. Each year a three-week program designed for ages 14 through adult is offered. It includes four levels. Levels A and B introduce music history, the Psalter, and the organ. Campers learn fifteen psalms during the first year’s cycle, ten of them by heart—all the stanzas! These levels also include private music lessons and regular practice time. Levels C and D focus more on conducting, leading, and playing the traditional music of the Reformed Church.
Nor are younger children neglected. Children ages 7-13 are invited to join the Miskolc camp for one week during the three-week session. Each summer Berkesi writes a new piece of music for young children, and Katalin Gavay, the children’s instructor, teaches them three or four psalms, always including her favorite, Psalm 150. According to Barnoczky, the final concert by all the campers is a delicious foretaste of heaven.

Gavay views herself as a link in the chain that her grandfather embraced, one he passed along to his children and grandchildren, and one she joyfully passes along to the leaders of the future at the summer camp. As the process of globalization marches across cultural and national borders, evening out cultural differences and homogenizing social, economic, and religious life, she would like to preserve the heritage of psalm singing, not only as a cultural manifestation, but as a living expression that no matter what the future holds, our hope and trust is in the powerful, compassionate, living God of the psalms who always remains near his children.

The Genevan Psalter

The Genevan Psalter is a collection of all 150 psalms written in poetic meters and set to 125 melodies, all prepared under the leadership of John Calvin in Geneva. Completed in 1562, the French psalter was immediately translated into German, Dutch, and Hungarian, and spread very quickly, providing the main musical diet for centuries of Reformed Christians, especially in Hungary and the Netherlands. Several tunes are still included in most North American hymnals; the three best known are

• GENEVAN 134 (old hundredth), often sung to Psalm 100 and “The Doxology.”
• GENEVAN 42 (freu dich sehr), also sung to “Comfort, Comfort Now My People.”
• GENEVAN 98/118 (rendez a dieu), the tune for both Psalm 98 and 118.

Psalm 42 from the Hungarian Psalter.

Ference Visky (above) and Jolan Kiss (below) during interviews in Hungary the summer of 2003.

Reformed Worship 70 © December 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.