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FIFTY YEARS OF MUSIC AT CALVIN COLLEGE, by Seymour Swets; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.; 260 pages, $5.95 (paper). Reviewed by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema

The author lived through the 50 years of musical history at Calvin College which he reviews in this book. In the Introduction he says:

It will be our purpose to trace the earliest music at Calvin, both vocal and instrumental, and to present briefly the elements in our cultural background that prevailed at the time when the writer became the first full-time teacher of music and speech in 1923. We will trace the slow development of the music department . . . (1923-45) . . . and how in the next twenty-two years (1945-67) the music department grew from a one-man staff to a faculty of ten.

In the Foreword, Dr. Wm. Harry Jellema, furnishing background for understanding Prof. Swets’ account, traces the history of the Christian Reformed Church as it had its beginnings in the Netherlands. First he discusses the Secession of 1834 and describes it as separatistic in the sense that it eschewed all forms of worldliness, preached total depravity and a salvation through sovereign grace, with the result that it emphasized consecrated lives of thankfulness to God. In short, they emphasized particular grace, their whole life was dedicated to the service of God, and their only real interest was in the church. Next, Jellema describes the Secession of 1886 under Abraham Kuyper. Although Dr. Kuyper stressed the same cardinal doctrines of salvation as did the Separatists, this movement “meant a break with the basic theoretical and practical stipulation that distinguished Separatism.” For Kuyper and his adherents adopted the theory of common grace, whereby they aimed “to reorient, reform, redirect the cultural achievements of (the natural) man to their proper end of glorifying God,” and to reclaim for the Kingdom of Christ every area of human life. These two streams converged in the Christian Reformed Church in our country. This reviewer found it impossible to agree with Jellema’s interpretation of 1834 and 1886. It is quite probable, however, that this interpretation lies behind the course of development at Calvin with respect to the arts and “culture.”

Going back to the turn of the century, Prof. Swets describes the musical history of the CRC, particularly as it centered in Calvin College. He traces the history of Singing Schools in the churches before the era of formal music at the college. Then he goes through the lowly origins of the music department, telling of the development of vocal music, the history of the Oratorio Society, the band and orchestra, and instruction in theory and fundamentals at the college. 

The author treats his material factually, furnishing many memorabilia from old church periodicals and interesting pictures from by-gone years. The quiet nostalgia of the book leads the reader on to find out more, whether he knows the people mentioned, or not. Unexpected and humorous incidents during rehearsals, performances, or tours lend a spark of interest to the history. It was undoubtedly largely through the author’s efforts and by his capable leadership that the music program at Calvin developed richly. Though in the book Prof. Swets modestly retreats into the background, the reader can judge his efforts by the fruits. 

An item of special interest to us of Prot. Ref. background is the song written for Corps, an all-male student society at Calvin, because it was written by student Herman Hoeksema. Three stanzas he wrote in Dutch, and the fourth (copying European university customs) was in Latin! 

Although Swets does not comment on it, a discerning reader sees that the influence of Kuyper’s common grace invaded the music department at Calvin. Gradually the programs became more secular, and the synthesis between “Christian culture” and “worldly culture” was accomplished. 

The book is of interest to musicians and to Calvin Alumni especially.