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Luther’s Musical Reformation

When we think of the Protestant Reformation, we no doubt immediately think of one of its most important figures: Martin Luther. While it is easy to remember Luther for his advances in Protestant theological thought, we often forget the advances he brought to church music. For Luther, however, theology and music could hardly be separated. Music carried with it immense theological implications and therefore had to be reformed along with the rest of the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrines. In a 1530 letter, Luther wrote,“Except for theology, [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely a calm and joyful disposition” (Robin A. Leaver, “Luther on Music.” Lutheran Quarterly, 2006).

Music was of utmost importance to Luther, and there were a number of goals that governed his reforms and spurred him in his endeavors—goals I believe he achieved. These were to give a singing voice back to the congregation, to deepen knowledge of Scripture and theology through song, and to inspire true and meaningful worship of God. To Luther, these things were more essential to his work then what we might consider some of the more important tenets of Protestant theology. To him, a primary goal of the Reformation was to reform worship, and that’s precisely what he did.

Music in the Pre-Reformation Church

To set the stage, we first should examine the state of things before Luther. Music in the church prior to the Protestant Reformation could best be described as a far-off grandeur. It was like looking out onto a beautiful vista that could never be reached, only seen from afar. To the laity, the music was certainly beautiful—it no doubt took their breath away. But it belonged to the church, not to them. It was something they could hear, but never create or partake in themselves.

During the medieval period, monks were charged with creating, maintaining, and performing the church’s music. While most of this was done in monasteries, monks also provided music for the cathedrals. This went beyond choral pieces and liturgical numbers (what we might now call “special music”) to the composition of some hymns and psalm settings as well. Under the leadership of Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), the “father of Christian worship,” monks labored diligently to produce hymns and psalms to be sung during the worship service. This resulted in one of the medieval church’s greatest contributions to music: Gregorian chant. Some of this music still exists and is used today. As Hughes Oliphant Old writes, “It is really the church of the Middle Ages that developed the choral and instrumental music . . . that today we take so much for granted” (Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, Revised and Expanded edition, 2002], 40).

As the centuries rolled by, music in the church became more elaborate and developed, yet many things stayed the same. Bernard of Clairvaux (c.1090–1153), Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), and Bonaventure (c. 1217–74) all have hymn texts attributed to them. Thus the pattern that began in the early Middle Ages was strongly pressing on towards the pre-modern age: Church music was written exclusively by churchmen and performed exclusively by professional musicians. Furthermore, the music sung during worship services was invariably in the language of the churches and schools: Latin. This was not, however, the language of the everyday working man or woman. “The very fact that the great bulk of this hymnody was in Latin kept much of its glory within the confines of religious communities. The common people could neither sing it nor understand it. It was by and large . . . the treasure of the cathedral and the monastery rather than the town church or the village chapel” (Old, 42). The Reformation sought to change that.

Luther and Music

As mentioned earlier, Luther had a profound appreciation for music. For Luther, music deserved the highest praise (second only to the word of God), and along with the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther sought to reform its use of music. He saw music as a gift from God that should be used “at its highest and best to glorify Him” (Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006], 24). In its Mass, Luther believed, the Catholic Church was failing to do this. The songs were too complex, both in their musical composition and in their use of Latin texts. They were inaccessible to the congregation. Just as Luther believed that the rest of the Mass should be in the language of the people, so too he believed the songs of the worship service should be in the vernacular. Rome did not appreciate these suggestions, however, and what began as an attempted “reform from within” movement ended in schism.

Luther’s conviction that the worship of God should be sincere, unified, and easily understood by the congregation was the guiding principle as his reforms started to take place in the German Mass. In terms of music, Luther made certain that psalm and hymn lyrics were in German. Luther also favored simpler melodies that would be easily learned by musically untrained congregants. He generally steered clear of polyphony in favor of a sturdier, more unified sound, perhaps a remaining influence of the Gregorian genre (Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel [Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub, 1993], 60–62). Furthermore, Luther was one of the first to specifically commission music for the Protestant movement. It helped that he was musically adept, because he ended up writing his own hymn texts and setting them to his own music. Today, we still have in use more than thirty of his hymns, the most famous being “Ein feste burg” (“A Mighty Fortress”). Excluded from this list are the many psalms that Luther versified and set to music as well.

The effect that these hymns had for the Reformation’s cause cannot be overstated. Roman Catholics believed Luther did more harm to them with his hymns than with his sermons because the hymns spread like wildfire throughout Europe, championing and promoting Protestant theology. One Jesuit wrote, “Luther has murdered more souls with his songs than with his writings and sermons” (Paul Nettl, Luther and Music [Philadelphia, PA: The Muhlenberg Press, 1948], 49). Luther’s philosophy on hymnody is expressed clearly in a letter to George Spalatin, whose aid he sought in writing new texts for congregational use: “Avoid any new words or the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and the most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt” (Carl F. Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise [St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House,1988], 26).

Another benefit of Luther’s Reformation, it should be noted, was the musical training of young children. Strongly influenced by the training he received himself as a child, Luther pushed to ensure music was a priority curriculum in the schools. This was not simply because he loved music, but rather because he wanted the children involved in the music of the church. Luther said, “The common people will learn from the pupils what, when, and how to sing in church” (Schalk, 29).

I believe what becomes evident in Luther’s reform of church music is just how much he cared for the commoner. This is true not only in regard to his musical reforms, but to his reforms in general. Luther loved the laity. He fought for them to be free from the bondage of indulgences and superstition. He fought for the laity to have access to the cup at the Lord’s Supper. He fought for them to have a liturgy they could understand and Bibles they could read. In that same vein, Luther was determined to give the people songs that they could sing. It seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages simply didn’t trust the laity to understand their Bibles or theology, to petition God on their own, or to worship properly. Luther didn’t buy this; neither did any of the other reformers. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church did not trust the people, the Protestant church rightly recognized that God himself had entrusted true worship to his people. Luther could not accept the notion that the Bible’s many explicit commands to sing praise and make melody were limited to a certain group of initiated members. Indeed, “it was the idea of a universal priesthood, the idea that the believer himself, without priestly intercession, could and should approach his God, that impelled Luther to depart from the old Latin Mass” (Nettl, 72).

This no doubt influenced Luther’s desire to have children be heavily involved in worship services, as noted previously. While boy choirs were used in the medieval church, they were not used to teach music or aid in worship. They were mere ornamentation. Luther’s use of the children’s choir flew in the face of everything the Latin Mass stood for. Following in the steps of his Savior, Luther saw the significance of “the least of these” when others did not.

But more than giving a voice back to the congregation, Luther sought to teach the whole counsel of Scripture (i.e., Reformed doctrine) through the music of the worship service. Luther said, “God has His gospel preached through music, too” (Paul S. Jones, What Is Worship Music? [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010], 28). Though a seemingly simple sentiment, it has profound implications. This is what the medieval church missed, and it is one of the things that caused her worship and practice to become so deadened. Music is a gift from God that should be employed to proclaim his word, his truth, and his character. Yet when this is done in a language that God’s people do not understand, how are they supposed to grasp any of it? How is their knowledge of God to be deepened? How are they to be made better and stronger in their faith? When Luther recovered congregational song, the people discovered God and his word in whole new ways. They were able to follow the precedent of Scripture passages such as the song of Moses, the psalms, Deborah’s song, and Mary’s song, and proclaim God’s truth and mighty acts of salvation in song.

Luther was fond of the phrase “say and sing.” He saw the spiritual and pedagogical benefit of not only speaking words, but also singing them. Hence he begins his famous Christmas hymn by writing:

From heaven high I come to you.
I bring you tidings good and new.
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
whereof I now will say and sing.

I think this is a fitting verse for the Reformation as a whole. It was the preaching and singing of glad tidings once again—a long-lost gospel. Perhaps this is something to reflect on the next time you sing at church: the marvelous blessings and privileges that are ours because of the work of the Reformation. What a gift this music is to us! May we give our highest and best to glorify God.