500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation - 500 Years Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Music and the Reformation

Martin Luther sings music with his family and friend Philip Melanchthon.

by Marion Timm

When it comes to music in the church, Luther was something of a reformer (if you’ll pardon the pun). His ideas both included and challenged historical and contemporary views of music. Luther thought highly of music and sought to utilize it in a way that would give the people a means of worship that they could take part in while engaging with the Scriptures. He was a composer whose music inspired influential composers such as J. S. Bach to use music to the glory of God. He made sacred music accessible to all: the poor, the rich, and even secular society. And his influence is still felt today: his impact on music in his time continues to provide us with a rich and meaningful way to worship God and engage with His Word.

Music Before Luther

12th century manuscript of “Dominus Exultemus.”

Traditionally, the Catholic Church had used music in a very exclusive way—a number of cantors would sing Sacred Plainsong during mass, with Gregorian chant being particularly well known (as an example, see “Dominus Exsultemus” here). The use of the term “plainsong” is quite accurate: there is only one melody and no harmonization (“monophony” is the technical term). There is no accompaniment though it could be played by an instrument.

As time passed, but still many years before Luther, two influential composers, Leonin and Perotin at Notre Dame Cathedral began experimenting with music in the church. Eventually, they brought the world “polyphony”—a musical texture made of two or more simultaneous melodies sounded by independent voices or instruments. (Check out this link for a brief history lesson on the movement from plainsong to polyphony). This development “culminated in the splendor of Mauchat’s Mass” one of the most famous polyphonic compositions of the time.[i] Polyphony became the standard for worship, though plainsong still continued.[ii]

When Luther came into the picture, the Catholic Church was still the “leading patron of musical production.”[iii] But in response to Luther’s impact on music, the Roman Church would come to ban certain styles of music in hopes of counteracting his larger theological impact. It almost completely banned polyphony and returned exclusively to plainsong. Part of this was a reaction to music’s relationship to human emotion, as church officials believed that “any move to make music more emotionally expressive was to be avoided because it appealed to the senses and not to the soul.”[iv] In order to maintain this non-emotional approach to worship, congregational singing was not encouraged nor were lyrics sung in the common language of the people. To change that norm by say, allowing the people to join in and actually understand what they were singing about, was simply not okay.

Luther’s Thoughts on Music

As an Augustinian Monk, Luther was well versed in Gregorian Chant and had a passion for music. Contrary to church officials, however, he had a solid conviction that “[music] alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer the soul of man, which is clear that evidence that the devil, the originator of depressing worries and troubled thoughts, flees from the voice of music just as he flees from the words of theology.”[v]

In this, Luther suggests that emotional reactions to music are positive, as those expressions demonstrate the power of the Gospel to drive away the devil. Throughout his studies he came to the conclusion that “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in this world.”[vi]

Just as Luther believed the Bible should be in the language of the people, he also believed the music of the church should be as well. He encouraged the use of Latin Mass in cathedrals but desired a German mass in the local parish. The music was based on Gregorian chant but polyphony was used to ornament certain aspects of the liturgy and ceremonial music.[vii] He also strongly argued that the music written in the language of the people should be simple enough for all to understand, so “only the simplest and the most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt” and written as closely to the Scriptures as possible.[viii]

His “radicalism” even extended to the world of secular music. *Gasp! Luther took melodies well known by both common people and the Church, and adapted them to reflect the teachings of the Reformation. Adaptation, he felt, was better than outright rejection: in 1542, he said “the songs and the music are precious; it would be a pity, indeed, should they perish.”[ix]

The hymn “In Dulci Jubilo,” for example, Luther translated from Latin to German, and then adapted the lyrics to transfer the emphasis from Mary to God.[x] We in the Lutheran Church today are most familiar with Arthur T. Russell’s English version of the same hymn: “Now Sing We, Now Rejoice” (LSB 386).

Manuscript of “A Mighty Fortress” (Ein feste Burg) written in Martin Luther’s hand.

The hymn “O welt ich muss dich lassen,” meanwhile, originated as the secular song, “Innsbruck ich muss dich lassen” (a song in which a lover bids farewell to his beloved, as he must leave for foreign lands). Luther kept the melody and completely re-wrote the lyrics for use in a Christian setting. This has become one of our Lenten favourites: “Upon the Cross Extended” (LSB 453).

Luther also composed his own hymns, of course, the most famous being “Ein’ feste Burg” (known best to English audiences as A Mighty Fortress is our God).” The Lutheran composer J.S. Bach famously used this melody as a motif for his cantata “Eine Feste Burg ist unsere Gott” (BWV 80). There are two versions of “Ein’ feste Burg” in the Lutheran Service Book—a translation of Luther’s original (LSB 656) and one inspired by Bach (LSB  657).

Luther’s Impact on Music  

Luther’s views on music, it has been said, “sowed the seeds of a musical renaissance in the German speaking lands”, which, in turn, “led to the supremacy of German and Austrian music” until the nineteenth century.[xi] He was the spark that led to the start of American hymnody and opened the doors to worship that intentionally involved the people.

With a reputation like that, it’s no wonder we also know him as the fastest selling Playmobil figurine in history.

Marion Timm is a lifelong pastor’s daughter in Lutheran Church–Canada and pastor’s wife. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music as well as a Bachelor of Education degree. She regularly serves as a keyboardist and organist in church.

[i]  Wilson-Dickson, Andrew. The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel: An Authoritative Illustrated Guide to All the Major Traditions of Music for Worship. 1st Fortress Press ed., Fortress Press, 1992: 55.

[ii]  Wold, Milo Arlington., and Edmund Cykler. An Outline History of Music. 6th ed. W. C. Brown, 1985.

[iii]  Ibid: 63.

[iv]  Ibid: 35.

[v]  Buszin, Walter Edwin. Luther on Music. Lutheran Society for Worship, Music and the Arts, pamphlet series, no. 3. North Central Publishing Company, 1958: 7.

[vi]  Ibid.

[vii]  Wilson-Dickson: 60.

[viii]  Schalk, Carl. Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise. Concordia Publishing House, 1984:26
Schalk 1984, 26).

[ix]  Buszin: 12.

[x] The linked version, being a mixture of Latin and English, is not historically accurate.

[xi] Wold and Cykler: 64.