Luther's musical legacy is the Reformation's unsung achievement
Jonathan Willis, University of Birmingham
Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther triggered what would become the Protestant Reformation with a document protesting corruption in the Catholic Church. At its heart, his Reformation was a movement about the nature of sin and the means of salvation; about the power of the church versus the authority of scripture. But it also helped to shape modern religion in other, more unexpected ways: one of these was through the birth of congregational song.
By the 15th century, music had become one of the most prominent features of religious worship. Most parish churches had at least one organ and a small semi-professional choir; these modest resources were dwarfed by the great cathedrals and monasteries. The singing of complex polyphonic music, where the voices of singers weaved elaborately together, had become an important means of praising and serving God.
Even within the medieval church, this elaborate music had had its critics. In 1325, Pope John XXII issued a decree criticising musicians who “intoxicate the ear without satisfying it”.
Writing later in the 14th century, the Oxford theologian whose writings inspired the English “Lollard” heresy, John Wycliffe, wrote that the more time men spent singing, the less they observed God’s law. On the eve of the Reformation, the humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus complained that the people were three times removed from the music of the church, by dint of its use of Latin, complicated musical style, and non-participation.
In large part, the Reformation sought to banish what it saw as the ritual excess of the late-medieval church. The Swiss reformer Huldreich Zwingli, a talented musician, had the organs of Zurich dismantled and its choirs disbanded. The Frenchman Jean Calvin restricted religious music in his adopted home of Geneva to the unaccompanied singing of the biblical Book of Psalms. This “metrical psalmody” was also popular in England, although in cathedrals there, organs and choirs continued to prosper with the support of Elizabeth I.
Even the Catholic Church sought to regulate music to some degree at the Council of Trent. A (likely false) story persists that it was only the beauty of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli that stopped the council banning polyphony from the church altogether.
In the midst of this challenging environment, Luther’s love of music rings loud, clear and true. In the Tischreden, the record of his mealtime conversations, Luther proclaimed:
I always loved music; whoso has skill in this art, is of a good temperament, fitted for all things.
He argued that schoolmasters and preachers ought to be skilled in music, “or I would not regard him”. The Reformation was in part born out of Luther’s struggles with his own conscience and sense of sin. There is a ring of personal truth about his claim that music was:
The best solace for a sad and sorrowful mind; by it the heart is refreshed and settled again at peace.
Luther waxed most lyrical about the power of music in the foreword to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae (“Delightful Symphonies”, 1538), addressed “to the devotees of music”. In it, he praised music as “the excellent gift of God”, “instilled and implanted” in all creatures “from the beginning of the world”. Any man or woman not touched by the power of music, he wrote with characteristic earthiness, deserved to hear nothing else but “the music of the pigs”.
Praise be to hymn
Luther’s reformation therefore integrated the simple unison plainchant and complex polyphony of the Catholic Church into his new Protestant liturgy almost wholesale. However, Luther also brought significant change, through the introduction of the congregational singing of vernacular psalms and hymns. People had sung religious music before of course – many Christmas carols have medieval origins. But never before had the people played an active, musical role in church services.
This was a democratisation of one of the most popular and emotive dimensions of religious worship, and a powerful weapon in the Reformation’s battle for hearts and minds.
By allowing composers to write original lyrics, rather than just setting the words of scripture, Lutheran hymns could also communicate new religious doctrines. The most famous hymn of Luther’s own composition was Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God). The second verse reads:
Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing…
The message was clear: mankind could not rely on their own good works; salvation came from God alone.
In 1620, the German Jesuit Adam Contzen remarked that Luther had converted more souls with his hymns than with all his books and sermons. Whatever else we make of Luther’s Reformation, it is clear that he gave the world a musical gift which continues to resound in the present day.Comment on this article
Jonathan Willis works for University of Birmingham and has received funding from the ARHB (2005-6), ARHC (2006-9) and the Leverhulme Trust (2010-13).
University of Birmingham provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.