Thursday, January 15, 2009

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Though this blog is dedicated to the authors and composers that give us hymns, sometimes a person has an even more lasting impact on hymnody in other ways. Luther is one such example; his hymn A mighty fortress is of course a fine contribution to Christian music, but his influence as a theologian on the practice of congregational hymnody was much more far-reaching.

To appreciate the changes that came about in this arena during the Reformation, we need to understand the degree to which congregational participation in church music was restricted in the practices of the Catholic church during the Middle Ages. Though congregational singing was the obvious norm during the early Christian era (cf. the "one another" nature of singing in Ephesians 5:18, Colossians 3:16), by the late Middle Ages the congregation's participation was very limited; the presiding priest and the choir carried out almost all of the musical services. This is not to say that there was no group singing of Christian music among the common people, but where it existed (e.g. the English carols) it was usually not part of the official rites of the church.

Another factor tended to remove the average congregant from the Medieval service--the fact that it was sung in Latin, rather than the language of the people. Though churchgoers likely learned much of the Ordinary (the texts that were sung in every Mass), the portions that changed from service to service were doubtless unintelligible to most. It is necessary to understand some of the thinking behind this: first, the service was considered a sacrifice offered to God, not something done primarily for the benefit of the congregation; and second, it was assumed that the clergy acted as intermediaries between God and the congregation, who could not be expected to understand all of the complexities of the ritual, and did not have to.

There had been those all along who resisted this appropriation of the congregation's role, and in time they succeeded to such a degree that their efforts are still known to us. The much-persecuted followers of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (1372-1415), for example, were known to practice a very simple form of worship, including congregational singing. But it was Luther, whose theological acumen was matched by his political skill, who relaid the Biblical foundations that opened the way for at least a potential, partial restoration of congregational participation in church music.

In his "Address to the Christian nobility of the German nation", Luther homed in on the logical implications of 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation..." He reasoned that "It follows then, that between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, or, as they call it, between spiritual and temporal sons, the only real difference is one of office and function..."(Address) He illustrates the consequences of this conclusion as follows:

...if a little company of pious Christian laymen were taken prisoners and carried away to a desert, and had not among them a priest consecrated by a bishop, and were there to agree to elect one of them and were to order him to baptise, to celebrate the mass, to absolve and to preach, this man would as truly be a priest, as if all the bishops and all the popes had consecrated him. That is why, in cases of necessity, every man can baptise and absolve, which would not be possible if we were not all priests. This great grace and virtue of baptism and of the Christian estate they have quite destroyed and made us forget by their ecclesiastical law...(Address)

The realization that all Christians stand equal as priests before God means that "no man may put himself forward or take upon himself without our consent and election, to do that which we have all alike power to do."(Address)

In the area of church music, Luther's revolution meant the return of a meaningful participation by the congregation in the official services of the church; and this necessarily meant a change in the nature of the services. He said in 1523 that:

I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during mass, immediately after the gradual and also after the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. For who doubts that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating?(Whitwell, 12)

It is important to understand that Luther did not dislike the music of the Medieval Latin service, except where he believed the texts were unscriptural; but he believed that the worshipper, as a priest before God, needed to understand what was transpiring. For schools and universities, where Latin and music were taught, the rich heritage of Gregorian chant and Latin hymns might continue in their chapel services; but for the average churchgoer, something else would obviously be necessary.

Luther promoted the pragmatic adoption of hymns from a variety of sources: original compositions, folk hymns, adaptations from the Latin service, even adapted popular songs. (When challenged on the latter practice, he is supposed to have said, "Why should the devil get all the good tunes?") He also encouraged the widespread study of music and the diversity of local musical traditions, denying the value of the rigid uniformity practiced in the Catholic services of the era. (It could be argued that Luther created a musical culture that nurtured some of the greatest musicians in the Western tradition, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Some examples of the Lutheran "chorale":

  • Original composition: The best example is still "A mighty fortress", by Luther himself. It is theologically strong, musically sound, and has lasted for generations. Luther might be described as a "serious amateur"; he had formal lessons in music, and if he was not a great composer himself, he showed a good appreciation of those who were.

  • Folk hymns: A well-known example in our hymnal is "Fairest Lord Jesus" (PFTL #137). The text is found at least as early as the 1600s, of unknown authorship; the music is known no earlier than the 1800s. The simplicity of both text and music are typical of the contributions of these unknown artists down through the years.

  • Latin adaptations: One of the most famous of these is "Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands". Though not in Praise for the Lord, it can be found in the Cyberhymnal. The melody, and to some extent the text, were adapted from the Medieval chant "Victimae paschali laudes". The Latin text, a translation, and a recording can be found here.

  • Adaptations from popular music: "O sacred head now wounded" (PFTL #484) is actually a combination of the last two techniques; the text is adapted from a Medieval Latin hymn, and the melody from a popular song. The text was from the Latin poem "Salvi, caput cruentatum", sometimes attributed to the prominent 12th-century cleric Bernard of Clairvaux, but cannot be confirmed in a source earlier than the 14th century. Paul Gerhardt, an important figure in Lutheran church music, adapted it in a German translation in the 1600s. The origin of the music is much more certain. The melody was written by the German composer Hans Leo Hassler, with the lyrics "Mein G'muth is mir verwirret", first published in 1601.(Cyberhymnal) In its original, secular form it had a considerably more lively rhythm (listen to a MIDI file from the Choral Public Domain Library). The lyrics of the first verse translate as follows:

    My peace of mind is disturbed;
    This a tender maiden has caused.
    I am completely and entirely astray,
    My heart hurts badly.
    Day and night I have no rest,
    Always there is great complaint,
    Continual sighing and weeping,
    In utter sorrow despairing.(Stolba, 114)
    All we are missing is a pickup truck and some rain, and we would have a classic country song. Were people bothered by the associations of the music with its former text? Perhaps. It was put to the service of spiritual lyrics some 50 years after its original composition, but the most likely reason for its use in the 1650s was that it was still current, i.e. people were still singing the original song.

Luther did much that was praiseworthy in the restoration of congregational singing to its place of prominence, and in encouraging an atmosphere of "deregulation" of the service in which a repertoire of congregational song could grow. The fine tradition of the Lutheran chorale, which has blessed the Christian world in the centuries since, also speaks well of his efforts in the arena of hymnody.


Luther, Martin. Address to the Christian nobility of the German nation.

Whitwell, David. Martin Luther on Music. Essays on the History of Western Music.

Cyberhymnal. O sacred head.

Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music: An Anthology, 2nd ed., Vol. I: From Ancient Times through the Classical Era. Wm. C. Brown, 1994.

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