Martin Luther and Early Lutheran Church Music: Reformation to Eighteenth Century (2011)

In 16th century Europe, there was an atmosphere of unrest. The masses were unhappy with the oppression of the Roman Catholic Church and enraged with the corruption rife within the Church’s ranks. There was a very poignant sense of uneasiness hovering around, from the peasant filled streets to the aristocratic courts; people had had enough of the deceit and lies. Indulgences, forgiveness of sins and temporal punishment for good deeds in the Church, were being sold for money by greedy “pardoners” who guaranteed pardoning of yours as well as your deceased loved ones’ sins for a monetary “donation” to the church; many believed the only way to get their loved one out of purgatory was to purchase these indulgences. In response to all of these problems, a man named Martin Luther, a monk from a friary in Erfurt, spoke up. On the night of October 31st, 1517 (All Saints’ Day), Martin Luther nailed a message to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg entitled, “The Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document outlined his problems with Catholic Church at the time, sparking a great change throughout Europe known as the Protestant Reformation.

Along with this reformation came great changes in worship, music, church practices, and common traditions; a definite split from the Catholic Church occurred, and many religions were birthed, one of the most prominent, still today, being Lutheranism. Lutheranism, following the practices and teachings of Martin Luther, redefined worship and birthed a new style of church music that had never been seen up until this point: the entire congregation was finally able to sing their praises to God, not just a chorus or a cantor, but the whole church, from pastor to peasant, all were able to use their voices to glorify God in a language everyone could speak and understand. This was a pivotal moment in not only church and music history, but history as a whole. The echoes from this period can still be heard today resounding all over the world in the innumerable protestant churches preaching God’s word, and in the voices of millions singing His praises in their own diverse and varied vernacular languages.

Although Luther wanted to break away from the Catholic Church, some persisted in this early era of the Lutheran church. In a famous quote from Luther, he preaches, “Music is God’s greatest gift. It has often so stimulated and stirred me that I felt the desire to preach.”[i] This powerful feeling was instilled in him during his time in monasteries and friaries associated with the Catholic Church, so it is no surprise that Luther did not want to change every tradition associated with his former teachers and leaders. He would instead incorporate traditions from the old ways with new traditions to make a new and exciting amalgamation of the two that was easily accessible by long time Catholics and newly converted “Lutherans” alike. Luther’s whole basis behind this doctrine of inclusion was to take emphasis off of practice and place it on God. He believed we should “approve each other’s rites lest schisms and sects should result from this diversity in rites—as has happened in the Roman church.”[ii] Luther realized if his members quibbled over little matters such as Mass order or types of hymns sung, people would become divided and their hearts and minds would be taken away from God and placed on worldly things that have little importance.

This idea is still felt today in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Many types of worship are borrowed from other denominations: a praise band from Baptists, call and response liturgy from Catholics, and traditional hymns from within the Lutheran Church. Also, as predicted by Luther, there is a definite split even in this specific denomination of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, over what type of music and liturgy should be allowed in church: some prefer a more contemporary style, while others prefer a more traditional style. Because of this, early services which are more traditional and late services which are more contemporary have become a staple among Lutheran churches. This takes the emphasis off of God and focuses it more on practice which should be a churches last concern. Luther saw this “schism” in the Catholic Church and tried very hard to avoid one within the Lutheran church. Despite his best efforts, people still put too much emphasis on the traditions and practices rather than God himself, even within the religion he himself created and championed, showing the power that differences in opinion have on our hearts and minds in every matter.

Staying with his roots, Luther continued the Catholic tradition of the Mass in his new church, but with less strict guidelines and more congregation participation rather than the entirety of the service being performed solely by the choir, cantor, and the priests. In his view, music was “a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God” that he wished “all Christians would love and regard as worthy.”[iii] The only way to truly appreciate music is to actively participate in it, so instead of having the entire service in a language many did not understand, Luther employed vernacular language for many sections of the mass. That is not to say the Catholic heritage of a cantor and choir singing Latin as part of the Ordinary disappeared by any means; in fact, this was quite the contrary, for Luther “[did] not want in anywise to let the Latin tongue disappear out of Divine Service.”[iv] Instead, sections incorporating vernacular language and the congregation were just added as different parts of the mass.

A prime example of an early mass or “Divine Service” put together by Luther at this time is the Deutshe Messe, “The German Mass,” written in 1526. Its sections consisted of nearly all vernacular language (German) with very little Latin; in contrast, prior to this, in 1523, Luther had composed his Formula missae for the Lutheran church in Wittenberg; it was entirely in Latin. We see that Luther was not specifically trying to break away from Latin, but rather make the Divine Service more accessible to everyone, for not every person read and understood Latin, but most every person was perfectly fluent in speaking the vernacular language of their area, in this case, German. This mass also ordered the service so that the sermon laid directly in the middle of everything, just as God’s word should always be at the heart of all we do. It also introduced the singing of tuneful and accessible hymns called “chorales” into the Divine Service, something absent in the Catholic Mass; these chorales were most often monophonic at this time, in the vernacular language, and had a catchy melodic line that was easy for any worshiper to learn. Both of these traditions are still widely practiced in Lutheran Churches across the world, usually three to four hymns are sung on a normal service day with a sermon splitting the service in half. In regards to chanting and speaking within this mass, all but the sermon from the priest was chanted by the choir, cantor, and congregation.

Luther, being a singer and composer himself, was very aware of the various musical conventions of the Catholic Church and continued many in his Mass. Most notably, he set the different sections of the mass to different church modes of the time, corresponding with the different “feelings” or “ethos,” (to give a nod to the Greeks), that each mode stirred up within the listeners.[v] Luther set each section of the Ordinary in mode one, and each section of the Proper in modes five or six. The Gospel, recited in German, was part of the Proper and sung in mode 5: this mode was often considered the mode of joy, adding emphasis to the joyous word of God in the Gospel that declares the redemption of our sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the Kyrie, recited in the traditional Greek language, was part of the Proper and sung in mode 1: many believed this mode to have the “liveliest melody of all [modes],” thus easiest to learn and recite for every service because of its tunefulness.[vi] Perhaps another reason we return throughout the mass to mode one is to “draw further attention to this modal center in Christ,” Hendrickson argues.[vii] Whatever the case, we get a clear view of Luther’s musicality and theology painted here; he introduces new ideas in the Divine Service but also retains past traditions in many ways as well. For Luther knew that it would be too radical to change things so quickly at once, saying in his 1530 letter to the pastors of Lübeck that they should not “change ritual(s) first, [for] it is dangerous” but instead to, “deal first with the center of our teaching and fix in the people’s minds what they must know about our justification.”[viii] After all, for Luther, the main reason behind the “Mass” or the “Divine Service” was to “preach and teach the Word of God,” not to argue over what its contents were.[ix]

Just as Catholic music grew out of its humble beginnings in ancient plainsong, Lutheran music gradually evolved from its roots in the chorale.[x] As the church flourished, so did its music: many new, diverse, and more intricate settings of already existing hymns as well as totally new pieces of liturgical were composed. Most notably the Musae Sioniae (1605–10), a nine volume collection of more than 1200 chorales and different sacred pieces by Michael Praetorius. It featured newly composed chorales set homophonically, polyphonically, and monophonically, chorales set to popular folk tunes, madrigal style hymns, cantus-firmus based compositions, and a new style of piece that took preexisting chorales melodies and set them polyphonically, known as chorale motets; these became very popular.

As time passed these motets began to incorporate more complex and varied polyphony, incorporating new styles of imitation that broke away from the Franco-Flemish tradition of Josquin; however, this brought about another schism within the church that Luther had alluded to previously: who was to sing this more difficult music? These motets were not accessible to the general congregation who were used to singing simple, monophonic chorales with little digression, and who were, for the most part, not trained musically. The only remaining option was for the choir to perform these motets, but for many, this resembled the Catholic tradition too closely and was met with opposition, thus creating more splits within the church over these trivial matters. Despite quarreling over the use of a choir, it has continued today and even the practice from this time period is similar. During contemporary Lutheran services, usually the congregation sings the melody line to a hymn accompanied by an organ playing all four parts (this became the norm around 1600)[xi], while the choir will generally perform one more difficult piece that incorporates polyphony and/or homophony with accompaniment from the organ or piano or performed a capella depending on the piece; the contemporary Lutheran Divine Service incorporates portions of old and new. This was a very exciting and controversial time in the Lutheran Church with many musical, theological, and liturgical strives made that would impact not only sacred music and Lutheran practice, but Protestantism and music as a whole.

A major controversy at the time and perhaps still surprising to some today was the use of secular tunes as bases for sacred chorales and hymns. Many believed these tunes had no place in the Lutheran Divine Service and found it quite sacrilegious that these pieces would be performed within the walls of a chapel. Officially, Luther never spoke on using secular tunes in church, but he did say this, “Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift [music] of nature and of art with their erotic rantings,” perhaps in regards to the overly-dramatic and often sexually inspired madrigals of the time that were hugely popular.[xii] However, I do not believe Luther would have had a problem with a tune taken from a secular song not dealing overtly with “erotic rantings” being used in church. In fact, the aforementioned composer, Praetorius, believed that Luther’s doctrine of “two kingdoms” which preaches that God is the ruler of both the secular (earthly) world as well the sacred (spiritual) world, applies to music in this way: sacred music and secular music both “spring from the same muse: Christ.”[xiii] Although secular or folk melodies were composed for a different purpose than sacred ones, since music is, according to Luther, “God’s greatest gift,” I see no reason why a tune could not be used as the basis for chorale, for all music originates from God according to Lutheran doctrine.

As we move from the seventeenth century into the eighteenth century, we see not a shift, but more of a broadening of sacred or “church” music, that allowed for more uses of song within the Divine Service. In the seventeenth century, per Luther, music in church was primarily used so that the congregation could “say and sing” the Gospel, in hopes that it would permeate deeper into the hearts of the people and not just their ears or their mouth. Luther believed that, “whoever will not sing and say, that is a mark that the person does not believe and has not listened to the New, joyous Testament but rather has heeded the old, corrupt, miserable [Old] Testament.”[xv] However, as chorales and motets became more and more popular, new things were being done with them and attitudes toward music in the church were changing, allowing for more freedom and use; by the eighteenth century, composers were realizing they could use music as a device to influence the pathos (emotions) of the congregation.[xvi] Because of this phenomenon, around the last part of the seventeenth century, heading to the eighteenth century, a new genre saw its genesis from these chorales and motets: the chorale prelude.

This genre was a combination of two preexisting genres: the prelude and the chorale, as suggested by the genre name. The prelude was a short piece which varied in form but usually had a theme introduced that was then put through a series of variations in an improvisatory style and then in strict counterpoint. It was refined by a seventeenth century German-Danish composer and organist from North Germany named Dieterich Buxtehude in his nineteen pieces called praeludiums. Continuing this practice, another German composer/organist by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach applied this style of piece to that of the Lutheran Chorale, taking melodies from famous Chorales and setting them for solo organ. Perhaps the most famous collection of these chorale preludes by Bach is The Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes BWV, 651–668, written from 1740-1750. It includes settings of multiple chorales in different ways that showed off an organist’s virtuosity while still retaining the central chorale theme, usually in the soprano line. Bach would go on to write many chorale preludes and a plethora of other pieces, firmly fixing him in Lutheran and world history.

In regards to their place in the Lutheran Divine Service, chorale preludes most often would occur before the chorales themselves to ready the audience for the coming hymn and “bring them to new heights.”[xvii] The congregation would be very familiar with the tunes these preludes were based on, so hearing them would have prepared them emotionally for the piece to come. However, many of the preludes that have been preserved today are very lengthy and would have not been appropriate for a service, this suggests that many chorale preludes were improvised by the organists; improvisation was very common during the Baroque era and was a necessary skill for any aspiring organist of the time. This tradition too has been maintained in Lutheran churches. The organist often plays or improvises a short prelude from the upcoming hymn to prepare the congregation to sing. Sometimes on church holidays such as Easter or Christmas, the organist and/or a small orchestra will play a much lengthier, previously composed prelude to a popular hymn such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (the tune and text originally composed by Luther himself), or “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” These lengthy preludes are played to emphasize the joy and exuberance the congregation is supposed to feel on these feast days of the Lutheran church. In doing so, we again practice Luther’s doctrine of “two kingdoms,” for we celebrate our earthly and spiritual blessings as provided to us by God above, the source of all goodness and joy.

From its birth in the early Reformation period, to the time of Bach and the Baroque, a great deal of change occurred within the Lutheran Church: new genres were formed, new practices emerged, and new controversies arose. All of these happenings found their basis in the Word of God and the Teachings of Martin Luther. Many of the practices from this period have continued today, as well as the arguments and controversies. Music was and still is one of the very foundations of the Lutheran church. In the words of Luther, “The devil, the creator of saddening care and disquieting worries, takes flight at the sound of music.”[xviii]

-Daniel Sabzghabaei (2011)
[i] Plass, Edward, What Luther Says, Vol. 2, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), pp. 992-993.
[ii] Martin Luther, “An Order of Mass and Communication for the Church at Wittenberg, 1523,” trans. Paul Zeller Strodach, Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, p.23.
[iii] Forward to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae, a collection of chorale motets. (1538).
[iv] B.J. Kidd, ed. Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), p. 193-202.
[v] Hendrickson, Marion Lars. Musica Christi: A Lutheran Aesthetic. New York: Peter Lang, 2005, p. 20.
[vi] The New Grove Dictionary, Vol. 16, p. 799.
[vii] Lutheran Aesthetic. p. 20.
[viii] Spitz, Lewis, The Protestant Reformation: 1517-1559. New York: Harpers & Row Publishers Inc., 1985, p. 181.
[ix] Continental Reformation, p. 193-202.
[x] Stipp, Neil. “The Music Philosophies of Martin Luther and John Calvin.” American Organist Magazine 41, no. 9 (September 2007): p. 68.
[xi] Music Philosophies, p. 68.
[xii] Preface to the Symphoniae jucudae (1538), trans. Ulrich S. Leupold, in Luther’s Works, vol. 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964).
[xiii] Lutheran Aesthetic, p. 69.
[xiv] From Luther’s 1534 Christmas hymn, Vom Himmel hoch.
[xv] Luther’s Works, Vol. 53, p. 333.
[xvi] Rose, Stephen. “Lutheran Church Music.” In The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Music, edited by Simon P. Keefe, 127-167. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
[xvii] Thomson, Joseph, “The Chorale Prelude as a Musical Form.” In Thirty Chorale Preludes from the Neumeister Collection, (Pacific, Missouri: Melbourne Publications, 2008), p. 3.
[xviii] Martin Luther in a letter to the composer Ludwig Senfl, October 4, 1530; from Luther’s Works, Vol. 49, Letters II, ed. & trans. Gottfried G. Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), p.428

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