“Luther has damned more souls with his hymns than with all his sermons,” complained a sixteenth-century Jesuit priest. In fact, it is said that Martin Luther’s hymns were more significant than the printed word in spreading the Reformation. Few people have read his pulpit sermons, but his sermons through hymns continue to be preached every Sunday throughout the world as they have for four-and-a-half centuries.

Luther’s influence touched the world’s greatest musicians. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach had Luther’s works in his personal library, and he used several of Luther’s texts and tunes as the basis of some of his finest music. Bach authority Albert Schweitzer considered Luther’s great musicianship prerequisite to the impact Bach had on church music. Luther’s hymn, “Christ Lay in the Bands of Death” was the text for Bach’s cantata no. 4—probably the greatest cantata ever written.

Restoring Congregational Singing

Whenever we sing as a congregation in church, we participate in one of Luther’s greatest contributions: he restored the gift of song to the people in their own language as part of their worship. He said, “I intend to make German Psalms for the people, [that is], spiritual songs so that the Word of God even by means of song may live among the people.” Albert Bailey has written that Luther “gave the German people in their own language the Bible and the hymnbook so that God might speak directly to them in His Word, and that they might directly answer Him in their songs” (The Gospel in Hymns, 1950). It is for good reason that Luther has been called “the father of congregational song.”

For over a millennium between the Council of Laodicea in the fourth century and the birth of the Reformation, the people had not sung in church; only the clergy sang the music. Although over 1,400 religious lyrics in German had been written during the 650 years prior to the Reformation, they were not part of the congregational heritage. Hymns in the vernacular were allowed only for special occasions, but even these—processions, pilgrimages, and some major festivals—were held outside the sanctuary.

Luther believed a return to biblical practice included the restoration of congregational song in the people’s own language. He was strongly opposed to what we today call “spectator worship.” “Who doubts,” he said, “that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating.”

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Creating A New Hymnody

In returning congregational song to the people, Luther faced a unique problem: without a hymnody in the vernacular at hand, he had to develop one instantly. Today we take congregational singing for granted—it is part of our earliest churchgoing experiences. The people of Luther’s time had no such heritage.

Undoubtedly Luther was influenced by the practice of the Bohemian Brethren. John Hus had believed in congregational singing and had written hymns in Latin and Czech. In 1501, the Brethren published the first hymnal designed for congregational use; it included 89 hymns. Just four years later, the Unitas Fratrum published a hymnal with 400 hymns. Luther learned the views of the Brethren firsthand in 1522 from Michael Weiss, a German Brethren preacher.

Luther lamented the lack of good German hymns. He recognized that just because a text may be doctrinally true it is not necessarily good art. He complained that in secular music there “are so many fine poems and so many beautiful songs, while in the religious field we have such rotten, lifeless stuff.”

In 1523, at the age of 40, he felt impelled to write some hymns himself. Within a year, Luther had written 23 hymns, two-thirds of his total output. Most of the hymns first appeared as broadsheets, and were introduced at the church in Wittenberg. Only later did they appear in hymnals. Once congregational song was successfully introduced, he gave little time to hymn writing and composition. Rather, he encouraged “any German poets to compose evangelical hymns for us.” He wanted vernacular songs that would help the believer “to praise God and give thanks for the revealed truth of his words.”

Luther’s first hymn, “A New Song Here Shall Be Begun,” was written after two Augustinian monks, Heinrich Boes and Johann Esch, were burned at the stake in the marketplace in Brussels on July 1 in 1523. They were the first martyrs of the Reformation. Later that year, Luther wrote his setting of Psalm 130, “Out of the Depths I Cry to You” (Aus tiefer Not). One of his favorite psalms, it was sung at his funeral. Bach also admired it, and he used it as the basis for his cantata no. 131.

Luther wrote a total of 37 hymns. He drew from many sources, adapting Latin hymns, paraphrasing psalms, writing hymns based on Scripture passages, and recasting four German folk songs. He wrote at least five completely original hymns.

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Luther’s hymns do not include “Away in a Manger.” The text of this Christmas song was written by an anonymous author from Pennsylvania, and the tune was composed by J. R. Murray. Murray himself created the confusion when he published the song in Cincinnati in 1867 with the heading: “Luther’s Cradle Hymn. Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.”

Writing “A Mighty Fortress”

Luther’s greatest hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Ein’feste Burg), is based on the Vulgate version of Psalm 46. Scholars now agree that Luther did in fact compose the original tune, once accurately described by Don Hustad as “too strong to be pretty.” According to Roland Bainton, Luther wrote the hymn in 1527 after going into a deep depression caused by learning that his friend Leonhard Kaiser had been burned at the stake in the Netherlands for refusing to recant, while Luther himself was safe at home in his own bed.

This hymn has been sung in unusual situations. For instance, during the Thirty Years War, Gustavus Adolphus had it sung by his army just before the battle of Leipzig in 1631. Composers have also made extensive use of the hymn. Bach used it in his cantata no. 80. Mendelssohn made the tune the theme of the final movement of his fifth symphony, the “Reformation” Symphony. Wagner used it in his Kaisermarsch. And these are but a few examples.

The hymn was not widely sung in English until the ninteenth century. However, by 1900, not only had it been translated into 53 languages, but 63 English versions had appeared.

Crafting The Hymn Text

Luther wanted his hymns to communicate accurate theology in a German readily understood by the people. When translating the Bible—whereby he created the modern German language—he went among the people and asked how they would express a certain phrase, not unlike the procedure of contemporary missionary translators. In the same manner, he took great care to make sure the congregation would understand his hymns.

When writing his hymn texts, Luther would count off the syllables with his fingers and pound the table with each syllable. He was not concerned with alternating light and heavy accents. Every syllable received a strong accent, and the number of syllables per line could vary. He was also very free in his rhyme schemes—in fact, half of his hymns have no end rhyme at all.

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His rhythms followed the speech rhythm of the words, and they would sound quite complex today. The laymen of Luther’s day were more sophisticated rhythmically than are modern churchgoers. Hearing Luther’s own rhythms can be upsetting to some who think syncopation has no place in church music. For example, I remember one Sunday morning after the choir had sung a sixteenth-century choral setting of “A Mighty Fortress”—one that employed Luther’s original rhythms—a dear lady said to me, “I don’t like that modern treatment; it’s too jazzy. We should sing it like Luther wrote it.” My attempt to explain that we had done just that was not received with any abundance of grace!

Luther’s texts have a certain rugged strength. Like Hemingway, he relied on nouns and verbs, not adjectives. His language was direct and dramatic, not elegant. Most of his words had but one syllable. He originated the concept of setting texts to melodies on the principle of “one syllable, one note,” in contrast to the chant style of many notes to one syllable. Thomas Cranmer and John Merbecke, who fashioned the Book of Common Prayer in England in the mid-sixteenth century, have erroneously been given credit for this development, which they copied from Luther.

Proclaiming The Word Through Hymns

To Luther, “The gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music.” He wrote his hymns “so that the holy gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew may be noised and spread abroad.”

In Luther’s priorities, the text was preeminent. The tunes were “to assist the text in becoming living voices of the gospel.”

Since his hymns were the vehicle of truth, Luther insisted on their purity. He had constant trouble with unscrupulous printers who would publish his texts full of errors. By 1528, he was pleading with publishers to keep his texts intact and to make no changes without first consulting him.

Luther himself supervised the publication of six hymnals between 1523 and 1545. In his preface to the last and best of these hymnals, the so-called Babst hymnal, he said, “He who believes [the gospel] earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so that others also may come and hear it. And whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe.”

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Publishing hymnals was a very competitive situation. Luther collected no royalties from his published works, but his publisher made a fortune from them. By the time of Luther’s death, nearly 100 hymnals had been published. A century after the beginning of the Reformation, there were nearly 25,000 hymns in German. And by the time of Bach in the early eighteenth century, the Leipzig hymnal ran to eight volumes and contained 5,000 selections.

Composing The Hymn Tunes

The creation of a German hymnody required not only new texts, but music to match the speech rhythm of the newly emerging German tongue. This is a major reason that Luther adapted a few carefully selected and well-known folk tunes. Since these tunes were already wedded to a vernacular text, they were easily fitted to the new German hymns. Also, whenever Luther employed familiar tunes, the people were not forced to learn new words and new music at the same time.

Luther did not adapt these folk tunes indiscriminately. He brought his considerable musical ability to bear when selecting only the best from the available secular and liturgical sources. “The devil has no need of all the good tunes for himself,” he once said. However, he also adapted certain chants, and said of them, “The melodies and notes are precious. It would be a pity to let them perish.” He had three basic criteria for selecting a contemporary tune associated with a nonreligious text: (1) it had to be a good melody; (2) the original text could not have any serious problems; and (3) there could be no negative connotations with the tune.

The argument that Luther used songs associated with the German beer garden is a commonly misunderstood concept—and it is often distorted as a pretext for the performer to justify performing whatever he wants. In fact, it often is argued that since Luther set sacred words to the tavern songs of his day, we have the right to use any music we like, regardless of connotations, providing it has sacred words. However, there are three points we must keep in mind regarding Luther’s practice. First, the German beer garden of the mid-Renaissance was a cultural institution, much like a modern club, and bore little resemblance to a twentieth-century tavern. Second, Luther would not have violated his own principle of not using music or texts with negative associations. And third, Luther never advocated this as an ongoing principle: it was a temporary expedient to meet an urgent, one-time need.

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In striving for excellence in music, Luther surrounded himself with the finest musicians of his day. He asked the Elector of Saxony and Duke John to send him the two leading musicians of the court chapel—Conrad Rupff and Johann Walther. The latter became a close friend of Luther and was his most valued musical adviser. Walther later wrote, “He was always able to discuss music eloquently.” Another of Luther’s musical friends was the finest German composer of the time, Ludwig Senfl, court Kapellmeister at Munich. Of him Luther said, “I could not compose such a motet [a nonliturgical choral composition] if I were to tear myself to pieces, just as he for his part could not preach a sermon like mine.”

Luther set the highest standards for composition of the new hymn tunes. As a role model, he pointed to the greatest classical composer of the time, Josquin des Prez, whose music he had heard while in Rome in 1511. Luther wrote of him, “He is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills.”

But Luther did not rely entirely on others for his music. Scholars now agree that he wrote at least 12 of the tunes for his hymns and adapted several others. Like his texts, his tunes have a rugged quality about them. They often start in the upper range of the voice—which enhances their feeling of strength—and gradually work their way down.

Though Luther was quite capable of writing four-part music, he wrote only the tunes. However, we do have a four-voice motet that he wrote, “I shall not die, but live,” based on Psalm 118:17. A manuscript of the original chant hung on the wall of his home.

Modeling A Music Ministry

Luther put the priority on congregational singing. He would call congregational rehearsals during the week to learn new hymns. In his German mass of 1526, he dispensed with the choir altogether and assigned all singing to the congregation. He wanted small churches that could not maintain a choir to be able to have a complete service.

Luther felt that a primary function of the choir was to help the congregation learn the new hymns, for he believed the congregation learned new hymns more quickly if they were helped by the choir. In 1564, the church at Neuenrader passed an ordinance urging the choir to “sing slowly and distinctly so that the people through mere listening can learn and eventually join in.”

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Luther believed that choral singing helped to improve one’s sense of hearing and understanding and to develop the musical consciousness of the people. He established a small choir at his church in Wittenberg and brought Georg Rhau, the cantor for Duke George, to serve as cantor of the court choir and for the church.

Luther also encouraged the use of instrumental music. He wanted all musicians “to let their singing and playing to the Father of all grace sound forth with joy from their organs and whatever other beloved instruments there are.” The organ was not used to accompany congregational singing but to introduce the chorale—a practice that eventually developed into the familiar chorale prelude—and to give the pitch for the choir and congregation. The congregation sang without accompaniment. A three-way dialogue could be carried on among the choir, organ, and congregation as the various stanzas were alternated between them.

Mastering His Musical Gift

“I have always loved music,” Luther said. His formal musical training began when he was a boy soprano in the choir at Mansfield. In 1497, at the age of 13, he studied singing while attending a cathedral school administered by a religious brotherhood at Magdeburg. These schools had different grades of singers for the various cathedral services. The following year, he transferred to the school of Saint George at Eisenach and continued his vocal study. In 1501, when he was 18, he went to the university at Erfurt, where music continued to be part of his study. He not only learned music theory and composition but also to play both the flute and the lute. When he entered the Augustinian monastery after graduation in 1505, he learned liturgy and plainchant. His chief recreations in the monastery were playing chess and the flute. During this time, he claimed to have charmed the Devil with his flute! He believed music was an effective means of combating Satan. “The devil flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God,” he said.

An accomplished lutanist, Luther could improvise accompaniments for singing. When he was on his way to the Diet of Worms in 1521, he stayed at an inn in Frankfurt and entertained the guests with his singing and lute playing.

Music making was a regular part of the Luther household’s after-dinner evening. His personal physician, Dr. Ratzeburger, tells that Luther would take music parts from his desk—each singer would have a part book that would contain only his own part—distribute them, then sing Gregorian chants with his sons Martin and Paul, and polyphonic compositions with his friends.

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Apparently a high tenor, Luther disparaged what he called his “small, stupid voice.” Even so, he treasured his musical ability. “I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great,” he said.

He composed songs for his children, and sang them while he played the lute. One such song was his familiar Christmas hymn, “From heaven above” (Vom Himmel hoch). Based on a Christmas riddle-song game, Luther wrote it for his little son Hans for a Christmas Eve family celebration in 1535. Originally he used a folk melody, but four years later he wrote his own tune, the one Bach later used in his Christmas Oratorio.

Making Music An Art

Until Luther’s time, music was categorized as one of the medieval sciences. He had much to do with changing the concept of music to that of an art. He set in motion musical developments that brought culture to its height in the music of J. S. Bach. According to historian-philosopher Will Durant, “The Protestant music of the Reformation rose to rival the Catholic painting of the Renaissance.” Ironically, like Bach, Luther thought of his music primarily as utilitarian, not as art “for the ages.”

Luther recognized the power of music to reach our deepest emotional needs. “For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate, name the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good—what more effective means than music could you find?”

Martin Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon made music part of the curriculum in the Protestant schools. “Those who have mastered this art are made of good stuff,” he said. “They are fit for any task.” More students were actively involved in the musical parts of the service. It was Luther’s view that “the young should be trained in music and other fine arts.”

He had little patience with those who had no musical interest. “Any who remain unaffected are unmusical indeed and deserve to hear … the music of the pigs.” As for teachers, “A school teacher must be able to sing or I will have none of him.”

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Wedding Theology And Music

Luther considered music to be “the excellent gift of God.” “Next to the Word of God,” he said, “music deserves the highest praise.” That was a theme to which he returned time and again. “The fathers and prophets,” he observed, “wanted nothing else to be associated as clearly with the Word of God as music.”

“I am quite of the opinion that next to theology, there is no art which can be compared to music; for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy,” he said on another occasion. Music was, in fact, “the handmaiden of theology.”

He considered music an essential part of a pastor’s training. “We should not ordain young men into the ministry unless they have become well acquainted with music in the schools,” he said.

Not all the Reformers were as enlightened as Luther. In Zurich, for example, even though Zwingli was an accomplished player on several instruments, the new cathedral organ was destroyed in 1527, and all singing was abolished until 1598. The “radicals” of the Reformers always held it against Luther that he retained music in the church. He spoke his response to them in his preface to a book of chorales by Walther, published in 1524; “It is not my view that the Gospel should cause all the arts to be struck down and disappear; on the contrary, I should like to see all the arts, and especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and created them.”

Luther insisted that the proper use of music was “to the glorification of God and the edification of man.” He said, “We want the beautiful art of music to be properly used to serve her dear Creator and his Christians. He is thereby praised and honored and we are made better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.”

Luther himself sought strength and consolation in his music. His own practice can be an example to us when we too face times of great stress. During the dark days of the Reformation, he would turn to his friend Melancthon and say, “Come, Philipp, let us sing together the 46th Psalm.”

Richard Dinwiddie is music director and conductor of The Chicago Master Chorale, and visiting professor of church music at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

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