Martin Luther on the Gift of Music
Martin Luther (1483-1548) was not only a theologian and a reformer, he was also a musician and a composer. In the reform of the worship service, Luther gave community singing a renewed role. He composed about thirty chorales, and with other musicians, a hymn book.
Unlike other contemporary Reformers, such as Zwingli and John Calvin, Martin Luther encouraged the use of musical instruments in worship. He asked that singing be taught in schools. The role Luther wanted music to have contributed to the incredible development of this art in German speaking countries.
One of Martin Luther’s best loved hymns, often called “The Anthem of the Reformation,” is the hymn, A Mighty Fortress is our God. A brief story about this hymn: after the meeting in Worms, Germany in the Spring of 1521, at which Luther was condemned for heresy and excommunicated, on his way home from this meeting, Luther was kidnapped for his own protection by Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony. Luther spent ten months in a “mighty fortress,” in the Wartburg Castle, from May 1521 to March 1522. While in hiding within this mighty fortress, Luther translated the New Testament into German, the first such translation into the German language.
Luther’s great hymn was based upon Psalm 46, offering a vision of God’s protection in the midst of “mortal ills prevailing”. In times of distress or trouble, Luther would say to his good friend Philipp Melanchthon, “Come Philipp, let’s sing Psalm 46,” and they would join hearts and voices in singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God”. On singing Psalm 46, Luther wrote, “We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends his church and his Word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh and sin.”[i]
As a child growing up in a musical family, Luther sang in a church boys’ choir and learned to play the recorder. Luther held music in the highest esteem, writing with clarity and conviction about the power of music upon the soul.
“Music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men. It also drives away the devil and makes people cheerful; one forgets all anger, unchasteness, pride and other vices. I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise. And we see how David and all saints put their pious thoughts into verse, rhyme, and songs, because music reigns in times of peace.”[ii]
Luther loved choral music written for worship, especially the compositions of Josquin Desprez (d.1521), the great Flemish composer of sacred polyphonic music. Though Luther pruned away many Roman Catholic religious practices, he preserved Roman Catholic musical forms, believing sacred music to hold the key to the human heart during worship. One of his greatest innovations in worship was the addition of congregational singing in the language of the people, as well as use of simpler melodies which led to better participation by the people during worship.
A musician himself, he realized that the congregation heard little and understood less of what was happening in the musical liturgy. This he deplored, as he felt strongly that music should serve God in the lives of the people. To make popular participation a reality, Luther encouraged adaptation of dignified and edifying words to simple melodies and urged a return to the early Christian custom of communal singing.[iii]
Luther placed music just below study of Scripture in rank of importance to the Church, and he encouraged all pastors and future preachers to study music. Luther himself wrote many hymns and chorales for use in worship, believing that congregational singing was central to worship. “Next to the Word of God,” affirmed Luther, “the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”[iv]
Extolling the gift of music, Luther wrote, “I would not want to give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine, skillful people. . . . I would allow no man to preach or teach God’s people without a proper knowledge of the use and power of sacred song. . . . We must teach music in schools; a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music, or I would not regard him, neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have well exercised in music.”[v]
When Luther studied in Eisenach, he had music lessons along with dance and singing -so did Melanchthon and many of his contemporaries. He learned to distinguish between the different musical genres. Later on, living in a monastery where liturgy played an important role, he could refine his skills. Luther was able to transcribe folk melodies and to harmonise them, as well as to write melodies on psalms in everyday words. He met musicians, such as Ludwig Senfl attached to the Bavarian court and Johan Walter attached to the Saxon court. The latter introduced him in Rome to Josquin des Prez (1440-1521). When Frederick the Wise died, Johan Walter backed Luther, but his successor, John the Magnanimous did not share the same appreciation of music.
Luther on the Gift of Music
“Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not want to give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine, skillful people.”
“We must teach music in schools; a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music, or I would not regard him, neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have well exercised in music.”
“I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits… Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms. This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God. However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace. A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”
[ii] Martin Luther, as quoted in Edwald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology, 3 Vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), vol 2, 980.
[iii] Marion Bauer and Ethel Peyser, Music Through the Ages, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1946), 197-8.
[iv] Quoted from Then Sings My Soul, by RobertJ. Morgan (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 15.
[v] Martin Luther, as quoted in Edwald M. Plass, What Luther Says: An Anthology, 3 Vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), vol. 2, 979.