Ray Cavanaugh on Martin Luther, music maker, on the 500th anniversary of his excommunication
When Pope Leo X issued the bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem, excommunicating Martin Luther on 3 January 1521, he was expelling a man who, even now — exactly 500 years later — means very different things to different confessions.
One of the lesser-known and less theologically-controversial aspects of Luther was that he was a musician. This part of his life surfaced early, when as a member of his school choir, he began singing alongside the adult church choir at various services. On frigid winter nights he often headed outdoors to serenade others, sometimes receiving a snack or a hot drink for his efforts. He also eventually learned to play the flute and the lute.
The Father of Protestant church song
As John Rae pointed out in his book Martin Luther: Student, Monk, Reformer, the former Augustinian friar and theology professor was not just the father of Protestantism but also the “founder of Protestant Church Song”. Aside from his personal musical background, Luther was very well aware of the significance of church songs in the promotion of his doctrine. He “knew that Religion must sing as well as work its way among men”, wrote Rae.
As his Reformation spread, Luther turned his attention to enhancing the effectiveness of church services. Music was at the forefront, and he emphasises the importance of singing among the entire congregation, not just the choir and clergy.
A March 2018 article in Christianity Today tells how Luther “insisted hymns speak plainly and forthrightly”. This man who translated the Bible into the German vernacular also wanted to ensure that church music was accessible to the masses. Part of his reason for this insistence was that he wanted his hymns to resonate with young people, who might otherwise gravitate towards songs with profane themes.
Aside from revivifying earlier German hymns that had fallen into obscurity, Luther translated hymns from Latin into the German vernacular. And he also composed his own. There are about three-dozen hymns that he certainly wrote, about a dozen more that he probably wrote, and then various others that he might have written (some of which were credited to him without sufficient proof).
Themes and motifs
Hymnal themes for Luther ranged from various Biblical passages, to the celebrations of Christmas and Easter, to the commemoration of two Lutheran martyrs – both of whom, like Luther himself, were former members of the Order of St. Augustine – burnt at the stake in 1523.
Luther would collaborate with several notable composers of his era, including Johann Walther, with whom he published a book of hymns in 1524. Decades later, Walther recollected the musical enthusiasm of Luther, who “seemingly could not weary of singing or even get enough of it”.
Some of Luther’s hymns circulated so well that they surfaced in places where people were, at the time, only vaguely aware of his name and doctrine. These hymns would prove helpful in the effort to win over converts. In fact, one Jesuit lamented how “the hymns of Luther killed more souls than his sermons”.
Luther’s most famous hymn is “Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty Fortress is our God), which first appeared in 1529. This piece would serve as the “great battle hymn of the Reformation”, according to Roland Bainton, author of Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.
Bainton wrote that Luther’s “most far-reaching changes in the liturgy were with regard to the music”, and that, “Luther’s people learned to sing. Practices were set during the week for the entire congregation”. And outside of church, families were expected to practice on their own.
A different sort of schoolmaster
Luther himself maintained, “We must teach music in schools”, and that, “a schoolmaster ought to have skill in music”. Same with clergy: “Neither should we ordain young men as preachers, unless they have been well exercised in music”.
Other religious reformers, such as John Calvin, did not share Luther’s enthusiasm for music, which they saw as a potential distraction from faith.
For Luther, music was not a diversion from the spiritual but, rather, an augmenter. Moreover, he contended that, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise”, and he felt that anyone who remained unmoved by true harmony deserved to “hear only the words of dung-poets and the music of pigs”. In case further clarification was needed, he also declared, “I have no use for cranks who despise music”.
Music was everywhere for Luther, even in that which he could not see. As he noted, “the air invisible sings when smitten with a staff”.
For all his musical passion, Luther did not regard himself as a master composer. However, he assumed (correctly) that his compositions could inspire listeners and promote his religious revolution. Ultimately, he not only provided the Reformation’s theological underpinning…he also laid down the soundtrack.