Luther’s Influence on Church Music

I was privileged to give a talk on this topic at St. Mary’s Church, Portchester, on Reformation Sunday (29 October 2017). I took the liberty of reflecting on the role of music in worship more generally.

The text below is a transcript of the talk, with a little tidying up. The passages enclosed in square brackets are ad lib and incidental to the substance.

If you prefer, you can listen to a recording instead. Or as well as

Thank you very much for the welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a case of buses again. Eight years I’ve been in this part of the world and visited a few times—never spoken here—now twice in two weeks. It’s a great privilege.

The making of music is such a basic human activity that it’s hard to imagine that there’s ever been a society where there wasn’t music in society that did not make music. For this reason alone, and for others, that people of God has always been a singing people. And, ironically, it is in our own time that we are experiencing a particularly low point in the history of music-making in society and in the church.

“What a lot of nonsense!” you might think. In the era of non-stop music on the radio and in shops and on transport, the technology to carry entire choirs, symphony orchestras, pop musicians, or whatever else you might fancy, in our pockets, and stream whatever we wish to hear almost anywhere we like, and whenever we like, it seems that in fact the opposite is the case. Never has there been so much music available continuously to so many people, so much of the time.

Yet in this era of commercial music we are experiencing what the BBC comedy W1A might call “more of less”. While the professionals sing them play for us, music making has become a specialised activity alongside football and chess and landscape painting, rather than what it has been throughout the history of mankind, a universal human activity in which all people participate rather than something primarily for listening to passively. We have become consumers of music rather than music-makers.

There are two arenas of modern living that seem to have been spared this impoverishment at least in part; two places where people still sing and make music, even men: the football ground and the church. [Although I must say that tends to be men who sing in the football ground and women who sing in the church, on the whole—but not entirely.] And it’s probably for similar reasons in both places. Another irony is that in the history of the church, this hasn’t always been the case. So let me explain.

As I said the people of God has always been a singing people. Not only do we have a 150 Psalms, songs, in the Bible but much of the rest of the Bible was also originally delivered in song or chant. This is hardly surprising. Adding music to words an incredibly powerful tool for the memory, which in a pre-printed culture was of vital importance in passing along stories, messages and other texts from one generation to another and even from one place to another. But more than that, music has a unique power to elevate human speech on to a higher plane. When they are sung to appropriate melodies, sad words are more moving, happy words are more joyful, words of praise more festive or solemn. In other words music harnesses the power of words and amplifies them and lifts them. Such music as the ability to inspire and to move us; not only our emotions but also our minds, and even our bodies, bringing our whole being into harmony with the word being proclaimed.

And so God’s people have always sung, not only as an aide memoir, but above all as a means of being enveloped and infused by the proclaimed Word.

Scripture not only gives us songs to sing, but it also encourages to sing: “Sing to the Lord a new song”. Further still, Scripture gives us reasons for singing. In the book of Psalms, the chief purpose of singing is given as the proclamation of what God has done. “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things.” “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” “I will not die, but I will live and declare the mighty works of the Lord.”

In the New Testament, we have an even more explicit teaching on what church music, singing in church, is for. St. Paul writes in the third chapter of Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col. 3:16 ESV)

This gives singing within Christian worship a very specific meaning and role. The singing in church is not like the singing in the football terraces. It’s not about bonding with other like-minded people—although it does that. Nor is it like the singing of Auld Lang Syne at New Year’s: about nostalgia, about re-creating the past or passing on a song because that’s what we have always done. Although there is an element of that, too.

But—hold onto your hats now—nor is singing in church chiefly about praising God. Now that may sound like a ridiculous thing for a clergyperson to say. But if we read the Scriptures really carefully, it turns out that God isn’t primarily interested in having us praise him. God isn’t egotistical or self-loving primarily. God is love which is to say that he pours his interest outwards towards us. Or, to put it another way, praising God isn’t chiefly about praising God. St. Paul is very clear in the passages I just read. He instructs the Christians of Colossae to “let the word of Christ to dwell in you richly”. They were to sing psalms and hymns as spiritual songs, as they were teaching and admonishing one another, with thankfulness to God.

This is how praise is always done in the Scriptures. All the Psalms of praise are very quick to move on from exhortation to praise—“Praise the Lord”—to declaring the reason for praising God—“Praise the Lord, for … something”—even the shortest of the Psalms. Psalm 117, for example, is only three verses long. And even in those three verses, a very short couple of sentences, we have time not only to call on people to praise the Lord but also to give the reason, however briefly. “Give those to the Lord, for … for he is good … for he has done marvellous things … for he rescued them out of all their troubles.” To praise God is simply to declare what he has done. And what he has done chiefly is to rescue, to save, to bless, to enrich his people. He has been good to us.

When Christians sing, they place this word of God in their mouths and into each others’ ears. That is why the people of God are singing people. Song is a powerful God-given me means or proclamation to ourselves and to others of what he has done, and what he has promised to do. And when we sing this, we powerfully move each other into faith, with these words.


Now one of the many developments of Christian worship in the medieval period was that various acts within Christian worship became specialised. [Sometimes it’s referred to as a clericalisation, but that’s a little bit misleading.] Around the beginning of the second millennium, this had already pretty much happened within church music, too. Increasingly singing within worship was done by trained specialists, the Choir and the clerks: not so much in addition to congregational singing, or as an aid to congregational singing, but instead of congregational singing. Singing became one of the things that a few people did on behalf of everybody else. [It’s a little bit like the old Soviet joke. Some of you might be old enough just to remember the Soviet era. What is Cognac? The answer: It is a fine alcoholic beverage which all the people like to enjoy—by means of their elected representatives. And singing in church became a little bit like cognac in the Soviet Union: it’s something that the people of God liked to do—through the trained specialists.] So in many places, when you went to Mass you would simply listen as the choir sang the service. The Daily Office—Matins, Vespers and so on—where hymns where most commonly sung, the singing was generally conducted by men and women in holy orders, frequently without even a lay congregation being present. Music became difficult and required specialist trained to execute correctly.

But since God’s people are singing people, the people took their songs elsewhere: to homes, the streets even taverns. [When did you last sing a hymn in a pub?] All kinds of folk songs and folk hymns cropped up in the middle ages, giving ordinary Christians the opportunity to sing the songs of the faith. And perhaps the best known example of this kind of singing is the Christmas carol, which wasn’t allowed in the church until well into the 19th century. Its place was in the home, and in the street and in the tavern.

Of course it wasn’t only the word of God that was thus given a musical garb. Music was useful for other, more earthly purposes as well. Since the written word was expensive to produce a very many people were unable to read anyway, music was often spread by means of ballads: the original mass media. If famous battle was won or lost, or some natural disaster struck a distant town or city, a troubadour would write a ballad to tell the whole sorry or happy tale, and travel from town to town and village to village singing the news. And for a small fee you could pass by a little sheet with the song written on it. Learn the song, and as the people learnt the song, they also learned of the news, and helped to spread both the song and the message to yet others. And thus news went, to use a modern expression, viral, as people hummed their way through it.


What has all this got to do with our theme tonight, you might be wondering by now. He’s 13 minutes and 30 seconds into his talk and no mention of Martin Luther. That theme, in case I’ve made you forget by now, is, ‘The Influence of Martin Luther on Church Music’.

Martin Luther was a very gifted amateur musician. As a boy in his home town of Eisleben in Saxony, he was a chorister in the very same school where two centuries later another gifted boy by name of Johann Sebastian Bach would also be a chorister. He also learned to pay the lute to a good standard. And, according to contemporary accounts, dinner in the Luther household, which always involved alongside the family students and colleagues and all sorts of hangers-on, would commonly conclude as part books were passed around the table and motets part-songs would be sung, with Luther himself singing in what contemporaries described as a very fine tenor voice.

As a friar for many years, Luther had also become intimately familiar with church music, both the singing of Psalms in the daily routine of monastic services, and another choral music such as sacred motets and mass settings.

Add to this all a third vital ingredient: Luther was also a passionate lover of music. Let me give you a small taste of the depth of his love of music by quoting a brief essay he wrote in the late 1530s, twenty-odd years after the nailing of the theses, in a preface to a collection of church music published by a friend of his. Georg Rhau. He writes:

Greetings in Christ! I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone. But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither beginning nor end or method for my discourse. As much as I want to commend it, my praise is bound to be wanting and inadequate. For who can comprehend it all? And even if you wanted to encompass all of it, you would appear to have grasped nothing at all.1

Here it must suffice to discuss the benefit of this great art. But even that transcends the greatest eloquence of the most eloquent, because of the infinite variety of its forms and benefits. We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions—to pass over the animals—which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this can be found—at least not by us. 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—and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find? The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work when in his Holy Scriptures he asserts that through her his gifts were instilled in the prophets, namely, the inclination to all virtues, as can be seen in Elisha. On the other hand, she serves to cast out Satan, the instigator of all sins, as is shown in Saul, the king of Israel.2

And he goes on in this being for about four pages.

With this gift and his experience as a musician, and his great love for music, it is not surprising that Luther should be at the heart of a great musical revolution that was brought about by the Lutheran Reformation.

It all began somewhat coincidentally. In August 1523, two young Augustinian friars, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch, were burned at the stake in Brussels for their adherence to Lutheran doctrine. When he heard of it, Luther was deeply moved by this, not least because he knew that they were being burnt as Lutherans, which at the time was a term of abuse for anybody who followed Luther’s or some similar teaching. So deeply moved was he that he was determined the courageous witness of these two martyrs should be publicised as widely as possible as an encouragement to others. So, in order to disseminate the news as effectively as possible, he took up the most effective form of mass media of his day: the ballad. In 12 stanzas, and set to a freshly-composed tune by himself, he recounted the story of Heinrich and Johann, with a particular focus on God’s grace in sustaining then in the true faith and the crown of glory that awaited them as a result of their martyrdom. [It’s still in print.]

This initial effort led to something of a lightbulb moment for Luther. If ballads could be used tell news stories and to teach the spiritual meaning of current events, the very same form could also be used to teach the people God’s word more directly. [Those of you who are familiar with the ancient hymns of the church, Latin and Greek hymns, will know that the chief emphasis of those hymns is to address praise to God or to pray for some particular benefit from God, in the morning, in the evening, in the middle of the day, or in particular seasons. They are not teaching hymns on the whole.] Within a few months of the publishing of the ballad, in 1524 the first Lutheran hymnbook was published with eight hymns in all. It’s referred to as the Achtliederbuch, the eight-song book. Luther had picked up the pen and he had encouraged others to do so. Of these eight original hymns forward by Luther, three by his colleague and friend Paul Speratus, and one was by an anonymous author. Very quickly this got printed in other places, too. Other hymnals soon followed, with Luther eventually himself writing nearly 40 hymns altogether, and at least a dozen of the tunes were from his pen also, and an increasing number of other writers were doing the same. The court composer of electoral Saxony, Johann Walter was roped in as the musical editor and he collected and edited tunes, and composed five-part settings of them, so that if you had a longer hymn or a particularly appropriate setting for a hymn, the congregation could take a break and listen as the choir sang a particular verse in a five-part setting.

These early Lutheran hymns were deliberately didactic, focused on teaching. Hymns were written to summarise each part of the Catechism—so there’s one of the Lord’s Prayer, one on the Creed, one on the Ten Commandments, one to explain the meaning of baptism, another one to explain the meaning of confession, and yet another on the Eucharist—or to give an outline of the doctrine of justification. Others paraphrase Psalms or the canticles of the liturgy. Yet others took the ancient Latin hymns of the church, translated the words into the German language and then adapted the melodies so that they would work more naturally with the German language. [Luther had a particular gift for German for the language and he was passionate about making sure that the people would be able to use their own tongue in the most natural possible way, and it wouldn’t do just try to sing the old Latin melodies with German because German and Latin were different and therefore the old melodies had to be bent into the right kind of shape to fit into the mouths of ordinary German people, even those without an education.]

In 1525, another innovation followed: these German hymns were introduced into the Mass, the main Sunday service—something that hadn’t been done at least for over a thousand years. [These days I like to say that I’d get away with lots of chopping and changing of the servers. Nobody would mind if I shorten this here or there but leave out the hymns and there will be a riot.] Before 1525, nobody sang hymns in church. [So if you like them, you’re welcome! The Lutheran church is pleased to share this gift with you.] In addition to Latin motets and mass settings sung by the choir, the congregation would sing the Creed in the German version, or one of the new hymns, especially before the sermon or during Holy Communion. And by this simple change, the Lutheran Church of the 1520s put the song of the Church firmly back in the mouths of all the people.

At the same time, Luther encouraged composers to write music for church choirs. Since he was very fond of the music of many of the leading Catholic composers—his own favourite composer, he said, was the Frenchman Josquin Desprez who died in 1521—he also suggested that the best music available should be used in Lutheran churches from whatever source. And if the words weren’t quite fitting with the Reformation message, they needed to be tweaked appropriately so that they wouldn’t contradict what was considered biblical teaching.

Thus, in short order, the Lutheran Church being the nickname “the singing church”. To be sure, not everyone was convinced that this was a very good idea. We have quite a bit of evidence that some congregations needed more than a little stick to encourage them to take up this hymn singing in church. It was too radical a change for some. Even in some of Luther’s sermons, he gets quite rude about the volume and quality of the singing. Just prior to his sermon. Yet by the late 1500s –and this is really important—several Roman Catholic writers who were employed by the Roman Catholic church with the specific task of trying to discourage the people from becoming Lutherans and encouraging Lutherans to cease to be so and to come back to the “mother church”were complaining loudly in their writings and in their letters back to the Vatican that the hymns of Luther had done more to spread this new heresy, as they called it, than all his other writings put together. Because who reads, of the ordinary people, tractate and treatises written by theologians? But they all sang them. By singing the faith the people both learned the faith and, yes, again propagated it. [This was a trick that already for the earlier heretics, if you like, of the church had worked out very well. The first people to sing hymns that were considered at the time catchy and tuneful, were the Aryans the arch-heretics of the early church, and the Nestorians who came a couple of centuries later did the same. And people like Saint Ambrose of Milan, the great Archbishop of Milan in the fourth century, took up him writing so that since people were going to sing hymns, they’d better not be heretical ones. So here are some good ones for you.].

These chorales, as Lutheran were hymns were called, became a central feature of Lutheran worship. There were thousands written in the next hundred years or so. The hymn book used in the time of J.S. Bach in Leipzig was a selection of 880-odd hymns, of the best ones, that is. And writers like Paul Gerhardt, Johann Heermann, Johann Rist, wrote hundreds each, many of which are still in use. And others such as Philip Nikolai, who only wrote three things, decided that if you’re only going to write a few, make them good. [So we have hymns, ‘How Brightly Shines the Morning Star’ and ‘Wake, awake, the Night Is Flying’, which are often referred to as the king and the queen of the Cross, are two of the three that he wrote—he made them good!]

At the same time, the full and elaborate use of music was encouraged in Lutheran churches. Pretty much everything in the service was sung: the hymns obviously, but also every part of the liturgy, including the prayers and the readings and all the responses from the congregation. Very little speaking was done except the sermon. Some German state even had a law that required every church to employ a pastor and a director of music [a law that I would like to see reinstated]. In other places, in order to be ordained into the holy ministry, men had to demonstrate their ability to sing. If you couldn’t sing, you couldn’t lead worship, and such men were only good to be schoolmasters. [We can discuss afterwards whether that should be revisited too.]

Not surprisingly, with this demand for music from the late 16th century onwards, the Lutheran Church produced a long and impressive series of church musicians. In the 17th century, almost every composer of note was either Roman Catholic or Lutheran. Some of you will have heard of men such as Praetorius, Schein, Schütz, Pachelbell [the Canon was one of his less impressive works] and Buxtehude. Johann Sebastian Bach, whose cantata you are about to hear tonight was the greatest of these Lutheran church musicians. But he was a giant sitting atop the shoulders of other giants. [Even within his own family, there had already been several generations of church musicians, some of quite considerable note, so that in the central part of Germany where Bach mostly worked, the word Bach became like ‘Hoover’ for us: an eponym for a musician. People would simply say, “I think we need another Bach,”and they meant an organist.] And for all of them, all these composers, the Lutheran chorale, and especially hymns of Luther, formed the core material of all their church music and quite a considerable amount also of their non-sacred music. And this influence of the chorale, the hymn lasted well beyond the time when people stopped taking the faith that produced them seriously. You will find the chorales of Luther in the works of Mendelssohn, who was a reasonably devout Lutheran, but also in the works of Johannes Brahms, who was a devout agnostic [If you’ve ever listened to German Requiem, he went to great trouble to make sure that Jesus wasn’t mentioned once or anything to do with the doctrine of the atonement, which he found repulsive.] Yet in his symphonies, in his quartets he quote Lutheran chorales. Alban Berg, the great modernist composer, wrote his violin concerto, ‘In Memory of an Angel—very difficult music, very little harmony, lots of dissonance—but when you come when it comes to the high point, he slips in a Lutheran funeral hymn, written by Martin Luther himself. [Chopin, who had no interest in any faith, and if he had had, would have been Roman Catholic composes chorales in his Nocturnes, and so on and so on.]

This influence also stretches to Britain. The Church of England, following the more austere and cautious approach of Calvin, did not allow the singing of hymns in services for several centuries after the Reformation. You could only sing Psalms and of the Biblical texts. [The reason why there are so many different melodies for ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flockas by Night’ was that it’s a biblical paraphrase. It was the only carrol you could sing in church. At least 78 different known tunes for that text.] It was a nonconformist, men such as Isaac Watts who began to break this rule—because they were not bound by the rules of the Church of England—but was when a certain John Wesley spent time in Germany and came across the Lutheran hymn-singing tradition that things really began to change. On his return, he began to translate some of these German hymns into English. Soon after, he and especially his brother Charles began to write their own. The rest, as they say, is history. By the mid-19th century, resistance had become futile, and the Church of England, too allowed the singing of hymns and the great Victorian flowering a hymn-writing began. And many of the early English hymnals were dominated by Lutheran chorales translated into English by people such as Catherine Winkworth and Frances Cox, who translated ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ and ‘Jesus Lives, Thy Terrors Now’, respectively.

When the Hymns Ancient and Modern was published, the editors made a conscious decision to try and break this connection to the Germanic tradition and establish an English an Anglican tradition of hymn-writing, and they did so very successfully so that only a handful of Lutheran hymns now exist in the Anglican tradition. The Church of England’s, and the generally British, tradition of hymn-singing has become far more generic. Perhaps gone back to the earlier, pre-reformation model of hymns of praise, hymns for occasions.

The Lutheran hymn, including modern Lutheran hymns, remains a tool of teaching, a tool of proclaiming God’s word by singing it and by hearing it sung. And it is a great delight to be part of an evening when we are singing and being sung and played to the word of God that proclaims the wonders that he has done in giving us his Son; and bringing his Son and all his benefit benefits to us in his word; and giving us the privilege of being not only recipients but participants in this proclamation.

1 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 321–322.

2 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 323.


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