Martin Luther and Music: 1483-1983
During the month of November, we may celebrate Luther's 500th birthday. Such an anniversary presents a golden opportunity to take a closer look at its subject: Luther. Let us focus on the place of music in the life of this reformer.
Even in the early years of Luther's life, music played an important role. At the age of five, Martin was enrolled in the Magdenburg Cathedral School, and we may assume that he took part in the worship services as a member of the school choir. During the years at the Trivial and the Latin School in Mansfeld and Eisenach Luther became acquainted with the basic principles of medieval musical theory.
As a highschool student, he took part in active music making — he joined a group of boys who earned their pocket money by singing. Martin Luther was a Kurrende Knabe, a singing beggar. It was his singing which directed the attention of Ursula Cotta to the teenage boy. The well-to-do lady felt sorry for the singing beggar and "adopted" him. At her house Luther received the first taste of the comforts in life. He learnt to play the flute and the lute, and music making became the important part of his daily routine.
During his university years at Erfurt Luther continued his studies in music theory. He even tried his hand at composition, transcribing vocal music for the lute.
The reformer considered music a glorious gift of God, very much like theology and would not part with his "little gift of music for anything else in the world." From this, we may note that Luther rated music highly. In his own words, "Frau Musica is the sister of Theologia." Music may be used to underline the truth of the gospel. Deep in the rich choral tradition of the Romanist Church, Luther was convinced of the liturgical function of music. He stressed that church music was first of all a need by which the believer worships and sings praises to his Creator.
The origin and goal of music are the same: God the Creator. Luther played church music in the newly found realm of Christian freedom. Within this realm of Christian freedom, congregation, organists, and church choirs, were encouraged to develop their respective talents to the highest degree.
The second aspect of Luther's view of church music relates its role in spreading the gospel. In his foreword to George Rhau's Symphoniae lucundae (1538), Luther said,
…thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets want nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and songs where message and music join to move the listening soul ... After all, the gift of language, combined with the gift of song, was only given to man to let him know that we should praise God with both words and music, namely, by proclaiming (the Word of God) in music by providing sweet melody with words.
God's Word could be spoken or sung but the message of the gospel remains the same. Luther's own hymns contain elements of guilt, grace, and gratitude. They are forthright in character, and do not proclaim a cheap, superficial gospel.
Finally, Luther saw church music as an offering by the congregation. His understanding of the royal priesthood of all believers encouraged him to involve the whole congregation in making melody to the Lord. Songs in the language of the people were added to the existing Latin liturgy.
We may wonder why Luther insisted that Latin be kept in the worship service, while it was his desire to give young people a chance to participate. But let's not forget that every six-year old learned Latin in school!
Luther arranged some songs in four part harmony. Again the reason was no other than that he,
wanted to attract the youth (who should and must be trained in music or other fine arts) away from the love songs and carnal pieces of those days, and to give them something wholesome to learn instead ... I want to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who has given and created them.
The role of the organist was never minimized, and even the church choir retained its place to some extent. Luther suggested that all musicians receive adequate incomes to be paid by the church.
Music education was mandatory in the schools organized by Luther.
Those who have mastered the art of music are made of good stuff, and are fit for any task. It is necessary indeed that music be taught in the school. A teacher who cannot sing is not even worth looking at.
Luther takes it one step further, when he insists that music study should be a necessary prerequisite to ordination: "we should not ordain young men into the ministry unless they have become well acquainted with music in the school."
Today, five hundred years after Luther's birth, we may continue in the pathway of this reformer. Our worship service may be filled with the glad sounds of praise. Let us blend song and music to recite God's fame. Let us express our thankfulness and praise God's deeds of might. Let us sing of our delight and confess our faithfulness. (See Book of Praise Psalm 92:2).