Paul R. Schilf, Ph.D.
Martin Luther, alone among most of the reformers of the 16th century, welcomed music into the divine service worship. For Luther, music was a "noble, wholesome, and joyful creation … a gift from God." For Luther, music was a part of God's creation with the power to praise its Creator, and thus found its greatest fulfillment in the proclamation of the Word.
"Therefore accustom yourself to see in this creation your Creator and to praise Him through it. If any would not sing and talk of what Christ has wrought for us, he shows thereby that he does not really believe." Dr. Martin Luther
For Luther to "say and sing" was a single concept resulting from the inevitable eruption of joyful song in the heart of the redeemed. In contrast to some other reformers who saw music as always potentially troublesome and in need of careful control and direction, Luther, in the freedom of the Gospel, could exult in the power of music to proclaim the Word and to touch the heart and mind of man.
Luther emphasized music as God's, not man's, creation, and as God's gift to man to be used in His praise and proclamation. Through this, and stressing particularly the royal priesthood of all believers, Luther laid the foundation for the involvement of every Christian—congregation, choir, composer, instrumentalist—in corporate praise at the highest level of ability. In seeing all of music as under God's redemptive hand, Luther underscored the freedom of the Christian to use music in the proclamation of the Gospel. The music that developed in this tradition is eloquent testimony to the fact that the church's musicians and its people found that Luther's views provided a healthy and wholesome context in which to work, to sing, and to make music in praise of God.
Luther encouraged only the most sophisticated forms of the music of his day—Gregorian chant and classical polyphony—to be taught to the young and sung in church together with the simpler congregational chorales. Gregorian chant is a single line of music lacking any form of meter and measure, named after Pope Gregory I (590-604). Polyphonic music is composed of two or more voice parts, but each one has melodic significance. It predates and differs from our current structure of melody and harmony. Luther himself and in collaboration with other church musicians, took the polyphonic music and chants and placed them in strict metrical form to assist congregations in the singing of hymns. The result is what some refer to as "music from the bars." This phenomenon was not "music from the tavern," but appropriate liturgical music of the time arranged metrically (using "bar lines") for congregational use. In contrast to the Latin tradition and that of the Calvinist reformation, it was Luther's understanding of music as a gift of God that successfully encouraged the reciprocal interaction of simple congregational song and art music of the most sophisticated kind. A flourishing tradition of Christian church music was the result.
Next month: Musical Traditions in the Lutheran Church and Recent Research about Attitudes Toward the Appropriateness of Religious Music.
Buszin, W.E. (1958). Luther on music. New York, NY: Lutheran Society For Worship, Music, and the Arts, by permission of G. Schirmer Inc.
Schalk, C.E. (1983). Music in Lutheran worship. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.