Martin Luther and Music Reformation

Luther music

Martin Luther was a theologian and a musician. He was an artist. Luther loved beauty. A philosophy of "it's only the words that count" would not have cut it with Luther. Neither would have much of the evangelly fish music that parades many modern churches. To Luther, music was a jewel in man's crown, so important that theology was the only art to be put on the same level as it. Luther understood the impact of music on life and worship. God gave man 150 inspired pieces of theology infused music, the Psalms. Music shapes a man's theology and life. What you immerse yourself in musically comes out in your life and behaviour. Music comes out of our fingertips. Luther understood the connection between music and theology. He recruited poets and musicians to write Psalms, spiritual songs, and hymns to transform the world. Reformation through music. Words matter. Music matters. 

The beauty and importance of music

"There is no doubt that there are many seeds of good qualities in the minds of those who are moved by music. Those, however, who are not moved [by music] I believe are definitely like stumps [of wood] and blocks of stone. For we know that music, too, is odious and unbearable to the demons. Indeed I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition. Manifest proof [of this is the fact] that the devil, the creator of saddening cares and disquieting worries, takes flight at the sound of music almost as he takes flight at the word of theology. This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music; when setting forth their theology they did it not as geometry, not as arithmetic, not as astronomy, but as music, so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs. But why do I now praise music and attempt to portray, or rather smear, such an important subject on such a little piece of paper? Yet my love for music, which often has quickened me and liberated me from great vexations, is abundant and overflowing." [1]

"Propriety is not to be disdained. Particularly, disdaining musical skills amounts to disdaining propriety. Therefore." [2]

"All the children, large and small, should practice music daily, the first hour in the afternoon." [3]

"For my part, if I had children and could manage it, I would have them study not only languages and history, but also singing and music together with the whole of mathematics. For what is all this but mere child’s play? The ancient Greeks trained their children in these disciplines; yet they grew up to be people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything. How I regret now that I did not read more poets and historians, and that no one taught me them! Instead, I was obliged to read at great cost, toil, and detriment to myself, that devil’s dung, the philosophers and sophists, from which I have all I can do to purge myself." [4]

"[Our] plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church, and to compose psalms for the people [in the] vernacular, that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music. Therefore we are searching everywhere for poets." [5]

Music in The German Mass and Order of Divine Service

Luther's liturgy had a high view of music. Chanting and singing were frequently used. The Gospels were set to music and chanted, the Creed sung, and many other Psalms and hymns reset to Reformation music and sung.

"After the Gospel the whole congregation sings the Creed in German: 'In One True God We All Believe.' Then follows the sermon on the Gospel for the Sunday or festival day. And I think that if we had the postil for the entire year, it would be best to appoint the sermon for the day to be read wholly or in part out of the book—not alone for the benefit of those preachers who can do nothing better, but also for the purpose of preventing the rise of enthusiasts and sects. If we observe the homilies read at Matins, we note a usage similar to this. For unless it is a spiritual understanding and the [Holy] Ghost himself that speaks through the preachers (whom I do not wish hereby to restrict; for the Spirit teaches better how to preach than all the postils and homilies), we shall ultimately get where everyone will preach his own ideas, and instead of the Gospel and its exposition we again shall have sermons on castles in Spain. This is one of the reasons we retain the Epistles and Gospels as they are given in the postils—there are so few gifted preachers who are able to give a powerful and practical exposition of a whole evangelist or some other book of the Bible...

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Advent would be chanted as follows"[6]

German Mass

German Mass 2

German Mass 3

Be thee weaned away from love ballads

That it is good and God pleasing to sing hymns is, I think, known to every Christian; for everyone is aware not only of the example of the prophets and kings in the Old Testament who praised God with song and sound, with poetry and psaltery, but also of the common and ancient custom of the Christian church to sing Psalms. St. Paul himself instituted this in I Corinthians 14 [:15] and exhorted the Colossians [3:16] to sing spiritual songs and Psalms heartily unto the Lord so that God’s Word and Christian teaching might be instilled and implanted in many ways.

Therefore I, too, in order to make a start and to give an incentive to those who can do better, have with the help of others compiled several hymns, so that the holy gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew may be noised and spread abroad.

Like Moses in his song [Exod. 15:2], we may now boast that Christ is our praise and song and say with St. Paul, I Corinthians 2 [:2], that we should know nothing to sing or say, save Jesus Christ our Savior.

And these songs were arranged in four parts to give the young—who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth. Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them. I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this [the use of music in the service of the gospel] and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts. As it is, the world is too lax and indifferent about teaching and training the young for us to abet this trend. God grant us his grace.

Amen." [7]

2 Kingdoms

Luther understood that "culture is religion externalised." He recognised the importance and potency of music and the other arts. He did not teach withdrawing from the culture. No, Luther and the Magisterial Reformation shaped the culture with the Gospel. Music was central to this. What we listen to and sing is what will shape our family culture. Our music will shape our civilisation. The next Reformation will also heavily rely on faithful music, art and poetry. The forms may be different but faithfulness to Christ as King is still the baseline requirement.

End notes

[1] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 49: Letters II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 49, pp. 427–428). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[2] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 38: Word and Sacrament IV. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 38, p. 265). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[3] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 40: Church and Ministry II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 40, p. 316). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[4] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 45, pp. 369–370). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[5] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 49: Letters II. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 49, p. 68). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[6] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 53, p. 78). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[7] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 53, pp. 315–316). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.


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