An early printing of Luther's hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.5
I am writing this article just after having come back home from a journey in Germany, where I attended an international conference in Wittenberg and spent a few hours in Leipzig.
Wittenberg, of course, is one of the most important “Luther towns”, where he started his preaching by posting his theses on the door of the Castle Church, five hundred years ago.
And Leipzig, not far from Wittenberg, is – especially for us musicians – the city of Bach, where he lived, taught, composed and conducted some of his greatest masterpieces, about two hundred years after Luther’s own life.
Bach was a faithful Lutheran, though he wrote magnificent works for the Catholic liturgy; in the church where he is buried, and where the stupendous Matthew Passion first resonated in the eighteenth century, a choir of boys continues the tradition of sacred singing which was already ancient in Bach’s time.
These two figures ideally frame this fifth article on music and the Reformations of the sixteenth century, part of a series created for MercatorNet. We have already seen the theoretical views of many Reformers, both Protestant and Catholics, on the problems of church music (of their time, though frequently analogous to those of our own time), and on the resources music could offer for spreading the good news of the Gospel and for praising God.
In this and in the following articles, I will discuss the musical practice of the Christian Churches, starting with the Lutheran approach to music as it was conceived and enacted in the sixteenth century.
Luther’s chorales: sacred songs for everyone
Luther, as we have seen, was particularly enamoured of music, and he promoted the presence of singing on all occasions of public and private life. The main musical symbol of his Reformation are the “chorales” (Lieder, that is, “songs”). Luther himself authored the lyrics – and, in some cases, the tunes – of the chorales, which are either new creations or adaptations from pre-existing repertoires. Contrary to legend, these adaptations are mostly taken from songs which already had a sacred – or at least spiritual – content, and which were known as “Leise” (from a contraction of “Kyrie eleison”, “Lord have mercy”).
Well before the Reformation many people who knew no Latin or simply felt more at ease in their own vernacular used to sing religious songs in German; sometimes, it appears, these songs made their way even into the pre-Reformation Catholic worship, particularly on festivities such as Christmas. What Luther did was to encourage a large-scale production and spread of an extraordinary repertoire of such songs: in fact, he wrote to many of the leading poets and musicians of his time, asking them to compose religious songs suitable for all kinds of people.
He did not want complex lyrics or poetically pretentious texts: he asked the best poets because the maximum of simplicity could only be achieved by those capable of the greatest refinement. The tunes, in turn, are folk-like and rhythmic, and frequently have almost dancing inflections.
Maintaining Latin and ‘art music’
Among the sources Luther and his followers used most constantly was the Gregorian (or plainchant) repertoire of the Catholic Church, whose lyrics were translated or paraphrased into German while maintaining the original melodic profile. Thus, the Catholic sequence for Pentecost is clearly discernible under the features of Luther’s Pentecost chorale; the same happens to the Easter sequence and to its Lutheran counterpart.
Indeed, Luther was far from prohibiting the maintenance of Latin in worship (he wished to have not only German and Latin liturgies, side by side, but even to reintroduce worship in Greek!), and his musical Reformation aimed at broadening, rather than restricting, the musical repertoire. Many Latin forms, both monodic and polyphonic, were maintained; Luther’s wish that all could sing in church did not imply that all ought to sing always, and a space was definitely preserved for so-called “art music” (for example, the Latin-texted polyphony of the Flemish masters), offered to the congregation by the students of Latin schools or by professionals.
Music was part of the daily routine of Lutheran schoolchildren, both boys and girls; their choirs were among the protagonists of the Sunday worship, and pupils frequently taught the tunes and lyrics of the new songs to their elders and families, thus spreading the new religious values of the Reformation and, more generally, the Gospel or the main tenets of the Christian faith. In fact, Luther had created several “catechism songs”, which were used to instill the Christian teaching to children and to the illiterate; these, as well as the originally monodic chorales, could be elaborated by professional composers in turn, and originate simple harmonizations or more complex polyphonic structures.
In some cities, such as Joachimsthal, the citizens were so attached to hymn-singing that they requested some extra-hours of practice before the Sunday service; thus, the seeds of the extraordinary musical culture which flourished in Germany in the following centuries were planted.
Many anecdotes testify to the deep affection of early Lutherans for their chorales: one of my own favourites is the story of a woman who suffered intensely for a difficult labour; when she heard a passing schoolboy singing a chorale from under her window, she instantly relaxed and was able to give birth to her baby. Be it legend or truth, it is undeniable that within a couple of generations the spread of Luther’s chorales was immense, while later artists continued to contribute unforgettable tunes and words to this repertoire. (Several Lutheran chorales have won a place among the sung repertoires of many other Churches, including Catholics and Anglicans).
The hymnbook and the spread of musical literacy
With the expansion of this repertoire, the need started to be felt for systems of preserving it: an iconic object of the Lutheran faith, i.e. the hymnbook, started to appear very soon, and immediately became an indispensable accessory of prayer. Indeed, it seems that hymnbooks were used by Lutherans firstly at home, for the Hausandacht (the family worship encouraged by the Protestants), and only later began to be brought to church; undoubtedly, however, they importantly contributed to the spread of musical literacy among almost all societal layers, and to the spread of teachings, Bible excerpts, comforting words and pious texts in Germany and elsewhere.
From this early repertoire (whose variety I have only sketchily summarized here) germinated an even greater output of works for worship or spiritual recreation in the following centuries; chief among them are the sacred Cantatas, frequently based on chorale tunes, which achieved summits of beauty and spirituality under Bach’s pen and baton.
As I came out from the Thomaskirche, Bach’s church in Leipzig, I could only think that the musical gift of the Lutheran songs is a magnificent heritage for Christians of all denominations, regardless of confessional divisions, and that it constitutes an undeniable wealth of beauty, faith and prayer which is enjoyed also by many who do not share the Christian faith.
And the same can be said, as we will see in the forthcoming articles, of the musical repertoires of other Christian confessions, among which the Calvinist psalmody is another enormously influential achievement.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Her new book, Reforming Music: Music and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century, was recently published by De Gruyter. Visit her website.
Earlier articles in this series: (1) Reforming music: harmony and discord in the 16th century; (2) Pre-Reformation church music: plainchant, polyphony and popular songs; (3) Polyphony? Or cacophany? Prelude to a reformation in church music; (4) Reformation music: how the Word became words.