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Martin Luther brings music and singing into the church and home

With the poet Luther, the song movement of the Reformation began

Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora together with their children. (Photo: epd-bild/Frank Sommariva)

Doctor Martinus wrote chorales which are classics in our hymn book even today. They are austere, earthy and skillful. (Source:

Do the angels in heaven play Mozart? This is what the Protestant theologian Karl Barth assumed. Albrecht Goes, minister and author in Württemberg, favoured Johann Sebastian Bach. In heaven, he guessed, choir pieces like “Herrscher, des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen” (“Ruler of heaven, hear our inarticulate speech “) are sung, accompanied by timpani and trumpets. Martin Luther would probably have had his doubts. He did not like timpani and trumpets and called them “heavenly battle cries”, a terrible “shouting to the honour of God”. He also did not favour organ pipes very much and said that “they scream and shout”. He even excluded strings from the heavenly orchestra. Once he bitterly complained that it was terrible to play a song on just one string. Martin Luther preferred a gentle, polyphonic instrument. He loved, and played, the lute – and he had the Revelation of St. John on his side, where the angels sing new songs accompanied by a similar kind of stringed instruments: harps (Revelation 5:8 f).

Martin Luther, the “Nightingale of Wittenberg”, loved to sing and did it well

Martin Luther was most concerned about new songs. He reformed sung music, and thus he invented the Protestant hymn. His language came to flourish, and this becomes obvious in his choice of words. New songs – they can be sung, sung to the end, sung about, sung at leisure, sung out loudly, sung above, sung below, sung to others, sung for others and, unfortunately, also be sung to pieces … Martin Luther himself was a passionate singer. He had high demands. The Meistersinger of Nuremberg, Hans Sachs, called him the “Nightingale of Wittenberg”. This bird of the Reformation can be recognised by his songs, like the people of the church. Luther was steeped into this attitude.

This is why he called his first hymn book, published in 1529 in Wittenberg, “parish song book”. This is programmatic. It is the people of the parish that shall sing. Many others contributed to this program – Luther himself wrote a modestly small number of songs. Not even 40 of his hymns have survived. And not all of Luther’s poems are overly elegant. Some rhymes are rather doggerel: “Your wife shall be in your house / like a vine full of grapes, / and your children around your table / like oil plants, healthy and fresh.” One might argue about these images. The titles of the songs are sometimes rather rough: “What do you, enemy Herod, fear much” This does not come fluently over the lips.

Songs convey biblical insights and touch the soul

It was Paul Gerhardt, whose fascinating elegance and strength of imagery has put the focus on the emotion of the pious Protestant self in its conversation with God and creation. It was he, not Martin Luther, who had the idea to begin a song with the words: “Lord, I will happily remain what I am: your poor dog …” Luther knows nothing about daffodils and tulips and “the silk of Solomon”. He prefers to talk about a “mighty fortress”, about “the coming empire”, about “pain”, “fire”, “the devil” and “Christ”. He talks about “us” and about the “we” of the people in the parish, who realise, by means of singing, how God protects them during difficult times. This is how Luther reworked psalms and set them to music, translated old hymns of the church into German, wrote Biblical stories as songs, as well as spiritual children’s songs, for which he had a special penchant.

Children are the future of the parish. This is also the reason why Luther promoted singing lessons from childhood onwards. There should not be a recorder for every child, but proper teaching in how to sing songs. “Children must … sing and learn music together with mathematics.” Luther was convinced that songs have a stronger influence than every spoken text. Their lyrics enter straight into the soul. As Luther presumes, they can convey fundamental biblical insights to “the young people”, before they are even able to read. They are a kind of children’s lesson and a catechism of the people, through which the Ten Commandments, the texts of the Lord’s Supper or the complicated words of the creed are easily memorised. This is one point. The other one is the intimacy of singing. The soul must have the courage to do it. This must be practised from an early age onwards. When singing a song, the singer exposes himself and his emotions and convictions to his fellow human beings: Luther talks about this repeatedly.

The Reformer reconquered the singing of the parishioners during the church service

In song, text and melody unite, emphasise each other, and grasp the heart of the singers and the listeners in a very different manner than spoken words do. Luther once said that Christ enters the depth of the singing heart with incomparable power, and rises out of it again. Of course this can only be successful when the language of the song is understood. It is therefore vital “that a person sings and listens not only with words, but with the sense and understanding of the heart”. Luther exemplifies this with the Lord’s Supper. The singing of the words of institution over bread and wine is wonderful. But “if somebody does not take them to heart, it is of no use, even if thousands of preachers … shout like mad.” Thus, the sound alone does not decide about the song. It must be understood. German spiritual songs already existed before Luther’s times.

He did not invent the German hymn. However, the already existing songs were sung only out in the open air, when people went on pilgrimages and processions, or buried their dead. The Council of Basel in 1435 had been very effective with its interdiction of the singing of hymns in the vernacular during the church service. During the service, the parishioners were occasionally allowed to intone a Kyrie, a Halleluja or Hosanna. But hardly anybody understood what they were singing. A famous pamphlet that was published during the Reformation mocked this fact. It documents that the Reformation did not only listen to what the people sang at church. It practised wise musical criticism without spoiling the parishioner’s joy of singing the Halleluja.

Singing makes allies: Luther’s songs spurred on the Reformation movement

This joy is fully gratified in Luther’s resurrection song “Christ ist erstanden” (“Christ is now risen again”). Luther conquered back the singing of the parishioners in the vernacular during the church service. It is a veritable reconquest. He managed to save a substantial number of German medieval hymns by retrieving them into the 16th century. This has an impact until today. Is it really a mere coincidence that the Easter hymn “Christ is now risen again” happens to “go under the skin” much more than any other Luther song? Luther integrated this “Osterleise”, as it is called in German (from: Easter Kyrie Eleison) into his Wittenberg hymn book under the section “Songs, made by the elders”. The German words are unwieldy and may seem strange. But the song’s energy is great. This is confirmed by the work with confirmation candidates. The young people explicitly confirm that the song easily manages to excel over many contemporary hymns.

The songs that were composed and written by Luther and his friends have reformed the church service. And they also unfolded their very own power. Like the chants of football enthusiasts in the stadium, they fired the Reformation movement, especially in the cities. When people sing together about God and life, they are united and are given strength. This was already experienced by the very first Christians when the sun rose on Sunday morning. Singing creates alliances, not only with one’s own contemporaries. Luther believes that singing inspires alliances even beyond times and places, with the biblical figures, with King Solomon and his songs, with Moses as the singer of the sea song (2 Moses 15), with the song of Deborah, with Zachary, with Simeon and his beautiful farewell to life.

Inventor of the German psalm song

He who considers himself a Christian shall sing a Magnificat with the dear virgin. With a sidewards glance to the Catholics, Luther does not forget to note: “Mary does not say that one would sing a little song about her deed.” Generally, the melody alone is not sufficient. Luther warns that “lazy bellies, bad wolves, godless sows” have written “truly splendid, beautiful music, especially in the monasteries and parishes, but they have adorned many unclean and idolatrous texts with it.” For Luther, only the appropriate texts creates a church music that is worthy of its name.

Luckily, there are the “dear Psalms”. They can influence the style. As a professor of theology, Luther interpreted them again and again for his students, and as a monk, he internalised them during the prayer of the hours. This gave him the idea to invent the German psalm song. Seven Psalm songs written by Luther exist today. “A mighty fortress is our God”, this “Marseillaise amongst the songs of the Reformation”, is still sung on the fields of South American liberation theology.

Songs strengthen the faith and encourage true devotion

It is worthwhile to look at the texts beyond the first verse. Luther uses Psalm 12 as the model for his song “Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein” (“Look down, oh Lord, from heaven behold”) and writes in the second verse: “Their hearts are not with one consent on thy pure doctrine grounded; and, whilst they gleam with outward show, they lead thy people to and fro, in error’s maze astounded.” Who can still refer to the Reformation and claim that Protestant freedom encompasses a plurality and polyphony of opinions, clad in the violet colour of the church? In his song, Luther makes God himself oppose this perception: “My healthful word shall now appear!” Only the unity of the hearts in fundamental convictions brings freedom. Luther understood the the third famous Psalm song “Aus tiefster Not schrei ich zu dir” (“From depths of woe I cry to Thee”) as a song of comfort. Like its origin, Psalm 130, it must be sung from beginning to end. It becomes obvious that Luther was not really fond of laments. “We can not sing before we have found well-being, but when we are afflicted, our singing ends.”

For Luther, melancholic mourning puts an end to singing. He encourages the parishioners to sing against these black moods he himself knew all too well, and against death. “Christians shall be able to sing the “Te deum laudamus” when conditions are at their worst.” And elsewhere he adds: “We sing … neither songs of mourning nor of lament to our dead, but songs of comfort, songs about the forgiveness of sings, of calm, sleep, life, resurrection of the deceased Christians, which strengthen our faith and shall encourage the people to true devotion.”

The core of both the Reformation and music reflects life

For Luther, there is one thing that ultimately matters, for the Psalm songs as well as all other songs. It is the core of the Reformation and music, as far as Luther is concerned: “In singing, Christ must become our Psalm and song. This is where the song turns around. The song ‘In the midst of life we are in death’ shall become ‘In the midst of death we are in life’.” Luther claims that where this happens, people impatiently sing “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland!” (“Come now, Saviour of the gentiles”), not only during Advent. Talking about Christmas – this is when the Reformer was enraptured after all, and we find something that was to become the rule at Paul Gerhardt’s time: Luther talks about his own sentiments. “Ah little Jesus, dear to my heart, make yourself a clean, soft bed, to rest in my heart’s shrine, so that I may never forget you.” With this chorale, Johann Sebastian Bach was to end the first cantata of his Christmas Oratory, with calm timpani and trumpets only in the interlude, but not during the singing! Maybe he read Luther and was warned. It is definitely very likely that at least the angels with the harps play Martin Luther’s music in heaven.