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500 years of Reformation influence on music

A tapestry of musical expression

Westermeyer, a professor of church music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, comments that “music takes time. It expresses an order between humanity and time by means of tonal relationships.” Fine composers craft these relationships with an enthralling blend of expectancy and spontaneity. Bach is a master of this craft. He calls us to hear with ever-new ears God’s gift of music. This gift overwhelmed Martin Luther. He wanted composers to shape and develop its raw sonic material.

Luther also knew that music was next to the Word of God. That means it comes “from the sphere of miraculous audible things — like the Gospel,” as Oskar Söhngen wrote. And that in turn reveals a remarkable reality: Words about the Word can be sung. Luther delighted in this relationship and in the “strange and wonderful” way that one voice can sing a melody while other voices dance around it “in a celestial roundelay.” Bach understood and worked out Luther’s implications. He used a rich interplay of voices and instruments to underscore and magnify the meaning of texts. His music always gives us a fresh way to listen to the song of God in Christ.

Bach wrote a huge range of music, from simple instrumental pieces to complex ones that fall in the category of musical math. Writes Westermeyer, “Music from the past can seem archaic. Christian worship is not a museum. It uses archaic and esoteric words from the Bible and from the church’s history, to be sure, but with the promise that God will break them open so that we will hear them as the Word of God for us today. Worship leaders often use contemporary musical styles in the belief that the gospel can be more easily communicated to worshippers through music that is familiar.”

He continues, “But the gospel is not only about the familiar. It also brings a message that is profoundly unfamiliar, countercultural, and different from anything we can imagine. No style of music, historic or contemporary, can completely encompass this countercultural reality. Music from the past, however, helps to protect us from ourselves, keeps us from being overly insular, and gives us insights our period cannot supply. A healthy church employs the music of its own time as well as music from the past. J.S. Bach composed some of the best music of all time, much of it for the worship of the church. Why avoid such a treasure?”

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