500 years of Reformation influence on music

Augustinian roots of Reformation worship

Books have been written chronicling the Reformation and its impact on the arts and humanities, so it’s impossible to give an exhaustive treatment of the subject in this space. But I hope to present at least an adequate demonstration of how the movement has survived in its influence on music styles, far beyond liturgy and church music, that modern listeners of many different worldviews still enjoy.

Musical tradition was interwoven with religion in the ancient world, so the Medieval and Renaissance periods inevitably informed the faith and practice of the Reformation movement, just as the Reformation contributed to the evolution of music in the centuries that followed. As a monk of the Augustinian order, Luther’s ideals about music were grounded in the preceding 1,100 years of tradition, going as far back as Augustine and Boethius. The Great Tradition of theologians and philosophers in the Middle Ages provided Luther with a baseline of nomenclature and theory from which to define music and also practice it. Like Augustine, Luther perceived music as a donum Dei, or Gift of God. That is, “he believed it had a palliative and uplifting effect on the human character, placing second only to theology in importance.” [Bach and Luther, Commentary, Notes, Text, Melodies, David Hildner, pg. 6]

Luther probably studied Boethius, particularly book one of his five-part treatise De institutione musica, or “Principles of Music.” This sixth-century Roman philosopher delineated between three types of music: “The first is music of the spheres [mundana]; the second is music of the body [humana]; and the third [is] that which made by certain instruments [instrumentalis], for example, the kithara or the aulos and others which assist with songs.” [Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum] The “music of the spheres” is a metaphysical term referring to a sort of unheard-of music that expresses celestial harmony (that which is referenced in the early 20th-century hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.”). The “music of the body is a harmony” that unites body and soul. Music by instruments is that which we conventionally think of as music.

Dr. Terry Yount, dean of the St. Andrew’s Conservatory of Music in Sanford, Florida, points out, “As Europe emerged from the medieval period, its culture was ripe for change. Musicians and artists in the sixteenth century began to create a new synthesis of the humanities and arts. Sixteenth-century Europeans grew more sophisticated in their preferences for poetry, painting, and music that celebrated man and his ideas.” [The Legacy of Luther, edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, pg. 255]

Luther’s In Praise of Music (1525) states, “Music is one of the greatest gifts that God has given us: it is divine and therefore Satan is its enemy … The devil does not stay where music is.” Elsewhere, he writes, “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.” [Luther’s Works, Vol. 49, pg. 427, from a letter Luther wrote while at the Coburg to Louis Senfl on Oct. 4, 1530]

Luther also understood the power of music to either deprecate or sublimate human emotion as well as behavior, and music as a potent vehicle for delivering the gospel: “Experience testifies that, after the Word of God, music alone deserves to be celebrated as mistress and queen of the emotions of the human heart … And by these emotions men are controlled and often swept away as by their lords. A greater praise of music than this we cannot conceive. For if you want to revive the sad, startle the jovial, encourage the despairing, humble the conceited, pacify the raving, mollify the hate-filled — and who is able to enumerate all the lords of the human heart, I mean the emotions of the heart and the urges which incite a man to all virtues and vices? — what can you find that is more efficacious than music?” [Weimarer Ausgabe, 50:371f; What Luther Says, 2:982-983]

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