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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Music for all of God’s people

In 1542, Luther wrote a preface to a collection of funeral hymns. Here he explained what was so important about singing the truths, in fact the very words, of Scripture: “We have put this music on the living and holy Word of God in order to sing, praise, and honor it. We want the beautiful art of music to be properly used to serve her dear Creator and his Christians. He is thereby praised and honored and we are made better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.” [Luther’s Works, 53:328]

A few years later, not long before his death, Luther wrote another preface, this time to a major hymnal published by Valentin Bapst in Leipzig. It began by qouting Psalm 96: “Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord all the earth.” As Luther saw it, the appropriate occasion for song is the work of Christ in justifying guilty sinners: “For God has cheered our hearts and minds through his dear Son, whom he gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so that others also may come and hear it.” [Luther’s Works, Vol. 53:333]

Luther sought a compromise¬†between two main Christian alternatives. Over against¬†Roman Catholic tradition, Luther insisted that all God’s people should sing, not just in Latin by the priests and specially prepared choirs. Modern scholars such as Christopher Brown have persuasively posited that congregational singing, perhaps more than any other one element, secured the survival of Protestantism in Europe.

Although Luther’s own musical standards were relatively high, his overriding concern was what could be called “the musical priesthood of all believers.” Because God’s grace in Christ was for all in Christ, all in Christ should sing. Because Christ made his people a royal priesthood before God, the voices of all priests — that is, all Christians — should be raised in praise. With Luther began the expansive, extensive and extraordinarily influential tradition of congregational hymnody that endures as one of the great gifts of the Reformation to the worldwide church. We find that Luther’s approach to music persisted well past Bach, into the next three centuries. By the late 20th century, composer and writer Carl Schalk reiterated Luther’s view of church music as “proclamation and ministry.” [Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise, Carl F. Schalk, pg. 51]

Luther thought it was biblical to use every form of God-honoring expression to praise the God of grace, just so long as that praise did not violate biblical truth. Lutheran church music, as a result, almost immediately created a rich culture of choir directors, organists, composers and performers. In 1538, Luther expressed this theology in yet another preface, this time to a full collection of masses, vespers, antiphones, responsories and hymns that was published by Georg Rhau.

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