Reformation Concert Narrative
Good evening and welcome to Our Shepherd Lutheran Church. We are gathered on the auspicious occasion of the 500th anniversary of the event that, in many minds, sparked the Reformation: Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It is an event that changed the world, and led to tremendous shifts in politics, economics, society, and, perhaps most importantly, theology. But tonight’s program is not about politics, or social change, or even theology—at least not altogether. Tonight we are celebrating Luther’s lesser known, but similarly influential “other side”—Luther the musician.
Many of you will recognize our prelude and opening hymn as “A Mighty Fortress,” perhaps the quintessential Lutheran hymn. What some of you may not know is that Luther composed both the words and the music to the hymn. Luther had a lifelong love of music, and this passion for music translated into his life as a student, monk, teacher, theologian, and finally into his approach to spreading the gospel message during the Reformation. His contemporaries and theological descendants, too, were inspired by Luther’s music, and made their own contributions to the Lutheran sacred music tradition.
Tonight’s program will feature samplings of Luther’s hymn-writing—as translations, original texts, and original musical compositions—along with pieces from those with whom he worked tirelessly for the gospel, and those in later generations that his music inspired. Between sections, we will provide some background on the music you are enjoying, and hopefully provide some context for why the music was nearly as revolutionary as the Reformation of the church itself. Our hope is that you will be moved by the music, challenged and edified by the text of the hymns, and come to a greater appreciation of the value and significance of Luther’s musical contributions and our great Lutheran musical heritage.
Before we get started with our program, I would invite to the chancel Pastor Matt Douglas to lead us in an opening prayer.
Luther and the Church Year
What you just heard was a beautiful arrangement of Psalm 46, the text of which served as the basis for Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” Luther’s view of sacred music was that it must always be based in Scripture. He notes that:
“The singing of sacred songs and psalms” is something “to which, through God’s word and Christian doctrine, we must be driven and trained.”
In this first part of our program we will hear selections from Luther’s hymns written for each season of the church year. As we move from season to season, we will explore Luther’s own faith and musical journey. For those unfamiliar, you can follow the season by looking at the banner to my left. As Luther used imagery and music to teach, so too, we still use this potent combination in worship.
We begin with Advent, represented on my left by the blue banner, the season of hopeful anticipation of the arrival of the Christ child. Luther’s own childhood and upbringing were shaped by music. The medieval church was full of chant and chorales, and the ancient texts persisted in these compositions. As one of the liberal arts, music was assigned a place in Luther’s education on par with arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry—together they formed the “music of the heavens and the music of man.” After he continued with his theological education, he kept his esteem for music, noting:
“The first place after theology I assign to music.”
Luther listened to music at worship and church high holidays, and was so adept at the lute and at singing that a later philosopher called Luther the “learned musician and philosopher.” Most important for Luther, though, was the singing in his monastery. He stated:
“Prayer and hymns of praise are the answer to the word that God spoke to the people.”
Luther used song to teach the youth, and he updated the ancient hymns and chants for the Reformation, using them with his students, his family, and his friends to praise God. Despite his disagreement with the church of his time, he continued to rely upon the music and chant of the past, but with the text rewritten to fit the true gospel message. He claimed of these older works that:
“These works are precious and it would be a pity if they were to perish. I have stripped off the beautiful music and dressed it in the living sacred word of God, thereby the same God to sing, to praise, and to honor.”
We now hear from our youth as they take us from the season of Advent, through the Christmas season, to Epiphany, where we recognize, as Luther did, that Christ has truly come for us men and for our salvation.
We move now to the next seasons of our church year: Lent and Easter. Lent, represented by the purple banner, is a period of self-examination and repentance of sins in preparation for Christ’s Passion and death on the cross. For Luther, this constant self-examination and penance led him to doubt the mercy of God. It was then he realized the problems with the medieval church’s message of works righteousness.
This disagreement extended to our response to God’s grace. He disagreed both with the church of his time and with later Calvinist reformers, both of whom found a worldly ugliness in too much enjoyment of music. For Luther, however:
“The one who hates music … does not please me. For music is a gift of God, not a gift of humans. Music drives away the devil and makes people happy; it helps one to forget all wrath, lust, arrogance, and other vices. … We see that David and all the saints used verse, rhymes, and songs to express their godly thoughts; because music reigns in days of peace.”
As Luther came to recognize that salvation came not from works, but by grace through faith, he was unable to contain his joy, and expressed his joy in music. At the moment of his tower revelation, he expressed:
“Because God made our heart and spirit merry through his beloved Son, who was given to us to absolve us from sins, death, and the devil … everyone who believes that earnestly cannot leave it be … he must merrily and with passion sing about it.”
We now hear beautiful singing from the depths of Lenten woe to the heights of Easter joy, bringing us to the gold banner of Easter. Easter represents the heart of Luther’s theology: Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection brings justification by grace through faith. Truly a cause for singing!
Spreading the Protestant Message
We now move to the final season of the church year: Pentecost, the moment when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles. We celebrate the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and in the life of the church. Through the Holy Spirit, Luther was able to recognize the gospel message of the apostles—the evangelion—and his evangelical message spread quickly through Europe.
The music that was inspired by the Reformation—be it by the Holy Spirit, the evangelical message, or by Luther’s example—had a lasting legacy, helping to spread the good news about God’s saving grace to the world. The Easter piece we just heard, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands,” was famously turned into a Cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach and has become one of the most enduring musical works about Easter ever written. Bach, one of the 17th Century’s greatest composers, was a Lutheran, and was church organist at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Indeed, music historians have termed the period following Luther and into the 17th Century as “the epoch of Protestant music in Germany.”
In Luther’s own time, he had many musical collaborators. As he worked with the German princes to rewrite the liturgy and hymnody of the church to reflect the evangelical message, he had assistance from his fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon, whose work we will hear a bit later, as well as from Johann Walter, called the “original cantor of the Reformation.” Luther worked with Walter to write the new German mass. 500 years later, we still hear a version of it today in Divine Service V. Luther and Walter worked tirelessly, not only to update the text, but to match the text to the emotion of the service. Musical theory of the time assigned emotions to different tones and modes:
“Christ is a kind Lord and his speeches are delightful; therefore we want to put to the Gospel the sixth tone, and because St. Paul is for Christ an earnest apostle, we want to designate the eighth tone for the Epistle.”
We still hear these modes at work in our Lutheran liturgy today. Luther, like a Renaissance Cole Porter, also recognized the importance of matching lyrics to music, or text to mode. He notes:
“I’d like to have today a German Mass … but I’d like to have a proper German art ... It must be both text and notes, accent, melody, and its manner of rendering ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection; otherwise all of it becomes an imitation as monkeys do.”
This emphasis on text and music working together, on language and message being inextricably linked, had profound repercussions for vernacular music—both sacred and secular—for all time. The Reformation has been called a “polemical singing movement,” using music and song in the native language of the people to spread the gospel message in a way that Latin plainchant simply could not match.
Most important to Luther, however, was that the music he and others produced be inspired, as the apostles at Pentecost, by the Holy Spirit, and that it be used to teach. His adaptations of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and other chatechetical, or teaching, texts for singing have endured, and their continued use is a sure way to guarantee, as Luther would no doubt insist, on keeping the Lord’s people always in the Word.
As we move into the final portion of our program, we reflect on the rich musical legacy of the Reformation and of Martin Luther in particular. From its beginnings in Wittenberg and Torgau, a rich Protestant musical culture developed throughout Germany and northern Europe. Just as Luther’s theological message of the good news of the free grace of Christ crucified opened up the everyday, mundane, and creaturely day-to-day existences of people to the glory of God, so too composers, hymn-writers, and theologians all found new ways to express the good news through innovations in sacred music.
Throughout the next centuries Michael Praetorius, Paul Gerhardt, Heinrich Schuetz, Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Jochen Klepper and others built upon this rich musical legacy. Dietrich Buxtehude, whose arrangement of Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word we just heard, organized evening concerts in Luebeck, laying the foundations for a public musical culture in Germany. The new and novel forms of music created by these composers continue to be enjoyed all over the world. Indeed, we are blessed to continue to have theologically-trained, Holy-Spirit-inspired musicians and composers at work in the Protestant and Lutheran tradition today. Perhaps the importance of sacred music to the Lutheran heritage can be put no better than by Martin Luther himself, who stated:
“For we know that music, too, is odious and unbearable to the demons. 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. … This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music; when setting forth their theology they did it not as geometry, not as arithmetic, not as astronomy, but as music, so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs. … My love for music, which often has quickened me and liberated me from great vexations, is abundant and overflowing.”
Music was, in many respects a first love of Luther’s, and he considered it the means by which to sustain Christ’s redeemed in joyful worship during our lives on earth. The hymns that follow capture that constant abiding presence of Christ Jesus and the ultimate hope of the evangelical message Luther helped to share with the world through music.
Thank you for joining us this evening! We hope you have enjoyed learning more about Luther’s musical legacy, hearing the textually-rich and musically-inspiring hymns of the Reformation, and helping us to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the event that changed the theological—and musical—world. We will now close with Luther’s Evening Prayer, sung by our Adult Choir, followed by a benediction by Pastor Daniel Lepley, and a closing hymn. If you are a visitor, we want you to know you are welcome to join us every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday for regular worship. We hope you all have a better understanding of our Lutheran musical tradition! God’s blessings.