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 as music, since, except for theology, music alone produces what otherwise only theology can, namely a calm and joyful disposition. My love for music is abundant and overflowing.
Martin Luther (in a letter to the composer and court musician Ludwig Senfl, October 1530)

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, now East Germany, on November 10, 1483, and died there on February 18, 1546, at the age of 62. Five hundred years after his birth, he remains a figure of controversy on many levels; yet his contribution to Western civilization, and his role in the history of Christianity, are of profound importance. Pope John Paul II has recently spoken in praise of Luther’s position as a sincere reformer of the Church, a step of extraordinary significance in the ecumenical movement; and he has taken a further long step by participating last December [1983] in a Protestant church service in Rome. The anniversary has been observed by extensive articles in the National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Time magazine, and many other publications.

Here we are primarily concerned with Luther’s work in music and his influence upon it. In his notable book in 1935, A History of Musical Thought, Donald N. Ferguson wrote that the first Protestant songbook was issued in 1524, just four years after Luther was supposed to have posted his famous Ninety-five Theses on the Wittenberg Church portal. In the decades following, states the author, “It was said that these hymns made more converts to Luther’s faith than all his speeches and writings, and Heinrich Heine rightly called Luther’s hymn, Ein’ feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, the ‘Marseillaise of the Reformation’.”

In his valuable book of 1939, Music, History and Ideas (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.), Hugo Leichtentritt summed up the Great Reformer’s musical position:

Martin Luther was not only a great lover of music, a skillful amateur, to some extent even a composer, but he knew perfectly well what powerful aid music could bring to the cause of the new Protestant movement. . . . In his writings many references can be found to music in general and to single composers. . . .

For four centuries, Luther’s own contributions, his German chorales, have been important for Protestant music. He had a perfectly clear conception of the kind of music he needed for the new church. He wished to reach the common people, and for that neither the Latin language or Gregorian chant were of use to him. To achieve his end, he introduced German instead of Latin to the Catholic service, and chose in place of the noble but complex melodic substance of the Gregorian chant something much simpler, less pretentious, more akin to German folk song.

One of Luther’s immortal accomplishments is the Protestant chorale, the new German spiritual folk song. . . . Even though actual evidence is lacking concerning his activity as a composer, he remains the originator of the idea, and he knew how to inspire artists of rank to write in a style adapted to the character of Protestant creed. And there is no doubt that the words, at least, of some thirty of the finest German chorales were written by Luther. . . .

The most famous chorale attributed to him is ‘Ein’ feste Burg Ist unser Gott’. It was written in 1528, when pestilence, at that time a frequent and dreadful guest in Europe, was approaching once more, and to a certain extent it is a poetic paraphrase of the Forty-sixth Psalm. But what a power of language, what a strong manly soul in these verses, what consoling confidence in the help of God, what a courageous militant spirit against the evil in the world! 

Most of Luther’s chorales were written in the years 1523 and 1524. The melodies were new only in part; a number of them were taken over from the Ambrosian hymns of the Catholic Church, from medieval sequences, from Gregorian chant, and from German popular songs. Luther did not simply copy these old melodies, he changed them and adapted them to their new purposes with eminent insight and skill. . . .

Through four centuries Protestant chorale tunes have been the most precious material of German church music. Innumerable compositions have been written on them. One cannot imagine Bach’s art without the cantus firmus of those glorious spiritual folk songs. No cantata, no Passion music, no Bach motet, no organ chorale prelude exists without these tunes. They are the center of all Bach’s church music, its deepest and most solid foundation. . . .

Martin Luther sang tenor, played the lute, made music at home, composed and edited. Had he not had another mission, he could have been a professional musician.

© 1993 Musical Arts Association