…for the Mass is retained by us and celebrated with the highest reverence. All the usual ceremonies are also preserved, except that the parts sung in Latin are interspersed here and there with German hymns, which have been added to teach the people. (Augsburg Confession, 1530, ELH, p. 16)
Martin Luther grew up with a church service that was rich in music. The old Mass form was a service of song. The music of the service was one of the most important ways that those who knew Latin could put the words safely into the libraries of their hearts. The sad part of that story is that there were those who attended those services who did not know Latin. Not even the beautiful melodies could make the liturgy an open book for them.
Luther did not want the churches that confessed the evangelical teachings to squander music. The beauty of music with its emotional twists and turns of mode and meter could plant the Good News of Jesus in the hearts and minds of those who heard it. It could, even more powerfully, be a tool to plant the eternal word into the hearts, minds, and mouths of those who sang it. The renewed song of the church in the Lutheran congregation fulfilled the commands of the apostle Paul when he wrote: Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:18-21).
And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3:15-16).
Luther knew that there were some profoundly disturbing and incorrect customs and texts associated with the old Latin liturgy, the “service he grew up with.” He knew that those things needed to be cast into the rubbish heap. But he also loved many of the good things that were a part of that service which were worthy of preservation, not just because they were old, but because they were vehicles that Christians could use to teach and admonish one another. We still sing texts and tunes that he would have known as a child: We Now Implore God, the Holy Ghost (ELH 33), O Lord, We Praise Thee (ELH 327), Now Hail the Day So Rich in Cheer (ELH 131). Those texts and tunes set a pattern for Luther. He built on the musical traditions and practices of the church of his youth. By the time the Lutheran confession of faith was presented in Augsburg in 1530, the Lutheran services still sounded (and looked) like the services of the Roman Church. The old liturgical blueprints of the Word and Sacrament service (the Mass), Matins and Vespers (the Daily Office), and the special services of preaching held at various times through the year (Prone) were all adapted by the Lutherans, and they were all services that were rich in music. More and more, the Lutheran services expected active participation by the people. They were invited, and expected, to participate as the use of the common language increased in the service. German and Latin were used side by side to communicate the Gospel. German (the language of the people) became the language of the liturgy in those places where Latin was not a commonly used language for education and commerce. Along with that, the Lutherans expected that the people would be able to take the place of the choir where necessary to provide for a full and rich musical liturgy. Many chorales (vernacular hymns) were written by Luther and others.
Luther used the religious tunes and texts he had learned from his youth and education to create new songs for the congregation. Lord, Keep Us Steadfast (589), Savior of the Nations, Come (90), and Grant Peace, We Pray (584) are all based on a Latin chant melody. He also borrowed from the world of courtly art to create new melodies and texts in the poetic and melodic patterns used by the Minnesingers and Meistersingers through many generations for song in the service of the Gospel: Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice (378), To Jordan Came Our Lord, the Christ (247). Probably without knowing it, Luther created a new art form for use in the liturgy. We see his grasp of the church’s ancient traditions of song along with an understanding of the poetic and musical art of his present day in the genius of the chorale, a form unique to the Lutheran church.
There was a breadth to this music. On the one hand, it was chronologically diverse. The chorale looks to the past, sometimes the far-away past, in its melody and text. Some of the choral melodies used in 1530 were as strange-sounding to those singers as they are to us. Others represented the diversity of the international European scene of that time. This use of material from the past and brand new texts and tunes encouraged Lutheran poets and musicians, especially for two and a half centuries, to adopt methods that encouraged both chronological and cultural diversity.
Our church respected Luther’s work through the generations, but that respect never dulled the desire of poets and composers in their imitation of Luther’s hymns. Our hymnal has 26 of Luther’s texts and hundreds of other chorale texts that were inspired by his example. Thousands of chorale texts and tunes were composed in the first two centuries of Lutheranism, and that creativity continued for many years in those places that understood the teaching role of music in the liturgy, the school, and the home.
The Lutheran chorale fostered the growth of some of the greatest musicians of our culture, including the master Johann Sebastian Bach, who revered and recreated the chorales for his generation in his organ works, cantatas, oratorios, and motets. Luther could not have imagined the musical majesty that would someday be dedicated to the tunes and texts that he had created “to teach the people.”
Those texts continue to teach us when we learn them and put them on the bookshelves of our hearts and minds.
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring, whereof I now will say and sing!” (ELH 123)
Professor Dennis Marzolf
Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, MN