Martin Luther’s tremendous musical gifts have been largely underappreciated. In his landmark study of the reformer’s liturgical music, Robin Leaver begins to set the record straight.1 Of note to readers of Christian Culture: A Magazine for Lutherans, Leaver firmly grounds Luther’s musicianship in the classical and biblical education he received in his formative years, which would later become the cornerstone of Lutheran education.2
Luther’s Classical Education
Luther (1483-1546) began his education at the Latin school in Mansfeld, likely at age 7. The curriculum at the school was grounded in the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Along with this he learned the Latin liturgical texts and their accompanying music, including the notation and basic theory, and sang in the church choir. This continued through his school years in Magdeburg and Eisenach, where his musical skills further expanded. Luther went on to the baccalaureate and master’s degree programs at the University of Erfurt, where he continued his education in the trivium, and additionally, the quadrivium of the quantitative arts of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Together, the trivium and quadrivium formed the seven liberal arts, or essentials for good thinking. The music portion of the curriculum covered music theory, composition, and performance. Among other things, Luther became known for his skill at playing the lute. Overall, by the time he received the master of arts degree, Luther had acquired a thorough understanding of God’s created world and an ability to effectively discern and present truth. Furthermore, he recognized the primary function of all of the disciplines as being to the praise and glory of God. As a young monk and university professor, Luther was also exposed to the expanding repertoire of polyphonic choral music, for which the University of Wittenberg was known at the time, and which would become the foundation for the Lutheran chorale.
Musical Expertise in Service to the Church
Without this solid classical education, Luther would have been ill prepared to discern the truth of Scripture and present it to a Church gone awry. Along with this, the reformer’s musical contributions were significant. In the summer of 1521, while Luther was staying at the Wartburg Castle in the aftermath of his appearance at the Diet of Worms, the iconoclast Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486-1541) published a disputation calling for the removal of chants and choral and instrumental music from the liturgical life of the church, leaving just unaccompanied singing in unison. This was a time when scholars were teaching music as a human invention, and were debating between Jubal (Genesis 4:21) and the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c.570–c.495 BC) as to who was originator of the art. Luther taught the truth that music is a donum Dei, a gift of God, second only to His Word. Furthermore, he taught that music arouses the spirit (2 Kings 3:15; Psalm 118:15-17), drives away the devil (1 Samuel 16:23), and that, as God’s Old Testament Church included psalms and instruments in her worship (Psalm 150), so should His New Testament Church (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).3 Finally, Luther saw a primary role of music in teaching the faith and proclaiming the Gospel, and he encouraged congregational singing in church, which had been lost for about 1,000 years and was thus a novelty for Reformation-era Christians.
A casual glance through the indices of the Lutheran Service Book bears witness to the fact that Luther was a prolific hymn author and composer. For a number of his hymns, Luther used known tunes from medieval German religious hymns, which he had first learned in his childhood, to facilitate congregational singing and catechesis through music. These include We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth (LSB 382), These Are the Holy Ten Commands (LSB 581), To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray (LSB 768), and We All Believe in One True God (LSB 954). For others, Luther modified known Latin or German chant tunes (which he also had first learned as a child), as he did for Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (LSB 458) and Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old (LSB 960). One particularly striking example of this was his use of the known Latin hymn tune Veni redemptor gentium (Come, redeemer of the nations), to develop the tunes for Savior of the Nations, Come (LSB 332), Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word (LSB 655), and Grant Peace, We Pray, in Mercy Lord (LSB 778). Still for others, Luther composed new tunes. They were often in the familiar court song and Meistersinger traditions, including From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee (LSB 607), and A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (LSB 656/7), though sometimes they were in the style of the German folk song, including that composed specifically for the hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come (LSB 358).
In his day, Luther was very highly regarded as a brilliant composer of hymn tunes, and modern scholars have regained an appreciation for his expert musicianship. His education had endowed him with a deep knowledge of music theory. He worked well with the modes (scales) of his time, and also in his new compositions he anticipated the modern scales in use today. Furthermore, Luther’s arrangements of the notes in his tunes often themselves point to the theological teachings contained in the hymn. Consider again the hymn Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old. Luther wrote this hymn as a Sanctus hymn for his 1525 Deutsche Messe (German Mass). One of the key elements in his reform of the Mass was removing the false teaching of the Mass as a sacrifice to God and restoring the proper doctrine of the Mass as God’s service to us (Gottesdienst), in which we receive His gifts. In the gradual descent of pitch in the notes accompanying, “Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth! His glory fills the heavens and the earth!” one can perceive our Lord descending to us, to feed us His very Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
As the beneficiary of a solid music education in his childhood, Luther encouraged its ongoing inclusion in school curricula. Indeed, when the Elector John the Steadfast (1468-1532) defunded music in the Wittenberg Castle Church, with significant negative impact on the programming at the university, Luther doubled down on his advocacy for music education in the schools, all in service to God and to His glory. Indeed, he believed that music education should be a prerequisite for admission to the Office of the Holy Ministry! Under Luther’s influence, and in spite of the lack of funding from a succession of Saxon Electors, music education expanded in Wittenberg, and the town became a center for the publication of textbooks of music theory and practice, several of which were issued and reissued for 50-60 years after their first publication. Many of the students themselves became teachers and authors of music textbooks, thus multiplying the influence. Luther certainly practiced that which he preached and made his home a center for music. He often played the lute and sang with his family and houseguests, and he gave his own children a solid grounding in music theory and practice.
Luther of course could not single-handedly supply music to the Reformation church, and thus he encouraged others to contribute. Given that a solid grounding in the seven liberal arts constituted the gateway for entry to the study of theology, as well as law and medicine, it is unsurprising that his co-workers also had received instruction in music theory. One of Luther’s chief collaborators was Johann Walter (1496-1570), bass singer in the court of Elector Frederick the Wise (1463-1525), who in 1524 published the Chorgesangbuch (choir song book), a book of multi-voice choral settings for hymns used in the Wittenberg congregations, including many written by Luther. Additionally, Walter helped write the music for the Deutsche Messe and went on to become the first Lutheran Kantor, composing, teaching music, and directing choirs in schools and churches. Although the details of his early life are not well known, it appears that Walter first studied music in the Latin school in his home town of Kahla, Germany. As additional examples, several men who were classically trained at the University of Erfurt at or around the time of Luther, including Johannes Weinmann (c. 1477-1542), Justus Jonas (1493-1555), Wolfgang Dachstein (1487-1553), Georg Rhau (1488-1548), and Johannes Spangenberg (1484-1550), made significant musical contributions of their own.
It is impossible to overstate the impact that Martin Luther had on the theology, preaching, teaching, liturgy, and hymnody of the Reformation church, and indeed on 16th century society as a whole. It is clear that God gifted him with a tremendous intellect, which was shaped and sharpened through his mastery of the liberal arts. While this brief article focused specifically on Luther’s musical gifts and contributions, one could focus on any aspect of his work and find its roots in his classical formation. The same may be said of his Reformation collaborators. We pray that through our Lutheran classical schools and Luther Classical College, God will continue to raise up young men and women in faithful service to His Church.
Amen, that is, so shall it be.
Make strong our faith in You, that we
May doubt not but with trust believe
That what we ask we shall receive.
Thus in Your name and at Your Word
We say, “Amen, O hear us, Lord!”4
1 Robin A Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music, Principles and Implications (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). Also, James L. Brauer, Luther’s Hymn Melodies, Style and form for a Royal Priesthood (St. Louis: Concordia Seminary Press, 2016), and the articles in Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske and Jon D. Vieker, eds., Lutheran Service Book, Companion to the Hymns, Volumes 1 and 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019).
2 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., “Why Lutherans Need Classical Colleges,” Christian Culture: A Magazine for Lutherans, Issue 2 (2021):3-5
3 Note that the definition of the Greek word for, “psalm” in these verses and elsewhere, namely ψαλμός (psalmos), incorporates the plucking of a musical instrument. See https://biblehub.com/greek/5568.htm (accessed 15 November, 2021). Note also the presence of instruments in the eschaton (Mt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Th. 4:16 and numerous verses in Revelation).
4 LSB 766.9