Music in the Lutheran Tradition

The mission of the FLC music program is to share the Gospel in greater Boston through musical events and special services.

In sharp contrast to radical reformers such as John Calvin and particularly Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther regarded music as essential to evangelical worship. He wrote, “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” A skilled singer and virtuoso lutenist, Luther composed some of the greatest hymns of the Reformation. In addition to his more than seventy ascertainable hymns, he also composed simple polyphonic settings of hymn tunes, chants and secular melodies. He maintained regular correspondence with some of the greatest musicians of his time, such as Josquin des Prez, Johann Walter, and Ludwig Senfl. His views on music and his influence on shaping evangelical liturgy are discussed in great detail in Robin A. Leaver’s book, Luther’s Liturgical Music (Cambridge: Lutheran Quarterly Books, 2007).

One of Luther’s most significant musical influences was in shaping vernacular hymnody. Luther and his followers wrote chorales with strophic lyrics, set to sturdy, singable melodies that often mimicked German folk tunes. He also modified and paraphrased Gregorian chants to accommodate vernacular strophic texts, such as his versification of the Latin hymn Veni redemptor gentium as “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” Luther regarded chorales as quintessential instruments to convey Lutheran doctrine to laymen in a form they could remember, teach to each other, and apply to their lives. In Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), Christopher Boyd Brown describes how the Lutheran chorale formed and preserved Lutheran identity in the village of Joachimsthal amidst persecution during the Counter-Reformation. Lutherans sang hymns in the streets, in their homes, and in churches and schools as they taught their children and counseled one another in difficult times.

Much more than liturgical decoration, music played an essential role in evangelical liturgy. While in the Roman tradition, the words of the Mass were recited quietly by the priest or sung by the choir in Latin, the words of the evangelical liturgy were to be loudly proclaimed and sung by every member of the congregation. Music in worship also represented the Reformation’s three Solae: sola fide (faith alone), sola scriptura (scripture alone), and sola gratia (grace alone). The texts of many chorales are especially representative of these three categories: faith-based chorales such as Paul Speratus’ “Es ist das Heil uns kommen her” illustrate sola fide; catechetical hymns such as Luther’s “Dies sind die heiligen Zehn Gebot” taught sola scriptura, and Nicolaus Decius’ “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” demonstrates sola gratia. Music in Lutheran liturgy thus served the multi-faceted role of proclaiming the Christian faith, educating about the scriptures, and giving thanks to God for salvation that is freely given to all.

As the vernacular increased its use in the liturgy, the art of rhetoric likewise increased in importance. From the mid-sixteenth till the eighteenth century, rhetoric was central to education across Europe, and particularly so in Germany. Rhetoric was taught in every Lateinschule and served as the basis for cultured speech, persuasion, and organization of thoughts. Rhetorical patterns were applied to all aspects of evangelical worship as well: sermons, chorales, and instrumental music were composed with rhetorical patterns in mind. Rhetorical figures (Figurenlehre) constituted an important trend in music theory in seventeenth-century Germany that influenced such composers as Heinrich Schütz, Franz Tunder, Johann Adam Reincken, and Dieterich Buxtehude. The stylus phantasticus organ preludes by Tunder and Buxtehude followed rhetorical patterns. The genesis of these works may have been in improvisations echoing some rhetoric of the sermon of the day. Lutheran organists in the late seventeenth century were “preaching” from the organ loft, using formulae that appealed to rhetorically-minded listeners of the time.

The Reformation also made the music of the Church accessible to all for the first time in western history. Hymns were sung not only in church but also at home. Lutheran families used hymns in their daily devotions and informal musical gatherings (Hausmusik). As church music migrated into secular culture, so did secular music continue to enter the house of God. Subscription concert series, such as the Abendmusik series in Lübeck offered musical entertainment, funded by the city’s wealthiest patrons. Thus music also transformed churches into communal, artistic, and performance venues.

Although congregational singing with organ accompaniment was not common practice until the early eighteenth century, communal music making in Lutheran worship became a symbol for social and economic equity for the emerging democratic bourgeoisie, especially in affluent German cities such as Hamburg and Lübeck. Festival worship services became increasingly musical in step with the growing economic independence of these cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These lavish celebrations offered the full spectrum of contemporary musical trends, combining stile antico polyphony with Italianate concerted music, strophic choral antiphons, congregational hymns, virtuosic organ interludes, versicles, and psalms.

The duties of the Lutheran Kantor at high-profile churches were usually divided between providing music for worship services and also for some of the main musical offerings of the city. Kantors in large cities often held a dual appointment from the church and the city council, which raised their expectations for both a profound liturgical experience and excellent musical entertainment. In addition to the weekly cantatas at the Churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, Johann Sebastian Bach was in charge of many secular performances, such as music for the birthday celebrations of visiting royalty. Besides the many musical tasks and projects Bach successfully managed in Leipzig, he advertised these events via his subscription bulletins and raised additional funds for various music-related expenses. These bulletins included the printed texts of upcoming cantata performances and were regularly distributed to paying customers. Divine Services in Leipzig lasted about three hours, with an hour-long sermon and over one hour’s worth of music that attracted church members and visitors alike.

Luther’s contribution to Western music extends far beyond his musical output. He emancipated sacred music as much as the Christian faith itself, helping it to become a monumental beacon of evangelism and of strengthening the faith and community of the Church. The music of great Lutheran composers, especially that of Bach, continues to define and shape Lutheran identity.

Music at FLC video

Vision Statement

“To establish FLC as the pinnacle community for communication of Lutheran theology through organ, choral, and instrumental music in greater Boston.”

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