MARTIN LUTHER & MUSIC by Alice Dabelow
Martin Luther was born into a musical family. As a boy, he joined a boys' choir and became proficient with the flute. Later, he became an Augustinian monk and struggled to meet the demands of a holy God. It is said that he “fasted until his cheeks caved in." He confessed his sins for hours at a time, but he soon began to see that man could not, even at his best, satisfy the Almighty God.
Through his study of the Bible, he found that a person can only be saved through the blood of Jesus Christ; not through the purchase of indulgences, which were widely sold in the Catholic Church of his day. For purposes of discussion, he wrote a paper with ninety-five points and tacked it to the church door at Wittenberg. Those theses started the Protestant Reformation.
Luther became known in particular for three things: the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, the belief that Scripture should be translated into the people's language, and the birth of congregational singing. He felt that music was of God, not of man, and he was determined to restore congregational singing in the German language to the Church.
So strong were his beliefs about music and worship that he wrote these fiery words: "Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds, and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of donkeys and the grunting of hogs!"
His passionate beliefs led Luther to write both words and music for several hymns, including "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." Luther's first hymnal was published in 1524. It contained eight hymns, four written by himself. Later hymnals were also published for congregational use. He urged people to use the hymns at home and encouraged parochial schools to teach them to their students.
Working with skilled musicians, Luther also created new music for church choirs, organ, and other instruments during his life, and after his death in 1546, the first line of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was inscribed on his tomb. (Resource: “Martin Luther – the Center for Church Music. Songs and Hymns”)
Luther used the words of the psalms in many of his hymns, translated and adapted Latin hymns, improved and spiritualized German folk songs, and wrote original hymns. To our modern ears, Luther’s verses may sound awkward. Some might suggest they lack the rich emotions of the words that mark the hymns written before Luther, but his hymns were not meant to create a mood, but rather, they were written to convey a message. They were a confession of faith, not of personal feelings. They were written not to be read, but to be sung by the whole congregation, and Luther’s people learned to sing them. 38 hymns and chants are credited to the pen of Luther.
Beginning in September we will be adding at least one of Martin Luther’s hymns to each worship service at 10:45am and, space allowing, a short synopsis of the hymns will be included in the bulletin. Enjoy our celebration of Martin Luther and his music.