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Songs of Reformation

Martin Luther's music evokes a great theologian who was a great artist

Issue: "2004 Election: Clinch time," Oct. 30, 2004

On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, igniting the Reformation. Now, for the first time, those of us living nearly 500 years later can do something almost no one has done before: listen to all of Luther's musical compositions. That comes to 39 songs, nearly four hours of music.

It is possible that Luther's wife Katie and some of the folks at Wittenberg heard it all, but only now can we take it all in at once and fully appreciate Luther's greatness as a musical artist.

For the record, Luther did not take "bar tunes" and put biblical words to them. That legend comes from a comical misunderstanding. Someone apparently heard a music historian referring to Luther's use of the "bar form," which refers to a stanza structure, not to what drunks sing in a tavern. Luther did borrow and adapt tunes from earlier hymns, medieval chants, and contemporary composers, but a good number of his melodies were his own original compositions.

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Before Luther, hymns in worship were sung by choirs of clergy, not by the congregation. Lay people did have some vernacular hymns that were sung outside of the church, but Luther was the father of congregational singing. Even so, Luther wrote more than church music.

Luther's musical career was first inspired when he learned about the first martyrs of the Reformation. On July 1, 1523, two young monks, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch, little more than teenagers, were burned at the stake in Brussels for their evangelical faith. Luther was moved to write a ballad, "A New Song Now Shall Be Begun," telling the story of these two "lads," from the cruelty of their inquisitors to how "they stepped into the flames with song."

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is, of course, Luther's greatest hit. Other majestic hymns in that league: "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word," "Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice," "Savior of the Nations, Come." He wrote many paraphrases of Psalms.

A whole class of his compositions were "catechetical hymns," expositions of the basic texts used to teach the elements of the Christian faith: the Ten Commandments (teaching the Law), the Apostle's Creed (teaching the Persons of the Trinity, which Luther explained in a way that taught the gospel), and the Lord's Prayer (teaching prayer and the relationship with God).

Luther also pioneered the Christmas song. In "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come," written for his children, Luther shows his consistent poetic mastery when he conflates the Christ child sleeping in a manger, with Christ dwelling in another humble place:

Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
A quiet chamber set apart,
For You to dwell within my heart.

Luther's 16th-century music is transitional, a bridge from the medieval to the new. His music keeps the contemplative sound of Gregorian chant, but also has the parts and the melodic complexity of the new Renaissance music.

The four-CD Luther collection-Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth (available only from Concordia Publishing House)-features performances by the Concordia Chorale and Musik Ekklesia. It compiles for the first time ever all of the music written by or even attributed to Luther. Except for one of the two renditions of "A Mighty Fortress," a solo in German evocative of Luther's tenor voice, the songs are in English. Some are choral productions, but others are solos and duets. Some are accompanied by organ, and the rest use period instruments-wonderful-sounding strings and recorders.

Interspersed with the songs are readings from Luther on music: how he esteems music as being second only to theology; how all of the arts are gifts from God; how music can help drive away the devil. (Satan, Luther says, is a "sad spirit" and dislikes cheerfulness. When Satan troubles you by depression and despair, Luther recommends, sing a hymn or play an instrument, and say, "Get out, Satan! I am singing and playing to my Lord Christ.")

These CDs show that Luther was not only a great theologian. He was also a great artist.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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