When the Church was reformed starting in 1517, so was its music. For nearly 800 years, the prevailing style had been Latin Gregorian chant. Most Germans knew no Latin, and so the long church services were, to them, often detached and inscrutable. “They would sit quietly and essentially observe the priesthood conducting the liturgy,” says Jeff Held, CUI’s assistant dean of arts and sciences and director of orchestral activities. “There wasn’t a lot for the congregation to do. Sixteenth-century Germans were struggling to understand and internalize the true Gospel message.”
When the Reformation erupted, religious music began to connect with the people perhaps more profoundly than at any time since the days of the Early Church. "Martin Luther saw music as a powerful means for people to hear and keep the Word of God in their minds, so after he revised the Latin service, removing non- biblical elements, he turned his sights on a German service,” says Held. “But the German words did not fit well with music composed for Latin chant, nor was the music conducive to congregational song. So Luther and his colleagues translated the service into German and wrote new melodies that were easier to sing and learn.”
At that time in history, music played an important mnemonic role because books were so scarce, and most people were not literate. For example, minstrels traveled from town to town singing the news of what was happening in other towns. Luther patterned some of his congregational hymns after the melodies sung by these folk musicians.
The Reformation “expressed itself in song,” says Steve Mueller, dean of Christ College, “but it wasn’t revolutionary. Luther simply used the gift of music to communicate. That was done all the way back in Old Testament times and in earlier Christian eras. It’s a way to help people memorize and express their faith.”
Herb Geisler, who is retiring after serving 29 years as professor and director of music education at CUI and Christ College Irvine, agrees that “the revolutionary aspect was that music became such a centerpiece. There were German hymns before Luther. There were folk songs.” But Luther and those who followed him recaptured the understanding of how powerfully music expresses faith and theology.
Luther “infused theology into melodies that people would remember,” says Held. “The melodies were so well-crafted that they could serve as the basis for more complicated choral settings or stand on their own without any accompaniment.”
But there is no evidence that Luther ever used a melody from a drinking song, as the popular myth goes, says Mueller. What Luther sometimes did was to take older melodies or texts and update them.
Martin Luther saw music as a powerful means for people to hear and keep the word of God.
“For example, there was a popular song about the Lord’s Supper which he took and rewrote to make it more appropriate and substantial,” says Mueller. “It’s his hymn ‘O Lord We Praise You.’”
Luther wrote 38 hymns, including hymn paraphrases of various parts of the liturgy, and hymns teaching each part of the catechism. His most famous is “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a paraphrase of Psalm 46.
Over the decades that followed, the use and impact of music increased and deepened. In post-Reformation schools, the boys “sang hymns based on Christian doctrine daily,” says Held. Those who followed Luther continued to write new hymn texts and tunes.
When hymn books became available, many people took them home and memorized them, says Geisler. This had a great impact on their knowledge of theology and Scripture because “the hymns were often 12 or 13 stanzas long, they were so developed.”
But other Protestant churches were slower to embrace music so enthusiastically. In Luther’s day, the Calvinists and Zwinglians, forebears of other Protestant churches, thought music should be simple, like singing biblical Psalms put to a basic rhythm, or not used in worship at all.
Lutherans were distinctive in the Reformation era because of the vibrant attitudes Luther and his friends had about the important role of music in church worship
says Geisler. “Calvin believed in finding good hymn writers to give the Psalms a metric form which was clear and singable. But congregational singing and four-part settings were the limit of how he thought music should be in the church.”
Despite these misgivings, Luther’s concept of more vibrant musical expressions were eventually adopted in many Protestant churches. In the 1700s, Lutheran church music reached one of its pinnacles with the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, who happened to attend the same school as Luther had in Eisenach, Germany. Bach wrote twenty- minute cantatas based on the reading of the day for three years of Sundays.
“This follows the tradition Luther started of having deliberate attachment of music and the proclamation of God’s Word,” Held says. “In Bach’s music, there is deep piety and emotion, but always a meaningful account of Law and Gospel. These are some of the greatest musical masterpieces any human has ever created, and Bach did it in the name of Jesus.”
This emphasis on connecting words with music continues today, Held says. When playing trumpet in a church service, for example, he studies the words of the hymn and matches the inclusion of his instrument and his melodic style to the text.
“That’s a very Lutheran way of doing music,” he says.
“Lutheran musicians want to work closely with the pastors, know what the readings are, and pick supporting music.
It’s not just about doing a piece of sacred music we like. A unified proclamation of the Gospel is what is important in worship, and this is why Luther afforded music such a high role in worship next to the Word. He understood its edifying powers.”
Every era has had some kind of growth in choral and instrumental congregational musical life. Geisler points to the modern songwriter Keith Getty as an example of someone who continues to connect music and theology.
“Getty’s melodies are beautiful and interesting, and the lyrics are theologically intense,” Geisler says. He expresses the Gospel in beautiful, concise terms. “They are stanzas that develop thought. You learn theology through those hymns, just as you did with Lutheran songs through the ages.”
Another modern example is Carl Schalk, a leading scholar in hymnody and one of Geisler’s professors, who trained his students in a wide variety of styles, including plain chant, modern folk style, chorale, five-part renaissance and more.
“Schalk was a true Lutheran church music leader because he taught us everything,” Geisler says. CUI awarded Schalk an honorary doctorate in May 2017. Concordia has honored other hymnwriters with honorary doctorates including the Rev. Dr. Jaroslav Vajda and the Rev. Dr. Steven Starke.
Even closer to home, Mueller and other CUI faculty regularly write hymns for special occasions, or for use in Christian worship. Mueller’s new hymn, “Christ Alone, the World’s Redeemer,” was written for general use in celebration of the quincentennial of the Reformation. Alumna Katherine Dubke ’15 and professor Carol McDaniel also have written a number of hymns.
“There’s satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped give people words they can use in their worship to God,” says Mueller.
Now, as then, music connects people with God’s Word.