Essay about Throughout History
Throughout history countless scholars, theologians, and musicians have examined the life and impact of Martin Luther, the German reformer from the early 16th-century. The amount of research one finds when searching for Martin Luther is astounding, and is impossible to harness into a single presentation. What is needed is a more concentrated study on a specific aspect of Luther’s life that either has been neglected throughout history, or is in need of a re-examination.
Music has always played a vital part in Luther’s life, as quotes can easily be found describing his thoughts on music and the importance it plays in the life of humanity. To simply research Martin Luther and music would still garner us an impossible amount of material to condense, as Luther, next to his monumental theological impacts due to the Reformation, is also well known as a man who changed the course of liturgical music for the rest of history.
For the sake of brevity, this paper will not attempt to summarize or discuss the impact of the Reformation itself, as there is neither time nor space allowed to do it justice. My concern focuses on a much more specific question within the Reformation and within Luther’s contributions to the church musically and philosophically.
It is commonly understood that Luther’s emphasis on congregational singing within the church changed the way services were structured for the rest of history, and we know how highly Luther regarded music, but the idea I’d like to examine is the connection between Luther’s educational philosophy of teaching music to all youth and the concepts Luther presented that began to evolve within the church in the 1520s that would realign the roles of the choir and the congregation in the mass.
Studies have been done on both topics separately, but by using scholarship from leading scholars Robin Leaver, Joseph Herl, Walter Buszin, and Joe Tarry, to name a few, we will see how Luther’s philosophies on education played a highly impactful role in the way he reformed the liturgy, specifically in the roles of the choir and congregation, and that through music Luther paves the path for the connection of the choir and congregation within the mass. By closely examining Luther’s thoughts on music, his educational philosophies, and his changes in the mass in the 1520s, while at the same time connecting all three concepts, I claim that Luther’s educational philosophy helped shape his hymnody and his decisions on the roles of the choir and congregation with the mass.
Before making any specific connections, it is vital to look at Martin Luther’s life as it pertains to music in general. Without a somewhat basic understanding of Luther’s thoughts on music it would be unwise to make any further claims about the impacts of his liturgical changes. One of the leading scholars on Martin Luther is Robin Leaver, and he has provided the academic world with an immense amount of research, some of which we will use to further answer our question.
Leaver informs us that music had always been a part of Martin Luther’s life, as he was first introduced to vernacular song by hearing them from his parents growing up. Luther’s music abilities were recognized at an early age and at school he received free bed and breakfast from an elderly woman who admired his voice. He became accomplished on the flute and lute and developed a good understanding of the theory of harmonics in regards to the proportions between intervals and monochords.
Much more could be said on the Luther’s upbringing in music, but for our purposes we will leave that to the countless other sources. Because of this strong upbringing in music, Luther formed a most high opinion on music that scholar Walter Bruszin would attempt to exemplify in his article Luther on Music. To take just a couple quotes from Bruszin’s article will be beneficial in gaining insight on Luther’s thoughts on music and how it would influence his educational and liturgical changes. Luther is quoted as saying, “I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.”
This idea of Luther putting worth in music would be further confirmed with quotes such as, “I have always loved music. Those who have mastered this art are made of sound stuff, they are fit for any task.” Furthermore, in what would become one of Luther’s most famous quotes on music, he states, “In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Just by these three quotes alone we can see that Luther held music in the highest regard and it was something he believed should play a role in every person’s life. Perfect sense can be made then when looking into Luther’s educational philosophy and the role music would play.
Luther scholar Joe Tarry has written the definitive article on Luther’s educational philosophy, and we will be drawing much of our content from this piece. As we’ve previously mentioned, music played a huge role in Martin Luther’s life from childhood, and his thoughts on music hold it in the highest regard. This is also evident when we examine Luther’s role of music in education as a whole. Luther wanted education for all, rich or poor, and as part of this education music was to be incorporated into every level. The knowledge of music was of the utmost importance in the education of young people and for Luther, this music education would lead to students become members of Kantorei (church choirs) after leaving school.
This went hand in hand with Luther’s thoughts on how music training was aimed at creating a rich life for the community. In Luther’s mind, a strong focus on music education would produce people “fit for any task” which would eventually allow them to be strong participatory members in their churches. Because of the focus on music in the education of every child, it is safe to assume that Luther’s eventual thoughts on strong congregational participation have direct correlation to his educational philosophies.
Luther believed that music had power to influence human behavior and he saw music as a means of teaching Christian doctrine and ethical concepts through the “skillful wedding of text and music”. This would ultimately culminate in Luther’s later view that education would be the cohesive force that would preserve Reformation theology. We see these educational ideas permeate into Luther’s liturgical reforms and can make a firm connection between the two.
Much has been discussed, argued, and claimed over the roles of the congregation and choir within Luther’s liturgical ideas. Our goal is not to gain a summary of these arguments, but is instead to link Luther’s ideas to the educational philosophies previously mentioned. In the church during Luther’s time, the choir played a vital role in the production of the mass because it was in Latin, and the schoolboys who learned Latin would form the choir to sing those parts. Luther’s first major idea was to have the congregation sing in the vernacular during the mass, that is, in German.
In his Formula Missae et Communionis, Luther also mentions how the choir has taken over parts of the service that were previously done by the congregation. Luther wanted something that the common person would be able to sing, and he drew this idea from his experience with vernacular songs as a child, specifically while he was in cathedral school in Madgeburg in 1497. The common person at the time wouldn’t have known Latin, but instead German would need to be the language of choice if Luther wanted congregation members to be a part of the mass.
I had mentioned at the beginning of this presentation that Luther’s initial introduction to vernacular song was from his parents, and we now see how that influence has become part of Luther’s main liturgical change. However, Luther didn’t want to change the entire mass into German, claiming that keeping certain Latin portions would continue to encourage the young to learn Latin.
These vernacular songs would eventually be called the hymns and chorales of the early Lutheran Church, for which it is famous. Luther had laid out in his first mass, the Formula Missae, where exactly these vernacular songs could be sung by the congregation. Another well known Luther scholar, Joseph Herl, goes into great detail in his book Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, and gives us page upon page of information regarding what hymns were used when and in what mass. Luther wasn’t satisfied with his first liturgical changes, and wanted still more congregational participation.
He wanted to expand congregational singing in the vernacular to the Ordinary, which included the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the Propers. These changes would allow the congregation to become much more involved with the mass, and would bridge the gap between the choir and congregation within the service. It becomes much clearer that Luther’s educational philosophies heavily influenced his initial reforms of the liturgy.
Children who are taught music at a young age would now be contributing members to the church body through the singing of these vernacular parts of the service. Luther would accomplish this change in his German Mass, which presented even more of the mass in the vernacular and each church could design their liturgy with as much German or Latin as they wished, as the parts were interchangeable.
Leaver and Herl present contrasting viewpoints in their books as to when congregational singing became the standard in the post-reformation churches, but one point remains common, which is that Luther wanted much more congregational participation within the mass because he knew the power of music and how it could influence one’s faith. Luther didn’t, however, dissolve the role of the choir within the mass, where in fact he held the choral liturgy and the choral role in high regard. Initially, Luther needed a way for the congregation to learn these vernacular hymns and other parts of the mass, and he would draw on the choir to accomplish this.
There could be a whole other study on these vernacular songs and how Luther compiled them and the methods he used to compose them, but for the sake of our argument we can condense it into a simple statement. Luther wanted these hymns to be sing-able and memorable because he knew singing in the church drives the Word of God home to the singer and their hearers. Luther saw in congregational singing a valuable tool for instilling the Word of God and for giving the people the opportunity to respond in thanksgiving. When taking those thoughts and comparing them with his educational philosophies and thoughts on music, we see the strong connection between all three.
Next to theology, Luther placed music at the highest of importance, and this led to his educational reforms being structured around music being taught at every level. These ideas ultimately culminated in his liturgical reforms being structured around the congregation being involved in more of the mass. The content and practice of Luther and his colleagues was to involve the congregations in partnership with the choir right from the very beginning of the Reformation.
To argue against these claims and connections would be ignorant and irresponsible, as is it is clear with any study of Luther that he held all of these views. Luther didn’t set out to abolish the choir from the liturgy, but instead he sought ways to connect the choir with the congregation so both would play a substantial role in the mass. Through educational and liturgical reform, Luther changed the course of music forever within the church and beyond.