Music Evolving through the Reformation

This blog post has been adapted from an article that appears in Lutheranism 101: Third Edition. Read the first part of the article here.

Lutheran hymn writing flourished in the seventeenth century, and standing highest among the writers of that time is Paul Gerhardt. His hymns exhibit solid Lutheran doctrine and superb poetic skill, but they are beloved because of their warmth of tone and natural, personal language. “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (LSB 449/450) is a stirring passion hymn with words the singer can so effortlessly make his or her own. Gerhardt’s hymns are there at Baptisms (“All Christians Who Have Been Baptized,” LSB 596) and at bedtime (“Now Rest beneath Night’s Shadow,” LSB 880), during the Church Year (“A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” LSB 438) and when we need comfort (“Entrust Your Days and Burdens,” LSB 754). Other important Lutheran hymnwriters include Johann Heermann (“O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken,” LSB 439), Johann Franck (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness,” LSB 636), Johann Olearius (“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People,” LSB 347), and Erdmann Neumeister (“God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It,LSB 594).

Lutheran Hymns in German and English

While all these examples were originally written in German, Lutheran hymns could be found in other languages as well. But it wasn’t until the twentieth century that Lutheran hymns originally written in English finally came into their own. Among the prominent American Lutheran hymnwriters are Martin Franzmann (“Thy Strong Word,” LSB 578), Jaroslav J. Vajda (“Go, My Children, with My Blessing,” LSB 922), Herman G. Stuempfle Jr. (“Voices Raised to You We Offer,” LSB 795), and Stephen P. Starke (“The Tree of Life,” LSB 561). These hymns exhibit the same characteristics as the hymns in the “Achtliederbuch” (or “eight-hymn book,” the first Lutheran hymnal): they flow out of the existing tradition, are well-crafted, and proclaim the Good News.

Johann Walter’s 1524 choir collection similarly displayed some of the key features of Lutheran music: a close connection between words and music, the prominence of the chorale tune, and the expanding role of a choir supporting and leading congregational singing. Yet neither Walter nor Martin Luther invented a new style of church music. These compositions were firmly rooted in the existing practices of the time.

The Evolution of Hymn Tunes

Succeeding composers provided new chorale tunes as well as new musical settings. As European music evolved, Lutheran music did too, adding organ and other instruments to the mix. And while the chorale tune was a significant aspect of early Lutheran music, it was never the only aspect. From the start, Lutheran music might also use texts from sources other than hymns, such as scriptural or liturgical texts, sometimes still in Latin.

As it did with hymnwriters, the seventeenth century produced an abundance of Lutheran composers. Chief among them was Heinrich Schütz, who studied with the best musicians and composers of his time. He wrote significant works for choir and instruments, most of which centered around liturgical and scriptural texts. As demonstrated in his passion settings and works based on the Psalms of David, his mastery of musically interpreting and proclaiming the text was unparalleled. His influence reached far beyond Lutheran music. Another influential Lutheran musician was composer and theorist Michael Praetorius (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” LSB 359).

Bach and Mendelssohn

Standing at the summit of Lutheran musicians is Johann Sebastian Bach. His organ works and church cantatas, typically based on chorales and tied closely to the liturgical year, display technical brilliance, creative genius, and perfection of the art. He spent a lifetime carefully studying the best of the music he inherited and that of his contemporaries. He understood and was sensitive to the texts he set in his music, which in turn proclaimed and even preached those texts. His passion settings and Mass in B Minor alone are enough to place him among the premier artists of Western civilization.

Nineteenth-century composer Felix Mendelssohn, known better for his symphonies and solo piano works, also wrote enduring Lutheran music (“Grant Peace, We Pray, in Mercy, Lord” LSB 777). Noteworthy twentieth-century Lutheran composers include Hugo Distler (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”), Jan O. Bender (“O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth,” LSB 834), Paul Manz (“E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come”), Richard Hillert (“This Is the Feast,” LSB, p. 155), and Carl F. Schalk (“Now the Silence,” LSB 910).

Lutheran Hymns in the Modern Age

Modern Lutheran composers receive and continue the heritage that began even before 1524. They are the recipients of a tradition of musical excellence that learns and draws from the best of what came before and of what others are now producing. Through diligent study, ongoing practice, and careful work, they offer new music that goes hand in hand with the hymnic, scriptural, and liturgical texts of the church. The heritage remains one of hymnwriter, composer, and people together singing their proclamation and praise.

Blog post adapted from Lutheranism 101: Third Edition copyright © 2021 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. 

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