Noteworthy People in Church Music: Johann Walter

There are numerous historical figures who gave their gifts to Lutheranism and hymnody as a whole. Their contributions to Christianity give us amazing ways to praise God and all that He has given us. One who stands out is Johann Walter, who published the first collection of Lutheran choral music. Read more about his work with Martin Luther, hymn publication, and three hymns that appeared in his book of choral music with an excerpt from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns below.

Who Was Johann Walter?

Composer, poet, teacher, musical collaborator with Martin Luther, and sometimes called the “first cantor of the Lutheran Church,” Johann Walter (also Walther) was born Johann Blanckenmüller in 1496 in a village near Kahla in Thuringia. Due to his poverty, he was adopted by a citizen of Kahla named Walter, and he began using the name Johann Walter as a schoolboy. Early musical training may have come when he was a chorister in Kahla or Rochlitz. As early as 1517, Walter possibly served as bass singer and composer in the Hofkapelle of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony.

In 1525, Luther consulted with Walter on musical issues before the publication of the Deutsche Messe in 1526. Following the death of Elector Frederick in 1525 and the disbanding of the musical establishment, Walter transitioned from courtly to civic employment. He was cantor of the municipal Latin school in Torgau and director of a newly formed Stadtkantorei from 1526 to 1548. In 1532, Walter was granted a house in Torgau and the right of citizenship. In 1535, Walter’s Kantorei was granted an annual endowment. In 1548, the new Elector of Saxony, Maurice (Moritz), engaged Walter as Kapellmeister for the Hofkapelle in Dresden. He remained until 1554, when he retired to Torgau with a pension. Walter died there in 1570, possibly on March 25. In LSB, he is commemorated on April 24 (see LSB, page xii).

Walter’s most important work, Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn, was first published in Wittenberg in 1524. This collection of forty-three pieces for three, four, and five voices was published in five partbooks and was intended primarily for use by church choirs. The first collection of hymns published in Wittenberg, it demonstrated what was already in use in that city’s churches and added new texts and tunes to the repertoire. New editions (with somewhat different titles) appeared in 1525, 1534, 1537, 1544, 1550, and 1551. His music had untold influence on the development of congregational song in Germany and beyond. He is also remembered for numerous other ambitious musical works for four to seven voices, motets, musical Passion settings, and Magnificats.

Featured Hymns from Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn

Christ Jesus Lay in Death's Strong Bands

Lutheran Service Book 458

This hymn is an expansion by Martin Luther (1483-1546) of “Christ is arisen” [which] is a medieval Leise, or folk hymn. Some early sources ended the Leise with “Kyrieleis” (or “Kyrioleis”), others with “alleluia.”

An early manuscript containing the Leise, the Liber Ordinarius of the Salzburg Cathedral chapter from about 1190, describes how the song was used. At the end of the Good Friday liturgy, an image of the Crucified One was placed into the “holy grave” and covered with a linen cloth while the choir sang the responsory “Ecce quomodo moritur justus” (“Behold, thus dies the righteous one”). During the Easter Vigil, the presider of the cathedral cloister went “secretly” with the seniores to the grave and raised the statue or painting of the Crucified One. Then they gave each other the Easter kiss with the words “The Lord is risen indeed.” Then the clerics and the people were called to Matins, at the end of which occurred the visitatio sepulchri, the visit to the empty grave by the three women together with the apostles Peter and John, which was acted out as a play. When the actors playing the apostles pointed to the linen cloths lying in the grave, the choir sang in Latin, “He has risen, as he said.” The congregation responded, “Christ ist erstanden von der Marter alle.” The service then concluded with the Te Deum laudamus. Later sources indicate that the hymn was sung in alternation with the full Easter sequence during the procession to the baptismal font during the Easter Vigil.

Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord

Lutheran Service Book 497

Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” is among several hymns by Martin Luther (1483-1546) that were originally Latin chants. In this case, the original chant is an antiphon for Vespers of the Vigil of Pentecost. 

From this came, in the fifteenth century, a German stanza beginning “Chum, heiliger geist, herre got” (modern spelling “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott”). Luther spoke highly of this German version, remarking, “The hymn ‘Come, Holy Spirit Lord and God’ was composed by the Holy Ghost himself, both words and music.”

Luther improved this German version and added two additional stanzas. His version first appeared in the 1524 Erfurt Enchiridion under the heading “Der gesang Veni sancte spiritus” thus associating the hymn with its original Latin chant. It also appeared the same year in Walter’s Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn. Interestingly, this was one of the few in Walter’s collection that placed the cantus firmus in the uppermost voice (discantus) instead of the tenor, which was typical at that time. 

From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee

Lutheran Service Book 607

This paraphrase of Psalm 130 (which an early source, using the Greek numbering, called Psalm 129) was written by Martin Luther (1483–1546) in 1523 as he was engaged in revising the Latin Mass. In An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (1523), Luther expressed his desire for “as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during Mass, immediately after the Gradual and also after the Sanctus and Agnus Dei.” At the same time, he also wrote to poets and theologians, one of whom was George Spalatin, court chaplain to Frederick the Wise, asking him “to turn a psalm into a hymn as in the enclosed sample of my work.” Presumably the model enclosed was Luther’s “From depths of woe I cry to Thee.”



This early metrical psalm of Luther’s is important to twenty-first-century Lutherans for several reasons: (1) it became one of Luther’s favorite songs, expressing the comfort of the psalm and the hope that is ours in the Gospel; (2) it is a superb explication of the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel and the doctrine of justification by grace through faith; (3) it expresses humanity’s deepest sorrow, and for this reason it was sung at times of mourning. . . and (4) because it is a versification of a penitential psalm, the hymn was commonly used as a catechetical aid to reinforce the meaning of confession as described in Luther’s Small Catechism. 

Blog post adapted from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns © 2019 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Published in honor of the 500th anniversary of Johann Walter's Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn, sing three hymns from the collection "Three Reformation Motets"

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