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The Heritage of Music during the Reformation

This blog post has been adapted from an article that appears in Lutheranism 101: third edition.

The Reformation was still young in 1524. Barely seven years had passed since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses. His German translation of the New Testament had only appeared two years before. His Small and Large Catechisms wouldn’t come for another five years.

But two important books came out that year that would shape and influence the course of music in the Lutheran church. Early 1524 saw the publication of the first Lutheran hymnal, which served as the model for subsequent Lutheran text writers. And toward the end of 1524, Johann Walter published a collection of music that would similarly influence Lutheran composers for the next five hundred years.

Origins of the Lutheran Hymnal

The first Lutheran hymnal was nicknamed the “Achtliederbuch” (or “eight-hymn book”), but it was barely a book. It was only twenty-four pages and had—you guessed it—eight hymns. The first hymn in the book was Martin Luther’s own “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB 556). It still stands as a shining example of what Lutheran hymnody is all about. The singing congregation proclaims to one another our lost condition and need for a savior and also the Good News that God sent His Son to rescue us. The hymn teaches the details of salvation’s story and puts words of praise for those saving deeds on the lips of the singers. Luther does all this in ten stanzas, but his words are not dry and lifeless. The hymn is full of vibrant, rich imagery, using language that makes the message personal and vital.

Moreover, the book was designed for the average person, not for the scholar, priest, or even the choir singer. If you could read German, this book was for you. The hymns could be learned, memorized, and sung time and again at home, in the marketplace, and even in church. The melodies were robust, well-crafted, and memorable. And the book also included Scripture references for some hymns, showing the clear connection between God’s Word and the words and content of the hymns.

Second Lutheran Hymnal

The other 1524 publication was not intended for the average consumer. Johann Walter’s Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn (or “Spiritual Song Booklet”) was no “booklet” but a set of five partbooks printed expressly for choirs. While it was typical at the time to have choral music based on pre-existing tunes (such as Gregorian chant), this first Lutheran choir collection used the new chorale (hymn) tunes instead. The chorale tune was usually found in the tenor part with the other voices supporting and adorning it, like a jewel in a filigree setting.

The new hymn texts became quickly and firmly fixed in the minds and ears of the people with the chorale tunes. When you read the hymn text, you thought of the chorale tune. When you heard the chorale tune, you thought of the hymn text. And now choirs could be singing the texts and tunes in traditional musical settings as well. This close reliance and interdependency of the three—hymn texts, chorale tunes, and supporting music—would become a hallmark of Lutheran music.

Emergence of Lutheran Hymnwriters

Martin Luther wrote nearly forty hymns, which included many features and types of hymns that would become characteristic of Lutheran hymns in general. There were hymns paraphrasing Scripture, hymns for liturgical use, hymns for the Church Year, and catechism hymns. It is important to remember, though, that Martin Luther did not invent hymn singing or even the idea of congregations singing hymns in the vernacular. These practices, in some form or another, were already happening before Luther came on the scene. What he did do was encourage the creation and use of vernacular hymns and wrote many himself.

Luther also gave his highest support to other hymnwriters and composers, and they joined him in the task of providing hymns for the church even from the start. For example, the second hymn in the “Achtliederbuch” was “Salvation unto Us Has Come” (LSB 555) by Paul Speratus. The next generation of Lutheran hymnwriters included Philipp Nicolai. His two hymns, “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (LSB 516) and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” (LSB 395), are still Lutheran favorites, known today as the king and queen of chorales.

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


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