december 2011


Pleasures of Music

In Praise of Music

'The devil does not stay where music is'

By Martin Luther

Martin Luther not only exerted a powerful influence on religious and cultural life in the 16th Century. Luther also revolutionized music (then dominated by the Church) in his time. Essentially, the modern Christian hymn was created by Luther with the assistance of coworkers in order to bring the message of the Scriptures home to congregations.

Luther was an ardent music lover who played the lute, flute, and sang with an accurate if not very powerful tenor voice. After his challenge to Pope Leo ("95 Theses"), during his enforced hiding in the Wartburg Castle, Luther completed his German vernacular translation of the New Testament in 1521. He returned to Wittenberg, overseeing mass publication of this work (the Old Testament was completed in succeeding years). By 1523 Luther had translated parts of the Latin Mass into German ("Deudsche Messe"). He also composed melodies and limited harmonizations for these German translations, but recognized that these could not have the same effect as new works conceived in German (he referred to his efforts as somewhat mechanical, "as though done by apes," a typical bit of self-deprecating humor). So he composed new hymn texts, providing about half with melodies (the exact number is still controversial), then brought in a skilled professional musician, Johann Walther, to harmonize them and urged his friends to compose new hymns. The first congregational hymn book, "Geystliche Gesangkbuchlein," was already brought out in a mass printing in 1524. This hymn book was commissioned by Luther in four-part harmony "in order to give the young men something in place of their drinking and fleshly songs." In other words, from now on the congregation members themselves were to participate musically in the church service; young would-be pastors were not accepted for training before they could demonstrate musical competence.

Just as the mass publications of the Bible for individual study brought about expansion of literacy in the Reformation areas (which at first included France, Netherlands, Poland and Hungary, besides Scandinavia), so did the mass distribution of hymnbooks foster musical literacy among all strata of society. Congregational part singing retained its hold even in areas that were subsequently won back to the Roman Catholic Church, such as Bavaria.

Luther exerted other powerful musical influences: opening up the use of instruments as well as melodies of all origins in church music, and careful matching of music to simple and understandable texts (instead of the polyphonic music and often interwoven Latin texts previously characteristic of the church services.) Thus was born the relatively short and pungent thematic construction of German music, in contrast with the longer more cantabile Italian lines and the complex Russian melodic structures. Luther remained musically active to the end. One year before he died Luther supervised and wrote the introduction to Johann Walther’s hymnbook of 1545. In "In Praise of Music," from his collection Table Talk and Letters (1530-1541), Luther explains why "music is one of the greatests gifts God has given us."

‘In Peace and Joy I Now Depart,’ hymn by Martin Luther

Music is one of the greatest gifts God has given us: it is divine and therefore Satan is its enemy. For with its aid many dire temptations are overcome: the devil does not stay where music is.

Music is among the highest of the arts: its sounds bring the words of a text to life. It puts to flight all sad thoughts, as we see happened to Saul. (1)

Many of our courtiers would boast of saving our overlord the three thousand florins a year that the spends on music; but they squander in other ways three times as much. Music must be supported by the king and the princes, for the maintenance of the arts is their duty no less than the maintenance of the laws. Private citizens, however much they may love art, cannot afford to support it. Duke George, landgrave of Hesse, and John Frederic, elector of Saxony, have had a full complement of musicians, vocal and instrumental; and now the Duke of Bavaria, the Emperor Ferdinand, and the Emperor Charles are doing the same.(2)

After a concert in his own house, December 17, 1538
If God gives us such boons in this life, which is but a vale of trials and tears, what will it be like hereafter!

Singing is a noble art and a good exercise. It has nothing to do with worldly affairs, with the strife of the market place and the rivalries of the court. The singer fears no evil; he forgets all worry and is happy…

I have always been very fond of music. I would not change my little knowledge of music for a great deal. Whoever is proficient in this art is a good man, fit for all other things. Hence it is absolutely necessary to have it taught in the schools. A schoolmaster must know how to sing or I shan’t tolerate him. Nor must one ordain young fellows into the priesthood unless they have learned and practiced the art during their schooling.

In fact, I want all the arts, but especially music, dedicated to the service of Him who has created and given them to us. The Christian religion is a religion of joyousness, for God has through his Son made our hearts joyful. Anyone who truly believes this cannot help saying it and singing it with gladness. … Anyone who won’t say it an sing it shows that the doesn’t really believe it.

To Ludwig Senfl (3), Court musician of Bavaria, asking for a musical setting:

My love of music has made me overcome any fear I might have of being rebuffed by you on your seeing at the bottom of this request a name which is doubtless odious to you. The same devotion and faith in music makes me hope at the same time that correspondence with me will not involve you in trouble or vexations. The Grand Turk himself could not make the request of a letter on this subject a matter of discredit to you. Except for theology, there is no art that can be placed in comparison with music.


1. Allusion to I Samuel 16:23

2.Ferdinand, Charles V’s brother, colleague and successor to the Empire.

3.(?-1555); composer of a famous imitative piece, ‘Kling-Klang’
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