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Effects of the Reformation on Music

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J.S. Bach and the Lutheran Passion Tradition: Assignment One

Write an account of the Reformation and its effects on music.  To what extent are these effects still perceivable today?

On the 31st of October 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, and thus began the Lutheran Reformation.  The theses, which were merely meant as proposed subjects for debate, sparked “a European conflagration of unparalleled violence[1]”.  Copies quickly spread throughout Europe, aided by the recently invented printing press, and caused widespread controversy.  Luther was charged with heresy because of his nonconformist, disrespectful attitude towards the practices of the Catholic Church, particularly the sale of indulgences, and was excommunicated in early 1521.  Luther’s reformation was the first successful reformation and resulted in a branch of the Catholic Church breaking away from the main body and forming what we now refer to as the Protestant Church.  Subsequent reformations, lead by Calvin, Knox et al, divided the Church again, leaving us with the many denominations of Christianity we have today.

Prior to Luther’s protestant reformation “the music found in the church was more of a performance than an act of worship.”[2]   During the period directly before the reformation the Church in continental Europe had adopted a simpler approach to music, although the church music of England remained highly complex and elaborate, however, as a result of the reformation in Germany the attitude towards music in the reformed church changed from one which valued music primarily, if not solely, for its artistic merits, to one that considered music to be an effective medium for carrying text and powerful means by which one could tell a story and convey meaning.  Luther was a great lover of music and highly esteemed it for its beauty 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.... we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace..”[3]

However having witnessed the effectiveness of music at communicating a message Luther exploited music for this purpose in the church.  He was a strong advocate for the use of the vernacular during worship.  In the Roman Catholic tradition worship was carried out in Latin, which meant that many people, the less educated members of society, would be unable to understand, ergo incapable of really gaining anything valuable from their attendance of mass. Luther saw it to be of the utmost importance that everyone could understand and took it upon himself to translate the Bible to enable more people to access the Word of God.  As Bach was a Lutheran this explains why the vast majority of his sacred works are in German, not Latin, as would have been much more common

In the Lutheran tradition music was seen as essential to worship.  Luther was of the opinion that music was something to be revered and had incredible powers over the human soul.  Indeed he believed that after the Bible, and theology itself, music was the most important thing.

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them.... In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits...[4]

He believed that, as music was a gift from God, partaking in musical activities could bring one closer to God, which in turn meant that people could use music as a means to refresh and strengthen their faith.  This was of particular significance in the Lutheran church as they practised a faith based, rather than works based form of Christianity, meaning that they believed salvation could be gained in no way other than through faith, hence Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences.

Luther was also a believer in the ‘universal priesthood’, as opposed to the particular priesthood perpetuated by the Catholic Church.  He saw the singing of congregational hymns as a means by which to demonstrate this as it meant that every member of the congregation was personally involved in the worship, and were all participating as equals.   Many of these chorales, or hymns, were contrafacta of secular songs.  This would have meant that people would already have been familiar with the melodies and able to pick up the hymns easily, making them ideal for congregational singing.  

Jean Calvin followed in the footsteps of Luther, and was one of the next great reformers.  The Calvinist approach to Christianity and Christian living was similar to that of the Lutherans in some respects but there were some notable differences, one of these being their attitude towards music in the church.  In the Lutheran tradition music was an important part of worship, with impressive musical works, for example Bach’s cantatas, taking a central role in the service, however Calvin disallowed the use of musical instruments during worship, saying “to sing the praises of God upon the harp and psaltery unquestionably formed a part of the training of the law and of the service of God under that dispensation of shadows and figures, but they are not now to be used in public thanksgiving... From this it appears that the Papists, as I shall have occasion to show elsewhere, in employing instrumental music cannot be said so much to imitate the practice of God's ancient people as to ape it in a senseless and absurd manner, exhibiting a silly delight in that worship of the Old Testament which was figurative and terminated with the gospel.[5] Furthermore, whilst Luther thought it was important that the words of congregational hymns should closely reflect the words of the Bible; Calvin went further than this declaring that only the precise words found in the scriptures should be sung in church.  He banned the singing of anything other than the psalms, and even then only monophonic singing in unison was permissible.  Calvin’s reasoning behind this was that more complex music distracted from the words, whereas Luther believed that music enhanced the text, aiding in its interpretation.

Other protestant reformers included John Knox, Theodore Beza, and Heinrich Bullinger to name but a few.  There were also a group of ‘counter-reformers’ including Pope Leo X and John Tetzel, Catholics who worked against the protestant reformation.  As a result of the many reformations lead by different people the protestant church is today made up of many denominations each offering a slightly different perspective on the religion.  It is possible to perceive, even until this day, the effects the various reformers had on church music and the music used in worship.  Music is universally acknowledged as being a gift from God, and is used to praise and glorify His name.  While many churches have adopted the congregational hymn derived from the Lutheran choral there are still small communities who practise the Calvinist tradition of singing unaccompanied psalms as the only form of music during their worship.  

By comparing the numerous branches of the Church it is easy to see the effects the reformers have had on religion and the use of music in worship.  We are a long way from the 16th century Catholic Church where only the elite participated in music-making during worship, and when one thinks on the huge difference in the religious practices of now and then it is impossible not to think of the struggle and conflict which it took to bring about these changes.


Barber, John PhD        Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship, Reformed Perspectives Magazine, vol. 8 no. 26, June 25th to July 1st 2006


Kennemur, Amy        Music in the Church: Per-reformation, post-reformation and today, Social Studies Review, autumn 2001


Luther, Martin         as quoted by Rhau, G. in the foreword to Symphoniae iucundae,


Grove Music Online        Reformed and Presbyterian Church Music

[1]History of the Reformation” www.historyworld.net

[2] Kennemur, Social Studies Review, Fall 2001, “Music in the church: Pre-reformation, post-reformation, and today” : 1

[3] Luther, Martin, as quoted by Rhau, G. Symphoniae iucundae, Foreword, “Luther on Music”

[4] Luther, Martin, as quoted by Rhau, G. Symphoniae iucundae, Foreword, “Luther on Music” (Georg Rhau: 1488 – 1548)

[5] As quoted by Barber, John (PhD) in Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship

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