Luther: Composer and Musician
Martin Luther was recognized as a gifted singer and accomplished lutist. He was even referred to as the The Wittenberg Nightingale (see NOTES).
He sang with several choral groups as a boy, including the Chorus Musicus of the church of St. George in Eisenach, Germany. In addition to studying theology at the University of Erfurt, Luther studied music and counterpoint (the technique of writing a melody in conjunction with another).
According to an official German site for celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Martin Luther complained that “only the choir of clerics sings and responds when the bishop blesses the bread or holds Mass… [And] foresaw the need for “German songs for the people to sing during Mass.” (see NOTES about this source)
Martin Luther brought the congregation back into worship. Instead of watching all the ceremony at the front of the church and listening to music in Latin, Luther wrote music in German for his people to participate in celebrating God and His salvation. The first Lutheran hymnal was published in 1524; the second edition contained 18 hymns penned by Luther.
Luther also recognized the importance of incorporating scriptural truth into his hymns and songs. Many might argue that Luther’s legacy through music may be one of his most influential as the Reformation spread partly through song and, today, his hymns are sung by Christians around the world. (I’ll cover this topic more in next week’s post.)
Martin Luther wrote:
Experience testifies that, after the Word of God, music alone deserves to be celebrated as mistress and queen of the emotions of the human heart…. And by these emotions men are controlled and often swept away as by their lords. A greater praise of music than this we cannot conceive. For if you want to revive the sad, startle the jovial, encourage the despairing, humble the conceited, pacify the raving, mollify the hate-filled—and who is able to enumerate all the lords of the human heart, I mean the emotions of the heart and the urges which incite a man to all virtues and vices?—what can you find that is more efficacious than music?
Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora
In looking for a music video for today’s post, I found a re-enactment of Martin Luther playing the lute and his wife, Katie, singing. I liked this particular video because it takes you back in time, seeing (and hearing) what people, places and instruments were like. Katharina von Bora, a former nun, was 26 years old, Luther 41, when they married on June 13, 1525, before witnesses.
The video is a mini history lesson, too:
- 0:00 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (an edict warning of excommunication) against Luther
- 0:46 Prince Frederick III protected Luther, hiding him in Wartburg Castle
- 1:15 While in hiding, Martin Luther translated the entire New Testament into German
- 1:35 Katharina is a nun in a cloister who hears of Luther’s teachings
- 3:25 Responding to their appeal, Luther arranged for twelve nuns to be smuggled out
- 8:10 Martin and Katie’s public celebration of their marriage was held June 27th, 1525
- 8:28 The rest of the video gives various examples of music of their time
The posts in this series, celebrating Martin Luther’s Musical Legacy
On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. I’m using the five Sundays of October 2017 to celebrate Luther’s five centuries of influence through music.
- Part 1 – Luther’s Thoughts on Music and the Word of God
- Part 2 – Luther: Composer and Musician
- Part 3 – Luther on Music and Children
- Part 4 – Luther: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
- Part 5 – Luther and Bach
- Learn more about Martin and Katie on this podcast from 5 Minutes in Church History. The Luthers made a huge impact on marriage and family.
- Much of the material for this post comes from an article, Luther as a Musician: Protest Songs and the Singing of Psalms, on the official German site for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517. I was surprised to learn that many of the early Reformation songs were not just used for worship, but as protest songs and also to spread the message of the Reformation movement.
- Read Christianity Today’s The Bible Translation that Rocked the World to understand the impact of Luther’s German Bible.
- The quote can be found on the site, Puritan Board on “Luther Quotes on Music,” WA 50. p. 371f; What Luther Says 2, pp. 982–983. I found the quote in The Legacy of Luther, p. 256.
- Learn more about the origins of “The Wittenberg Nightingale” in this article from The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.
- The image is from paintings done of Martin and Katie and is a screenshot taken from another Musick’s Monument video. Musick’s Monument recreates other people and places, such as Rembrandt, using footage from his home in Amsterdam.