Music in Lutheran Worship

by Balint Karosi

In sharp contrast to radical reformers such as Calvin and particularly Zwingli, Martin Luther regarded music as essential to evangelical worship. He wrote, “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Luther was a singer, accomplished performer on the lute, and composed some of the greatest hymns of the Reformation. In addition to his more than seventy ascertainable hymns, he also composed simple polyphonic settings of hymn tunes, chants and secular melodies. He maintained regular correspondence with some of the greatest musicians of his time, such as Josquin des Prez and Johann Walter. His views on music, and his influence on shaping evangelical reformed worship have been discussed in great detail in Robin A. Leaver’s book on Luther’s liturgical music.[1]


Among the many reforms Luther introduced to evangelical liturgy, arguably his most significant musical influence was in shaping vernacular hymnody. Luther and his followers wrote hymns with strophic lyrics, set to singable melodies that often mimicked German folk tunes. He also modified and paraphrased Gregorian chants to accommodate vernacular strophic texts.[2] Luther regarded hymns as quintessential instruments to convey Lutheran doctrines to laymen and laywomen in a form they could remember, teach to each other and apply to their lives. An example of this is Christopher Boyd Brown’s account of Joachimstahl, a Lutheran village in the sixteenth-century.[3] Brown provides a compelling study of the role of the Lutheran chorale in forming and preserving the community’s Lutheran identity amid the persecution of Lutherans during the Counter-Reformation era. Lutherans sang hymns on the streets, in their homes, and in churches and schools as they taught their children and counseled one another in difficult times.


Much more than liturgical decoration, music played an essential part of evangelical worship. In the Catholic tradition, the words of the Mass were recited by the priest or sung by the choir in Latin, the words of evangelical worship were to be loudly proclaimed and sung by every member of the congregation. Music in worship also represented the Reformation’s three Solae: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura Sola Gratia. The texts for Luther’s hymns are especially representative of these three categories. Faith-based hymns such as Paul Speratus’ beautiful Es ist das Heil kommen her represents Sola Fide, catechetical hymns such as Dies sind the Heiligen Zehen Gebot served to educate about the Law of the commandments, whereas the Allein Gott is a representative of Sola Gratia, thanksgiving for God’s Grace. Music in Lutheran liturgy thus served the multi-faceted role of proclaiming the Christian Faith, educating about the scriptures and giving thanks to God for Salvation that is freely given to all.


As liturgy became vernacular, the art of speech, or rhetoric, also became increasingly important. From the mid-sixteenth till the eighteenth century, rhetoric was central to education across Europe and particularly in Germany. Rhetoric was taught in every Lateinschule and served as the basis for cultured speech, persuasion and organization of thoughts. Rhetorical patterns were applied to all aspects of evangelical worship as well; sermons, hymns and instrumental music were composed with rhetorical patterns in mind. Rhetorical figures or Figurenlehre constituted an important trend in music theory in seventeenth-century Germany that influenced such composers as Heinrich Schütz, Franz Tunder, Johann Adam Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude. The Stilus Fantasticus organ preludes by Tunder and Buxtehude followed rhetorical patterns. These improvisatory works might have been written-out improvisations echoing some rhetoric of the sermon of the day. Lutheran organists in the late seventeenth century were “preaching” from the organ loft, using formulae that appealed to rhetorically-minded listeners of the time.


The Reformation also made the music of the Church accessible to all for the first time in western history; hymns were not only sung at the church but also at home. Lutheran families used hymns in their daily devotions and informal musical gatherings, called Hausmusik. As church music migrated outside of the walls of the Church, secular music also continued to infiltrate the House of God. Subscription concert series, such as the Abendmusik series in Lübeck offered musical entertainment, funded by the city’s wealthiest patrons.  Thus music also transformed churches into communal, artistic and performances venues.


Although congregational singing with organ accompaniment was not common practice until the early eighteenth century, communal music making in Lutheran worship became a symbol for social and economic equity for the emerging democratic bourgeoisie, especially in affluent German cities such as Hamburg and Lübeck. Festival worship services became increasingly musical in step with the growing economic independence of these cities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These lavishly musical worship services offered the full spectrum of all musical trends of the time, combining stile antico polyphony with the newest Italianate concerted music, strophic choral antiphons, congregational hymns, virtuosic organ interludes, versicles and psalms.[4] Cantors in large cities often had dual appointment by the church and the city council, which raised their expectations for both a meaningful worship experience and for excellent musical entertainment.


The duties of Lutheran Cantor at high-profile churches were usually divided between providing music for worship services and also for some of the main musical offerings of the city. In addition to the weekly cantatas at St Thomas and St. Nicholas, J. S. Bach was in charge of many secular performances such as for birthdays of visiting royalty. Besides the many musical tasks and projects J. S. Bach successfully managed at Leipzig, he advertised these events via his subscription bulletins and raised extra cash for various music-related expenses. These bulletins included the printed texts of upcoming cantata performances, and were regularly distributed to paying customers. Bach’s church services lasted about three hours, with a one-hour long sermon and over one hour worth of music that attracted church members and visitors alike.


Luther’s contribution to Western music is way beyond his musical output. He emancipated sacred music as much as the Christian Faith itself, and helped it become a monumental beacon of evangelism and of strengthening the faith and community of the Evangelical Church. The music of great Lutheran composers, especially that of J. S. Bach, continues to define and shape Lutheran identity across the centuries and all nations.

Find out more at First Lutheran Church of Boston’s website

[1] Robin A . Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music (CambridgeL Lutheran Quarterly Books, 2007).

[2] One example is Luther’s versification of the Victimae Paschali as Christ lag in Todesbanden.

[3] Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[4] See our reconstructed Praetorius Organvespers for the 2014 AGO National Conference in Boston.


1 Comment
  1. Steve Bartley 5 years ago

    Looking to learn about 20th century Lutheran choral music. Was there a tradition of choral writing which is parallel to that of the Anglican/Episcopal church traditions? In other words are there counterparst to Leo Sowerby, Herbert Howells, Bairstow, and Sumsion?

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