In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Martin Luther

  • Introduction

Music Martin Luther
Alexander Fisher
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0220


More than any other theologian or religious reformer, Martin Luther (b. 1483–d. 1546) shaped the course of modern Western music history in profound ways. His influence was felt keenly not only by contemporaries such as Johann Walter and Ludwig Senfl, but also by many later generations of musicians, including Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schütz, Dieterich Buxtehude, and Johann Sebastian Bach. This is attributable above all to the prominent role accorded to music in Luther’s vision of Christian worship, a consequence in part of his own musical background and proclivities. Once an Augustinian friar with deep experience in the tradition of Latin plainchant, Luther developed a keen appreciation for polyphonic music as well. During his career as a reformer Luther collaborated with musicians like Johann Walter (b. 1496–d. 1570), who composed the earliest polyphonic settings of evangelical hymns (1524), and maintained a lively correspondence with the Bavarian chapelmaster Ludwig Senfl (b. c. 1486–d. c. 1543), with whom he exchanged compositions. A connoisseur of polyphony, he prized the compositions of Josquin des Prez above all others. Luther is known to have regularly performed music in his own household, and praised music as a fount of spiritual recreation and consolation. More profoundly, music was critical to Luther’s theological vision: he regarded music as a divine creation and gift, a vehicle for spontaneous thanksgiving for God’s grace, and a medium for popular inspiration and edification. This view contrasted markedly with that of other contemporary reformers like Andreas Karlstadt, Ulrich Zwingli, and Jean Calvin, all of whom were more fearful of music’s potentially seductive and distracting potential. Luther’s initial motivation was not to establish a separate church, even if his condemnation at the Diet of Worms (1521) and subsequent official persecution eventually forced his hand. This means that Luther’s liturgical vision was a conservative one, dispensing only with those elements of the Mass that were antithetical to his vision of justification by faith alone (rather than through clerical mediation) and scriptural authority. The essential framework of the Latin Mass remained in place, with a substantial retention of plainchant: indeed, the prominence of the Latin chant tradition in the Lutheran tradition remains understudied even in the early 21st century. Nevertheless, from an early stage Luther made clear that he desired congregations to participate in the divine service through singing, one aspect of his broader effort to deconstruct the venerable barriers between the priesthood and the laity. Luther was not the only reformer of his time to propose a vernacular Mass, but his Deudsche Messe of 1525 was particularly influential as a framework. By 1529 the first full-blown hymnals sanctioned by Luther began to appear, and were printed and circulated with ever-greater frequency in the later 16th century and beyond. The Lutheran song repertory was built largely out of preexisting elements: Latin liturgical plainchant, German devotional songs, and Latin cantiones for the Easter and Christmas seasons were among the melodic sources for Luther and his collaborators. Although many of these tunes were likely known to early Lutheran congregations, it took time for them to adapt to the practice of congregational singing; visitation and other records show its uneven adoption, and in the urban churches the increasing role of trained choirs had the effect of marginalizing congregational participation. Indeed Luther’s embrace of polyphony created the necessary space for active and sophisticated musical traditions to develop in churches that could field trained singers, choirboys, instruments, and organs. In cities like Nuremberg, Augsburg, Dresden, and Leipzig, to name only a few examples, vibrant traditions of church music developed that featured a mixture of vernacular song, Latin chant, and elaborate polyphonic music with voices and instruments, a rich and varied practice that persisted into the Baroque era and beyond.

Luther’s Musical Background, Philosophy, and Theology

An understanding of Lutheran music begins with the reformer himself, whose musical proclivities in combination with his theological vision guaranteed a prominent role for musical culture in the emerging faith. The materials presented in this section provide mostly concise overviews of Luther’s musical achievement, including his musical background, his theological vision for music, and a conspectus of the Lutheran musical tradition. While the older literature remains useful, the reader will generally be well served by recent articles on Luther in Grove Music Online (Leaver 2001) and in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Stalmann 2004). More detailed studies of Luther’s musical appreciation and of the position of music in his theological vision appear in the subheadings Luther’s Musical Appreciation and Music and Lutheran Theology.

  • Abert, Hermann. Luther und die Musik. Wittenberg, Germany: Verlag der Luther-Gesellschaft, 1924.

    Based on a lecture delivered for the Luther-Gesellschaft in 1924, Abert’s essay is one of the earliest surveys of Luther’s musical thinking from the standpoint of a dedicated hymnologist, and seeks to move beyond earlier, more tendentious accounts of Luther’s contributions to church music.

  • Anton, Karl. Luther und die Musik. 4th ed. Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1957.

    A slim summary, originally published in 1916 for the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, of Luther’s biography as a musician and musical connoisseur, together with transcriptions of manuscript and printed statements by Luther on music.

  • Blankenburg, Walter. “Luther und die Musik.” Luther: Mitteilungen der Luther-Gesellschaft 28 (1957): 14–27.

    A concise introduction to major themes in Luther’s relationship to music, focusing on his vision of music’s relationship to the Creation (i.e., music as a donum Dei), to theology, and to the proclamation of the Word. The theological underpinnings of Luther’s musical philosophy are particularly emphasized.

  • Guicharrousse, Hubert. Les musiques de Luther. Geneva, Switzerland: Labor et Fides, 1995.

    A general survey of Luther’s philosophy of music and musical achievements, divided into three large sections devoted to Luther’s musical background and influences from the medieval speculative tradition; to Luther’s theology of music; and to Luther’s efforts to fashion new forms of liturgical music and to plant music firmly into an educational scheme. Rather than being a compilation of Luther’s statements regarding music, the book situates music within Luther’s life experience and theological vision.

  • Leaver, Robin. “Luther, Martin.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrell. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Available online by subscription. A relatively recent and authoritative overview of Luther’s biography and musical significance, written by the English-speaking world’s leading scholar of Lutheran music. In addition to general discussions of Luther’s life and musical works, the article contains a detailed listing of hymns written and/or adapted by Luther and his colleague Johannes Walter, as well as Luther’s writings on music and liturgy. A bibliography of essential scholarship through the year 1997 is included.

  • Leaver, Robin A. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2007.

    A comprehensive collection of Leaver’s authoritative work on Lutheran church music, including versions of earlier published scholarship and unpublished conference papers; new material includes a thorough introduction to the topic as well as chapters on “Luther as Musician” (see Leaver 2007, cited under Luther’s Musical Appreciation) and “Luther’s Theological Understanding of Music” (see Leaver 2007, cited under Music and Lutheran Theology). Large sections of the book are given over to catechetical aspects of various Lutheran chorales, to hermeneutics and pedagogy, to the Lutheran adaptation of traditional genres of Latin chant, and to Luther’s musical legacy for later periods.

  • Nettl, Paul. Luther and Music. Translated by Frida Best and Ralph Wood. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1948.

    A broad overview of Lutheran music from the 16th to the 18th century, written for a general readership. Offers a highly teleological account culminating with the Passion settings of J. S. Bach.

  • Robinson-Hammerstein, Helga. “The Lutheran Reformation and Its Music.” In The Transmission of Ideas in the Lutheran Reformation. By Helga Robinson-Hammerstein, 141–171. Dublin, Ireland: Irish Academic Press, 1989.

    An essay focusing on the potential of music as a vehicle for transmitting the Lutheran message. Examines Luther’s humanistic understanding of music’s affective power, and draws contrasts with the musical philosophies of Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer. Stresses the importance of contrafacture and the adaptation of popular folksong in the spread of Lutheran ideas.

  • Stalmann, Joachim. “Luther, Martin.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, Personenteil 11, col. 636–654. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2004.

    Available online by subscription. An authoritative and concise overview in German of Luther’s life and musical achievement. Following a biographical sketch and a listing of Luther’s hymns and other works, Stalmann provides discussions of Luther’s revision to the liturgy, his attitude toward the arts generally, his activities as a songsmith, his positive assessment of music and connoisseurship, and the role of music in the life of the church. Concludes with an extensive bibliography reaching roughly to the year 2000.

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