Martin Luther 1483-1546

Martin Luther was born at Eisleben, on St Martin’s Eve, November 10, 1483.

It was after his departure from the Wartburg, March 22, 1522, that Luther began to occupy himself with projects for the reform of the services of the Church, among which his alterations in the musical parts of the Mass led to such great results. There is ample evidence that German hymns were sung during the service before Luther’s alterations; but if not the actual founder, there is no doubt that he was the establisher of congregational singing.

The musical part of the Mass had grown to an inordinate length; accordingly, in his first “Formula Missae” (1523), Luther objects to the singing of long graduals, and recommends that the choice of certain hymns should be left to the priest. The Reformer had long cherished the idea of a German Mass, and during the latter part of the year 1524 he was occupied with arranging that service. In order to help him in themusical part of his work, he summoned to Wittenberg two able musicians, Conrad Rupf, Capellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, and Johann Walther, Cantor at the Court of Frederick the Wise at Torgau. To the latter we are indebted for much information about Luther as a musician. He says that at this time he stayed with Luther at Wittenberg for three weeks, and that the Reformer himself set to music several Gospels and Epistles and the words of consecration, inventing the tunes on his flute, while Walther notes them down.

Luther used also to discuss the eight Church Tones; giving the Ep9istle to the 8th tone, and the Gospel to the 6th. ‘For,’ said he, Christ is a gentle Lord, and His words are lovely; therefore let us take the 6th tone for the Gospel; and since St. Paul is a grave apostle, we will set the Epistle to the 8th tone.’

The result of these labors was the publication of the “Order of the German Mass,” which contained the following alterations. Instead of the introit there was ordered to be sung a hymn or German psalm (“Ich will den Herrn loben,” or “Menie Seele soll sich ruhmen”). Then followed the Kyrie Eleison, sung three times (instead of nine). After the Collect and Epistle a German hymn (“Nun bitten wir den heilgen Geist,” or another) was sung, and after the Gospel, instead of the Latin Creed, the German (“Wir glauben all”). The sermon then followed, and after this a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, and the Exhortation to Communicants. After the Consecration, was sung “Jesaia dem Propheten,” Huss’s hymn “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland,” or “CHriste, du Lamm Gottes.” This form of service was first used on Christmas Day, 1524, in the parish church of Wittenberg, but it was not published until the following year.

It is evident that while introducing a more popular element into the music of the Mass, Luther did not despise the singing of a trained choir. In the “Vernahnung zum Gebet wider den Turken” (1541) he says: “I rejoice to let the 79th Psalm, “O God, the heathen are come,” be sung as usual, one choir after another. Accordingly, let one sweet voiced boy step before the desk in his choir and sing alone the antiphon or sentence “Donime, ne secundum,” and after him let another boy sing the other sentence, “Domine, ne memineris”; and then let the whole choir sing on their knees, “Adjuva nos, Deus,” just as it was in the Popish Fasts, for it sounds and looks very devotional.” At the same time that he was engaged in arranging the German Mass, Luther was turning his attention to writing and adapting hymns to be sung during the service.

In 1524 he wrote to his friend, George Spalatin, “I wish, after the example of the prophets and ancient fathers of the church, to make German psalms for the people, that is to say, sacred hymns, so that the word of God may dwell among the people by means of song also.”

In the same year (1524) the first Protestant hymn book appeared: “Etlich christliche Lyeder Lobgesang und Psalm dem reinen Wort Gottes gemess auss der h. gschrift durch mancherlay Hochgelerter gemacht, in der Kirchen zu singen, wie es den zum tail bereyt zu Wittenburg in yebung ist. Wittenburg 1524.”

It is not certain whether Luther actually arranged this book; it contains only eight hymns (four of which are by him), and five tunes. During the same year several other collections appeared, and their number increased so rapidly that space forbid the insertion of a list of even those that were published during Luther’s lifetime. Scattered through these different collections there is a great difficulty in deciding what hymns are really Luther’s, and what are merely adaptations.

The immediate popularity which these early Protestant hymns attained was immense; they were taught in the schools, and carried through the country by wandering scholars, until his enemies declared that Luther had destroyed more souls by his hymns than by his writings and speeches.

On June 11, 1525, Luther was married to Catherine von Bora, formerly a nun at Nimptsch in Saxony. This marriage proved a most happy connection, and the letters of his friends abound with descriptions of the domestic felicity to which it gave rise.

After supper he used to sing motets and hymns with his children and friends, his favorite composers being Senfl and Josquin des Pres, the works of the latter of whom he particularly admired. Luther possessed a fine deep voice, and played both the flute and lute, the latter so well as to attract the attention of passers-by as he journeyed to Worms.

It has been said that he wrote motets himself, but there is no proof of this, and it is probably a mistake arising from the existence, in the Munich Library, of a collection of motets with a preface by the Reformer.

In 1538 Luther wrote a short treatise in praise of music; a poem by him on the same subject.

The latter years of Luther’s life were principally spent at Wittenberg, but he died as Eisleben, on February 18, 1546. He was buried in the Schloss-Kirche at Wittenberg; his greatest hymn, “Ein feste Burg,” being sung over his grave.