by Andrea Valentino, BBC NEWS, 24 May 2017
… Before 1517, the Catholic Church controlled most religious music in Europe. Lay participation was minimal. In church, most people only heard austere plainchant, sung in Latin by a choir. Passion plays – rowdy dramas describing biblical stories – introduced religious ideas to people in their own languages. But by the 16th Century, these plays had often slumped into an excuse for slapstick humour. And anyway, vernacular music rarely crossed the church threshold.
Luther shattered these strict divisions, and transformed Christian musical life. For him, religious music was not just for remote priests and choirs. Instead, it was “next to theology” and a “gift from God”. As such, it should be accessible to everyone. After all, he wrote, “by embellishing and ornamenting their tunes in wonderful ways, [singers could] lead others into a heavenly dance.” Anyone who disagreed “deserved to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!”
Luther scrabbled to develop these ideas as fiercely as he did his thoughts on the Pope or the evils of indulgences (where time in purgatory could be slashed in return for a handy payment to the local priest). Latin chanting was dumped in favour of communal singing in everyday German. This style soon became a key part of his followers’ identity. “Luther’s use of German hymns was an important sign of change,” explains Andreas Loewe, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and Luther expert. “It was just as obvious as having married clergy, or being able to receive a cup of wine at Holy Communion as a lay person.”
About 85% of the German population in 1500 was illiterate
Not that Luther promoted music just for abstract reasons of faith. He well understood how powerful music was in spreading his message. Like the best modern protest songs, his hymns were catchy and punchy. He added religious lyrics to recognisable folk songs, just as We Shall Overcome hatched from an old southern Gospel song. This was especially useful in an ignorant age. Even illiterate people – about 85% of the German population in 1500 – could learn songs and pass them on quickly.
Music as message
Luther himself pushed these changes along. He encouraged children to learn music at school, and worked with other reformers to produce Protestant hymnbooks. Luther also wrote lyrics that “imitated the way people spoke,” says Loewe. Luther himself stated that both music and lyrics should “grow out of the true mother tongue.” Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) is typical of his rousing simplicity:
Our God is a mighty fortress,
A trusty shield and weapon!