[Skip to Content]

25 August 2017

Singing in the changes

Singing in the changes

The Reformation wasn't only about the written word, but it was also about song, as Rosie Dawson - senior producer for BBC Religion (Radio) found out.

Two eager Americans approached me outside the Marienkirche in Wittenberg, inviting me to sing Luther’s most famous hymn in the church in which he preached. I duly entered with 20 or so others and sang lustily about God’s victory over the Prince of Darkness. Another box to tick off on the Reformation trail.

I was in Germany this year for BBC Radio 3’s Reformation season, re-acquainting myself with the Reformation timeline of my A level studies. I photographed the door of the Castle church on which Luther nailed his 95 Theses. I bought a pair of the famous Luther socks with “here I stand” on them – words he spoke before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms. I peered at the wall in the Wartburg castle, trying to make out the stain from when he hurled his inkpot at the devil.

Scholars now question whether any of these events actually took place, but it doesn’t really matter. Myth or reality, they all point to Luther as a man who, through uncompromising word and action, turned Europe upside down.

But one aspect of this Reformation was overlooked in my sixth form studies. At the level of the people the Reformation was a singing revolution. Without music it’s unlikely that Luther’s novel ideas and practices could ever have taken hold.

“Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world,” wrote Luther. “It drives out the devil and makes the people cheerful.” As a choirboy in Eisenach and an Augustinian friar Luther would have been immersed in Catholic liturgy and music. But it was sung by the choir, not the people.

The distinctive hallmark of the German Reformation was the introduction of congregational singing and, although there was some resistance to this innovation, within 50 years the change that had taken place was summed up in a famous phrase Saxonia cantate - “all of Saxony sings”.

The small group of Reformers who met in Wittenberg throughout the 1520s included Johann Walther. He compiled the earliest

Lutheran hymnbook with Luther, published in 1524. Together they wrote the German Messe. Walther was the court musician in nearby Torgau and a school teacher. Four hours of music were taught in Lutheran schools every week. Their choirs practiced hymns and motets for Sunday services. And so music was embedded in the lives of a new generation.

The preface to a hymn book published in Frankfurt in the late 16th century speaks of Saxony as “a land of milk and honey in its music making – here young and old folks, educated and simple, rich and poor come together to sing together in praise of the Lord”.

Luther’s own hymns are with us still. They come to us most famously in the magnificent chorales of J S Bach. It’s no coincidence that Bach’s musical genius – like that of Pachabel, Telemann and Handel – flourished in the corner of Germany where the Reformation was born, and where it took root because Martin Luther realised the potential of music to speak to the deepest spiritual longings and experience of the heart as it still does today.

The Radio 3 documentary A Square Dance In Heaven is available on BBC iplayer. 

Permissions: Articles published in idea may be reproduced only with permission from the Editor and must carry a credit line indicating first publication in idea. About idea Magazine
For advertising details please contact Candy O'Donovan - c.odonovan@eauk.org or 020 7520 3846