The Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church

October 18, 2022 Marie Greenway

With the celebration of the Reformation rapidly approaching at the end of October, I have been contemplating and admiring the role of music in the Lutheran Church. Music played a significant role in spreading Reformation theology, and it continues to be a strength of our Church today.

Luther and Musicians of the Reformation

Martin Luther famously stated that “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” (AE 53:323). An accomplished amateur musician himself, Luther led the charge of putting music into the mouths of the people. He wrote several hymns that married Christian doctrine to singable tunes of the era like “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB 556), “These Are the Holy Ten Commands” (LSB 581), and, of course, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (LSB 656) among others. These hymns and others like them enabled the rapid spread of Reformation theology as they were sung around Germany. It was clear from the early sixteenth century that music—hymns in particular—would play an important role in the Lutheran Church, especially as the role of congregational singing grew.

Some of the most theologically rich and musically exquisite hymns came from Lutheran German hymnwriters in the years during and following the Reformation. Writers and composers such as Paul Speratus, Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt contributed hymns such as “Salvation unto Us Has Come” (LSB 555), “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” (LSB 395), “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (LSB 516), and numerous others that continued to uphold the role of music and hymns in the Lutheran Church. These hymns were meant to be sung by the congregation so that the words were in their ears, minds, and mouths. It was clear that Lutherans took their music seriously and strove to build on the rich musical tradition of the Church at large, not limiting music’s role as other reformers did.

From Bach to Lutheran Service Book

Indeed, one of the world’s greatest composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, was a Lutheran who composed much of his music for the Church. His works are greatly studied and admired at large today. In my music theory classes at my nonreligiously-affiliated college, we extensively studied Bach chorales to learn the rules of part-writing and harmony in music. Bach’s compositions certainly upheld the incredible Lutheran musical tradition, composing many chorale harmonizations and including hymns as part of his larger works to musically remind congregations of their involvement in properly responding to hearing God’s Word.

The musical works of all of these great men are compiled in our modern hymnal, Lutheran Service Book. Our hymnal’s combination of scholarly work, careful attention to detail, historical insight, and the appropriate wedding of texts and tunes sets it apart as one of the best hymnals in the Christian Church. Although not always used to its fullest extent, Lutheran Service Book offers Lutheran congregations a serious and impressive feast of music of all eras, from early Latin chant to twenty-first-century hymn tunes and texts. It is a true gift to watch the strong Lutheran musical tradition continue today through the use of our hymnal.

Music for Us

The Christian Church celebrates music and boasts a rich musical heritage. The Lutheran Church, though, has taken that musical heritage, greatly expanded it, offered it to the common people, upholds it today, and most importantly, continues that musical heritage as an essential way to hear and proclaim the Word of God. As Lutherans, we see great sacred music not only as a relic of the past—perhaps brought to life in concert halls and great cathedrals as primarily wonderful music with some pretty words—but as preaching the Word. Our music possesses life and strength as we recognize that it offers us more than pleasant noise best suited for choirs, professional musicians, and music connoisseurs. Our music speaks words of life and salvation. And our music is for us.

Sing to the Lord a new song, certainly. And then hear and sing, “Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth” (LSB 656). Our Reformation heritage is not that we offer a sacrifice to God but that He has sacrificed His Son for us. And that gives us reason to sing and make music.

Quotation marked LSB is from Lutheran Service Book, copyright © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

The quotation from Luther’s Works in this publication is from the American edition, vol. 53 © 1965 by Augsburg Fortress, used by permission of the publisher.

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