Martin Luther and music

Luther is regarded as the Father of the Reformation and although he preached on the necessity of returning to a biblical Christian faith he also supported music. He himself played the lute and flute. He wrote in a letter of 1530:

I really believe, nor am I ashamed to assert, that next to theology there is no art equal to music.

The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Preserved Smith, pp 346-347, New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc. 1911, 1968

He saw the importance of music in education and ministry so much that he also said:

A schoolmaster must be able to sing, or I will not look at him; nor should one admit young men to the ministry unless they have practiced and studied music at school.

Luther and Music, Paul Nettl, translated by Frida Best and Ralph Wood, p. 34, Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1948

Luther trained up missionaries to use their musical gift for spreading the gospel through contemporary tunes of his day. Many church leaders of his time saw the value of this, and in Bohemia some of the brethren there wrote a letter to Frederick III of Saxony in 1574, saying:

Our melodies have been adapted from secular songs, and foreigners have at times objected. But our singers have taken into consideration the fact that the people are more easily persuaded to accept truth by songs whose melodies are well known to them.

Luther and Music, Nettl, p. 29

Not surprisingly this angered many in the Roman Catholic Church of that time who saw this as worldliness invading the church. For example the great scholar, Erasmus, was disturbed about the large numbers of people flocking to church because they wanted to be entertained rather than to follow after Christ:

We have brought into our churches certain operose and theatrical music; such a confused, disorderly chattering of some words, as I hardly think was ever heard in any of the Grecian or Roman theatres. The church rings with the noise of trumpets, pipes and dulcimers; and human voices strive to bear their part with them… Men run to church as to a theatre, to have the ears tickled.

(C. Kurtees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, p.190, 1911; 1950 reprint)

It must be remembered however, that Luther was only doing what the Church Fathers had done before when Ephraim, the great leader of Syria (AD 303-373), copied the musical structure for church hymns from the Gnostics whose musical style had such an impact on the general population, or Hilary of Poitiers (AD 300-368), who wrote Christian hymns in the style of the Arians in order to spread the gospel.

The foundation of Luther in the German Reformation was vital for the encouragement of the great Protestant composers like Bach, Handel, Mendelssohn and Brahms in the centuries to come. In Germany and Austria the Roman Catholic Church also got behind composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. Such a flowering of beautiful music came with the support of both denominations and became a blessing to the world.