Musical Principles of the Protestant Reformation

The year 2017 is marked by tributes and celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Five centuries have passed since that momentous and historic Wednesday, October 31, 1517, when a brave and intrepid Augustinian monk, Martín Luther, the greatest hero of the Reformation, affixed with nails on the door of the Church of Wittenberg a simple paper containing his famous 95 theses against the false doctrine of indulgences.

On October 31, Martin Luther shook the very foundation of Christianity, which transformed religion, education, languages, economics, and sciences, breaking the most entrenched paradigms of society; he also taught us to sing with a new meaning—to make music through a new language. That Wednesday changed the world forever.

The Spirit of Prophecy states in relation to the Reformer:

“Foremost among those who were called to lead the church from the darkness of popery into the light of a purer faith, stood Martin Luther. Zealous, ardent, and devoted, knowing no fear but the fear of God, and acknowledging no foundation for religious faith but the Holy Scriptures, Luther was the man for his time; through him God accomplished a great work for the reformation of the church and the enlightenment of the world.”1

“Luther’s teachings attracted the attention of thoughtful minds throughout all Germany. From his sermons and writings issued beams of light which awakened and illuminated thousands. A living faith was taking the place of the dead formalism in which the church had so long been held. The people were daily losing confidence in the superstitions of Romanism. The barriers of prejudice were giving way. The word of God, by which Luther tested every doctrine and every claim, was like a two-edged sword, cutting its way to the hearts of the people. Everywhere there was awakening a desire for spiritual progress. Everywhere was such a hungering and thirsting after righteousness as had not been known for ages. The eyes of the people, so long directed to human rites and earthly mediators, were now turning in penitence and faith to Christ and Him crucified.”2

Luther: musician, singer, and composer

The connection between the Reformer and the music was always deeply intimate. In the times of great challenges and maximum danger to the Reform, Luther revived the weak faith of the church by singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Hearing the inspired stanzas, the gloomy forebodings faded and many sorrowing hearts felt relief.

Luther was a German, a man of the people. His great ability to play the lute with mastery and to sing in a tenor voice was admirable. If there was a specific type of a northern German, music-lover, energetic, with an exalted temperament, although intensely serious, Luther represented that type fully. As a child, before taking his religious vows and the holy orders, Luther had the typical upbringing and full preparation of a German choirboy, and like all other children, sang asking for alms in the processions that were often performed in the city, in weddings, as well as at funerals of local dignitaries. His total dedication to music influenced him in everything, not only in the German liturgy but also in his concept of education in Germany. His life was almost as important to the future of music as it was for the future of religion.

Music and its meaning for Luther

Luther declared that the noble art of music is, as stated in the word of God, the most precious of the earthly treasures. It dominates all thoughts and senses, the heart and the spirit. He explained, “Do you wish to comfort the afflicted, calm the reckless and make him more peaceful? What better than our high, wonderful, beautiful, and noble art? The Holy Spirit regards it in its highest esteem because through it the evil spirit departed from Saul when David made music with his harp. In the same way, when Elisha wanted to prophesy he asked that the harp be played. Therefore, it was not without reason that the church fathers and the prophets always wanted to be intimately connected to the Church and to music, one of the reason why we have so many hymns and so many Psalms today. It is through that precious gift, offered exclusively to human beings, that we are reminded of our duty to always praise and glorify God.”

On other occasions, Luther recommended to his followers to have more hymns so that the people could sing during worship and to accompany all the religious celebrations, following the example of the prophets and church fathers by writing hymns in German for the German people.

In 1538 he declared that when the natural music is perfected and refined through art, we begin to perceive the perfect wisdom of God in His wonderful musical work. When a voice assumes a melody and around it are sung three, four, five, or even more voices, interacting, dialoguing, beautifying, and ornating with exquisite form the original melody—then, he felt, one can hear a preview of heavenly music.

The Protestant hymnal

One of the first publications of Protestantism was a song book. This is overwhelming evidence of the importance attached to music in the reform churches.

The growth of the Protestant hymnal was developed quickly and did not stop with Luther. The best melodies always had a prominent place in the repertoire of the Protestant music. At the same time, new songs were added and many others adapted for the singing of the faithful.

Protestant musical flourishing

Luther and the Protestant Reformation led to such a significant musical development in Germany that this country became the musical center of Europe for many centuries after the Reformation. Great German Protestant composers have been recorded in the history of music through their vast musical legacy.

“During the 17th century, the musical center of Europe passed from Italy to Germany. This change should be attributed to Protestantism. The vigorous growth of music culminating in the creative works of Johann Sebastian Bach, can be explained neither by political history of the Germans nor by its philosophy. It was rather the result of the Lutheran reformation and of the various religious movements that followed in their footsteps. And there are powerful reasons confirming that the great musical development has been the product of Protestantism.”3

It seems that the genius of the music had its wings cut during the Middle Ages. The art of sounds has proved to be a predominantly Protestant one. Protestant piety has found its best expression in the music. The jubilant faith of Luther, his joyful experience of God, his teaching of salvation by grace, made him shout into praises before God, and his feelings could find expression only in music.

After this introduction regarding Luther in the Protestant Reformation and his connection to music, we will take the following paragraphs to study in detail three of the most monumental new music principles that, under Divine Inspiration, would be practiced in the new church: 1) the principle of common singing, 2) the principle of singing in the language of the people, and 3) the principle of development of the musical language and instruments.

The principle of common singing

Before 1517, the Catholic Church was rigidly controlling religious music in Europe. The participation of the common people in the worship was practically nil. In the churches, the majority of the people was limited to listening to Gregorian chants, the official type of music for Catholicism, interpreted with one voice only by monks and sang exclusively in Latin. The participation of instruments in the Church was completely banned.

Luther broke those strict traditions and transformed the participation in Christian musical life, which for him should not be a privilege reserved only to the priests and choirs performed by incomprehensible chants in Latin but it should rather be a part of the common people as “a gift from God.” As such, it should be accessible to everyone. “Embellishing and ornating their melodies in a magnificent way, the singers can lead others to the celestial music,” he said. Singing in Latin was replaced by hymns in the German everyday language, and that had become a key to the identity of the Protestant Church.

From the Protestant Reformation music is also a heritage of the people who worship. In the churches, community choirs, youth choirs, children’s choirs were organized, where absolutely all the faithful—including women—could sing (it is worth remembering that women were always excluded from all religious acts in the Catholic world). These choirs had a very intense participation in the religious life of Protestant communities and were a powerful means of spreading the message. However, choirs were not constituted with the aim of offering concerts of sacred music, but were mainly to accompany the congregation and guide it in singing in all the liturgical acts.

Another profoundly significant musical fact is that in the years immediately after the Protestant Reformation, composers of the Reformation—many of them really famous authors who have been recorded in history for their enormous contribution to the development of musical language—transformed the form of musical writing for choir for a very special reason. Instead of placing the main melody in the voice of the tenor, as was often done until then, they placed it in the voice of the soprano. The reason was that for the congregation, it was truly easier to hear the main melody in the sharp and more obvious record of the choir than to do it on the tenor line. This fact, no less, together with other profound transformations in the language of music, culminated in the prodigious work of Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel, the greatest and most celebrated Protestant composers of all time.

2) The principle of singing in the language of the people

The Protestant Reformation understood that in order for the people to be able to sing, it had to be done in a language that they could understanding. The medieval Latin was replaced by the vernacular languages, the means of communication of the common people.

Luther not only promoted the music for abstract reasons of faith, but he understood his unquestionable power to spread the message. He added original texts to recognizable traditional songs. This method was particularly useful in an era of ignorance since illiteracy in Germany in the 1500’s was about 85% of the population; but they could learn these songs and transmit them very quickly.

As a musician and composer, Luther was personally entrusted with driving such changes, seeking that even children learn music in their own language in schools and working with other reformers to produce Protestant hymnals that communities could use extensively.

In this way, the hymns of Luther were not only comforting to his followers, but it also attracted new converts. This new music spread from city to city before the Catholic authorities could silence it. And also as in other aspects of the Reformation, the printing press was key. The hymns of Luther were multiplied as pamphlets and were taught to whole cities by itinerant singers. Sometimes the hymns worked faster than he dis. In Magdeburg the collective intonation of his songs was able to convert the city even before the arrival of the theologian. Soon the Lutheran hymns came out of Germany, and began to be sung in other Catholic countries, and were even translated into English.

3) The principle of the development of musical language and instruments

Educational theories promoted by Luther and the Reformation were applied throughout Germany, later on in Europe, and eventually to the world which led to a great musical development. “A teacher must know how to sing,” Luther would always say with his characteristic dogmatic vigor. “If you don’t know how to sing, you can’t be one of us. If young people do not study and do not practice music, I would never admit them into the ministry.” For that reason, teachers were generally well-trained in the art of teaching singing and musical elements. The musical foundation that the children received made it possible in many small towns as well as in some larger ones, to form musical societies, choirs, and orchestras.

Even now we still find several musical manuals of the Protestant Reformation as well as post-Reformation times that teach music—including not only singing but also theory and composition. Many of them reveal a remarkable degree of musical quality by their users. Toward 1620 historians describe the life and musical activities in Germany with these words: “Where there is not an organ, vocal music is accompanied by five or six stringed instruments, some of which were not even known in those cities before the Reformation.”

Therefore, we can affirm without question, that the Protestant Reformation was the most important historical factor in the development of musical language as we know it today. The creation of parochial music schools, where children and young people could study from their earliest age, produced a valuable advance in the history of music. Encouragement was given to the creation of new compositions, explorations of new sound resources. The paradigm of Gregorian modal music was broken in order to consolidate the tonal system of major and minor scales that continues to the present day.

In the process of exploration of new sound resources, a great development in the engineering of the construction of musical instruments was also propitious. Recall that the use of these had been outlawed, with the exception of the organ, in the religious music of Catholicism. The Protestant Church strongly encouraged and motivated the learning, interpretation and construction of new instruments. In this way the instruments were modernized to adopt the forms that persist until today. And other new instruments were also created. This impulse in the interpretation of musical instruments, produced as a happy result the formation of parochial orchestras of music that reached an outstanding technical level, being able to give life to the famous Cantatas, Oratories and Passions of Bach and Händel, for example.

Luther’s music continued to be popular after his death. While Catholicism would continue focusing on visual representations of the Divinity through paintings and sculptures, Protestantism embraced the music. Later on, Protestant composers also made versions to their hymns. Johann Sebastian Bach extended the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” into a magnificent 30-minute cantata, while Felix Mendelssohn added it to his Symphony No. 5, known appropriately as the “Reformation” symphony.

To remember

The Protestant Reformation broke many of the traditions of the day, establishing new music principles which would guide the artistic future of the churches until today.

  • Music and singing are a means of converting souls to God and serve as a powerful missionary agent.
  • Music is not a privilege of a chosen few. If possible, it should be interpreted by the whole congregation, without distinction as to gender, age, or social status.
  • The music should be interpreted in a language that is of easy understanding for everyone.
  • The participation of the choir and orchestra have as a main objective to guide and encourage the participation of all the faithful in the act of worship.
  • Congregational singing should be of simple melody and not have sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic development, so that it allows the correct comprehension of the message by all listeners.
  • Musical instruments are welcome in the act of worship. Be inventive in shaping orchestras and various ensembles for the accompaniment of worship music.
  • Efforts are being made to the musical education of children and youth in the church. Thus were born the parochial schools of music.
  • The Protestant art and music are primarily aimed at the human mind, seeking to impress it with the truth. It should not appeal to the senses, or to the fantasy, neither is it intended to fascinate.
  • In Protestant music there is no place for display of virtuosity. The song addresses God as a community expression.

Music Principles of the Reformation as found in the Spirit of Prophecy

In closing, it is important that we consider some quotes which reaffirm these musical principles from the reformation as applicable guidelines for our churches today:

“[Music] is one of the most effective means of impressing the heart with spiritual truth. How often to the soul hard-pressed and ready to despair, memory recalls some word of God’s—the long-forgotten burden of a childhood song—and temptations lose their power, life takes on new meaning and new purpose, and courage and gladness are imparted to other souls!”4

“Music forms a part of God’s worship in the courts above. We should endeavor in our songs of praise to approach as nearly as possible to the harmony of the heavenly choirs. . . . Those who make singing a part of divine worship should select hymns with music appropriate to the occasion, not funeral notes, but cheerful, yet solemn melodies.”5

“The value of song as a means of education should never be lost sight of. Let there be singing in the home, of songs that are sweet and pure, and there will be fewer words of censure and more of cheerfulness and hope and joy. Let there be singing in the school, and the pupils will be drawn closer to God, to their teachers, and to one another.

“As a part of religious service, singing is as much an act of worship as is prayer. Indeed, many a song is prayer. If the child is taught to realize this, he will think more of the meaning of the words he sings and will be more susceptible to their power.

“In the meetings held, let a number be chosen to take part in the song service. And let the singing be accompanied with musical instruments skilfully handled. We are not to oppose the use of instrumental music in our work. This part of the service is to be carefully conducted; for it is the praise of God in song. The singing is not always to be done by a few. As often as possible, let the entire congregation join.”6

“As our Redeemer leads us to the threshold of the Infinite, flushed with the glory of God, we may catch the themes of praise and thanksgiving from the heavenly choir round about the throne; and as the echo of the angels’ song is awakened in our earthly homes, hearts will be drawn closer to the heavenly singers. Heaven’s communion begins on earth. We learn here the keynote of its praise.”7

  1. The Great Controversy, 120.
  2. Ibid, p. 133.
  3. Paul Nettl. From Luther to Bach, p. 7
  4. Education, 168.
  5. Evangelism, 507.
  6. Ibid, pp. 507, 508.
  7. Education, 168.















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