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Music Lessons from the Reformation

It’s my privilege to be joined in this special conversation with Dr. Markus Rathey, the Robert S. Tangeman Professor in the Practice of Music History at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, in New Haven, CT. It is a privilege not only for Markus’ expertise in this area but also because he was one of my own advisors and mentors during my time at Yale Divinity and the ISM. Markus joins our conversation here at Centered in Song—a blog of the Center for Congregational Song—to enlighten us on the experience of church music and musicians at the time of Luther’s Reformation as we mark this 500th Anniversary.

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.



Adam: Over the last year, many have been writing about the lasting influences of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and many musically-inclined friends have reflected on the changes in music making that parallel changes in preaching, bible reading, etc. Let’s start there. Tell us about the Reformation in music. Is music as central as we like to believe when we sing “A Mighty Fortress” together? 

Markus: It is probably less essential than most musicians and those who do music and theology want to imagine. The reason for the Reformation was, of course, the question of Justification and the struggle over indulgences. The musical side of the Reformation came later. If you just look at the timeline, the Reformation starts on October 31, 1517, and Luther starts publishing his hymns in 1523—so there is already a gap of six years.

And if you look at Luther’s liturgical reforms, first in the Latin Mass and later with the German Mass, again the reform of the Latin Mass happens much earlier than the German Mass (in 1526), and only then does hymnody become an integral part of the liturgy.  A similar phenomenon happens when musicians talk about the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation. They talk about the myth of abolishing polyphonic music altogether, and the idea that Palestrina saved church music. First of all, it didn’t happen that way, but also the music-related session took place toward the end of the Council—and you have essentially two sentences that talk about music. So I think as musicians, our perspective is a little bit skewed, and music wasn’t actually as essential to the theological discourse as we want it to be, especially early on. I will add that in the popular discourse of ordinary people, however, music was more important because it is where they encountered the doctrine, internalizing it by singing and memorizing it. This would have been happening in 1524/5 with the publication of the larger collections such as Johann Walter’s Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn.


Adam: You teach a class called Music and Theology in the 16th Century (which I had the privilege of taking, Fall 2013) and study Lutheran church music in the 17th and 18th centuries—what do you find is commonly misunderstood about music and the Reformation?

Markus: Two things in particular. First, one we talked about a little already: the idea that music was so central for the Reformation. The reformations don’t start with music—though music does become very important later on, once the theological ideas have been established. Second, we often forget that music in the Reformation was not so much about taste or personal preferences but the theology of music, and the broader theology of the different reformers were intimately connected. For Zwingli, influenced by Erasmus’ Neo-Platonism, rejecting music comes from broader rejection of the physical world. For Luther, music is pre-lapsarian, that is, part of the good, divinely created world that comes directly from God. Thus we can and should use music. Calvin is in-between. He definitely understands the power of music, but he also sees its dangerous potential (very similar to St. Augustine more than 1000 years before him). Therefore, music must be harnessed by asking composers to create new melodies for the Genevan Psalter—an attempt to exclude other musical references—while sticking to the pure, biblical texts. The other feature for Calvin is to not allow instruments in corporate worship.


Adam: The way we often think of Luther seems to me to be more similar to the Romantic-era musical titans than anything else—sort of one übermann against the powers of the world. Is Luther really the jack-of-all-trades instigator, preacher, translator, theologian, composer, grass-roots organizer, etc. that we make him out to be? 

Markus: Luther did have a lot of skills. As a preacher and rhetorician, a theologian, a poet, and author of some of the early hymn melodies—though it’s a bit unclear how many were written by Luther because he collaborated so much with Johann Walter. He’s not a Josquin-level composer, but they are good, beautiful melodies. But music was also an important part of his life. He played the lute, liked to sing; he sang with his family and friends, and music was an important part of his private life, and he appreciated the power of music.


Adam: Who is the typical church musician? How would musical changes of the Reformation have affected their lives and work? 

Markus: The job of a church musician in the 16th century is very different than it would be today. The cantor would be the main church musician responsible for church music and conducts the boy choir who provides vocal music for the service. The organist is often a musician with other duties, including some outside the church. The cantor is also part of the school system, where he would teach the choir boys to sing, preparing them for the Sunday service, so the school system and the liturgical duties on Sunday morning are closely connected. Essential to understanding the life of the church musician is that he was a music teacher at the school.


Adam: How does this system develop

Markus: Luther already talks about reforming the school systems in the 1520s and 30s, collaborating with Melanchthon—one of his other sidekicks. The reform of the schools was a very important part of the Reformation because in order to read and understand the Bible, to go back to the sources (ad fontes), you have to teach kids to read. You need an educational system.


Adam: What was the role of music in the educational system—how did it differ between contexts?

Markus: Luther once said he wouldn’t accept a teacher if he wasn’t able to sing; musical skill was a basic qualification for a teacher. So if you have smaller, poorer schools, the schoolteacher would teach everything, including music. The boys in that school might not be very skilled but would still be able to sing the hymns in unison on Sunday morning. In more affluent urban schools with more skilled singers, the school would have a Cantor who gives music lessons and conducts the choir, and the boys would be able to sing polyphony. The school system leads directly to congregational singing in the liturgy.


Adam: How long did it take for this vernacular singing to get established alongside the vernacular liturgy?

Markus: The common assumption is that Luther came and said, ‘Okay, now we have to celebrate the liturgy in the vernacular; let’s get rid of all this old Latin.’ This is not the case at all. Even after Luther develops the German Mass, the primary liturgy at the major churches is still in Latin (with the exception of the sermon, of course, and some other parts of the liturgy). The second type of service, for the lesser-educated people, was the service in the vernacular. Within the vernacular liturgy, the vernacular hymns played a large part. But we also have to remember that singing the hymns was something one also did at home. For domestic piety, vernacular hymns were even more important. The boys came back from school where they learned these hymns and taught their parents how to sing them. So to say, through the kids, the music teacher also had a strong impact on the families.


Adam: What are some lessons you think the church today can learn from studying and understanding music in the Reformation?


  1. Start early—teach kids! You can’t have a functioning church choir if your people don’t know how to sing! You can’t expect to have a good worship band if you have kids who can barely play an instrument. For any kind of music, teach them how to sing and make music. This is especially important since our public school systems often don’t have good music programs or are being cut altogether. And even if you want to teach the parents, the best way to do it is to do it through the kids.
  2. Understand our task as church musicians is not only to be administrators of tradition, but teachers of all ages.
  3. When you make liturgical changes, consider your congregation. Like with Luther’s introduction of German Mass, there are some changes you might like to make, but you shouldn’t because it will confuse or upset your parishioners. Your ideas about any reform and change must be taken pastorally, with love for the congregation. If you can’t do it in a way that is acceptable to them, you should think twice whether the change is really necessary.



Adam: Now that we’re excited about this history, what books should we go read?


Let me begin with a recommendation that doesn’t primarily deal with music but that gives a great overview of the Reformation(s) in general. It was written by my Yale colleague Carlos Eire, Reformations. The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale Univ. Press 2016). For readers who are interested in the history of congregational singing in Luther’s Wittenberg, I recommend Robin Leaver’s new book The Whole Church Sings. Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg (Eerdmans 2017); and for a broader overview of the theological and liturgical contexts of his musical ideas, Leaver’s Luther’s Liturgical Music. Principles and Implications (Eerdmans, 2007).