Music in the Reformation

Luther and Calvin’s Contributions to Music in the Vernacular

Dan Koblitz | Contributing Writer for RWM | Linkedin

Although the Reformation of the 1500s enacted numerous dramatic changes in Christianity, perhaps none were more important than those accomplished in music. Worship music in the pre-Reformation era that had been dominated by the Catholic Church was now introduced to common people using vernacular translations of works produced and compiled by Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. The introduction of the Word into Reformation worship by these reformers transformed the lives of ordinary people making commoners active participants in a divine worship that penetrated the home as well as church services.

Music played an important role in the medieval period preceding the Reformation as it impacted Christian liturgical and devotional practices. These practices included the worship of the clergy as well as votive performances and “communal singing by associations of lay people.”[1] The clergy generally were required to memorize the Psalms for worship[2] while motets were created for the laity. Motets created by composers such as Machaut of France, however, exemplified the synthesis of secular and sacred texts,[3] which created music that was not necessarily personally or spiritually edifying, but were more directed at issues of the times such as war. Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, however, introduced the Word into music and made these works available in the vernacular allowing common people to enjoy the transformational benefits of Christian music.

Luther was a well accomplished musician who is quoted as stating “music I have always loved.”[4] His family’s musical background may have also contributed to his fondness of music as he wrote in 1535 how his mother loved to sing and his father advised “one should avoid the intoxication of drink and instead rejoice and sing.”[5] Like most other students at Luther’s Mansfield, England school, a place the family moved to from his birthplace of Eisleben, Luther took part in musical activities such as learning hymns and Psalms. He was later sent to study at Magdeburg and then Eisenach, where his musical skills were probably developed.[6] By 1501 at the age of 18, Luther’s musical accomplishments at Erfurt University had “significantly progressed beyond the rudimentary.”[7] His time as a monk beginning in 1505 exposed Luther to daily practice of Gregorian chants and other musical elements, and on a trip to Rome in 1510, he was appalled at the spiritually deprived mass led by the Italian priests.[8]

Luther was not alone in his feeling of disdain towards the Catholic Church as pre-Reformation dissenters such as John Wycliffe also felt contempt for the Church’s actions. Wycliffe was vehemently against the practice of indulgences, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and its proposed right to papal supremacy.[9] He also believed, as Luther did later, that the Word should be heard in the common peoples’ native tongue.[10] Wycliffe thought the songs of the day invited “jollity and pride” and referred to members of the church choir as “lecherous rascals” who perform services “so that no one can hear the words, and all the others are dumb and watch like fools.”[11] After Wycliffe’s death in 1384, others such as John Hus led a reformation of sorts in Bohemia only to be executed in 1415 for his beliefs. These precursors to Luther eventually led the Augustinian monk to challenge the Catholic Church head on when he nailed his famous ninety-five theses on the church at Wittenburg Castle on October 31, 1517. Not only did Luther begin the major movement of the Reformation that challenged many of the Catholic Church’s beliefs, he also freed music from the domination of the Roman Catholic Church.[12]

Luther believed that “next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise” as it was “a governesss of human emotions.”[13] He also believed that parishioners benefitted tremendously from listening to the Word of God in church and also when “uniting as a congregation to offer thanksgiving in song.”[14] Luther, in regards to the Latin Mass, is quoted as stating the “priest reads secretly the evil parts of the Mass” and “whatever is publicly sung by the choir or the multitude is essentially a good thing and a hymn of praise.”[15] This communal song, the reformer believed, preserves “Christians from the secret Mass so that they don’t hear such an abomination” and allows “the clergymen [to] torment themselves with their own abomination.”[16] Luther, however, did not seek to abolish the Catholic Mass structure of the time, which for the most part excluded congregational participation. Instead, Luther proposed a “double solution” for the problem of congregational involvement.[17]

Luther’s solution suggested the Latin Mass be used in cathedrals and abbeys where solemnity was suitable and the “majority of the participants understood the language.”[18] Contrary, the German Mass was to benefit the local parish church where songs and readings were to be in the “language that everyone could understand.”[19] The basis of the music was the Gregorian chant while polyphony, which had also merged secular and sacred music in the Catholic Church to the dismay of the Reformers, could be used in the German Mass for certain parts of the liturgies including the ceremonial “elevation of the host.”[20] The difference, however, between the Catholic and German Mass was the latter’s corporate act that involved the congregation. The German Mass was also distinct as the music was to contain the Word and be written in the vernacular.

Luther held on to the Latin language for a short time because “true poets” were needed to fit the music into German and the use of Latin in services was useful for teaching young people that particular language.[21] However, the demand for the vernacular was strong and Luther, along with some associates, breached the artificial barrier between the clergy and common folk by composing “two dozen songs for congregational singing in the winter of 1523-24.”[22] His first hymnbook titled Geystliche Gesangbuchlein was published in 1524[23] to help fulfill his desire for German hymns to be sung in place of the Catholic Church’s “Gradual, …Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei.”[24] In January of 1526, the composer published his Deutshe Messe und Gottis dienstes, a guide for church services on Sundays and Holy Days that also contained instructions for the Lord’s Prayer, the collection, and week-day services for youth and schoolboys.[25]

As related through his writings, Luther believed that music was “a creature of God.”[26] His love of music stems from his belief that it is a gift from God, brings about “happy spirits,” repels the devil, and causes “innocent joy.”[27] As Paul states in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from what is heard,” Luther believed music could be utilized to “enhance the proclamation of the Word of God.”[28] Between the years 1520 and 1530, Luther composed twenty-seven of his thirty-six hymns that were to be sung in church. Luther believed that spirited singing of hymns could open the hearts and minds of the participants to the Word of God.[29] Luther and colleagues Philip Melanchthon and Johann Walter encouraged the singing of these chorales both in church and in Lutheran schools for spiritual edification.[30] The chorales reached German cities through vehicles such as Lutheran students, whom he believed “should and must be trained in music,”[31] singing in the streets and in front of homes to earn extra money.[32] Eventually, the printing press allowed for a less expensive and practical method for the chorales and hymns to reach homes creating a means for common folk to be transformed by God’s Word and message of salvation. Luther also believed the Psalms were important, stating to a friend he intended to make “German Psalms” so that the “Word of God…may live among the people.”[33] In fact, Luther’s famous hymn “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) is based on Psalm 46.[34]

Perhaps no other theologian, however, utilized the Psalms more than John Calvin to incorporate the Word into song and worship to transform lives. John Calvin was born on July 10, 1509, at Noyon in Northern France.[35] At the age of fourteen, he entered the University of Paris and earned a Master in arts in 1528 before his father, a notary public and secretary to a bishop, insisted that he obtain a law degree.[36] While studying law at Bourges and then under the “great philologists” Guillaume Bude and Desiderius Erasmus in Paris, Calvin learned the importance of the Greek and Latin languages for obtaining the “genuine meaning” of texts,[37] a practice he later used in the exposition of Scripture. After two brief prison stints with fellow Protestants in 1534 while still in France, Calvin surfaced in Basel, Switzerland, in 1536 where he wrote his influential book titled the Institutes of Christian Living,[38] which included direction for church order and worship. During this time, Calvin was also influenced by Luther, with whom he shared similar beliefs such as man’s dependence on God’s grace for salvation, but with whom he also differed. Calvin was more legalistic than the German reformer, with this surfacing in his vision of church order and church music.[39]

Author John Barber states that while Luther wanted worship songs to adhere as closely as possible to the ideas expressed in the Bible, Calvin desired the exact wording of Scriptural passages, especially those found in the Psalms.[40] It has also been said that Calvin’s idea of a church service was “four bare walls and a sermon.”[41] However, Calvin knew the importance of song as a tool to “recreate humans and bring them delight” and regarded music as a “gift given by God” as Luther did.[42] Similar to Luther, Calvin felt that music was a “form of prayer” and could be used for edification of the congregation.[43] He also believed the Psalms were the best choice for worship because they were “divinely inspired.”[44] Perhaps Calvin’s most noted contribution to Christian worship was the Genevan Psalter.

While on course to Strasbourg in 1536, Calvin was derailed by war and landed in Geneva where he came into contact with Guillaume Farel, a rambunctious Protestant who played a large role in the city’s reformation movement.[45] However, while establishing a “strict religious-moral” disciplined society, Calvin and Farel clashed with the city council and were banished from the city.[46] From Geneva, Calvin went to Strasbourg where he came to know Martin Bucer, a Strasbourg reformer who would not allow Calvin to go into hiding.[47] Bucer, who compared Calvin’s desire to flee God’s calling to Jonah’s, became a great influence on Calvin’s ministry development.[48] From Bucer, whom Calvin viewed as “his father in the ministry,” Calvin learned how to “order the polity and worship of the church.”[49] During Calvin’s “Strasbourg Interlude”[50] from 1539 to 1541, as it has been termed, the Strasbourg Psalter was formed before its publishing in 1542. This collection included 18 Psalms, 6 translated into French by Calvin and 12 using the texts of Clement Marot, “plus the Song of Simeon, The Creed, and the Ten Commandments.”[51] Calvin was later recalled to Geneva in 1541 along with Marot, whom Calvin asked to join him to continue working on the Psalter. However, Marot died with only 50 of the 150 Psalms completed. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s eventual successor at Geneva, finished translating the Genevan Psalter while Louis Bourgeois provided the “simple cord style music.”[52]

After returning to Geneva in 1541, Calvin spent the remaining part of his life there and, according to Roger Olson, “reigned as virtual dictator of the city.”[53] Calvin desired to build a “Godly city” that resembled on “earth God’s kingdom in heaven.”[54] This goal was met with resistance from city officials, but Calvin did enjoy much freedom to impose his ideals, including the incorporation of the Word into song for church worship. Calvin believed that common prayer had two forms: “some are framed in simple words, the other in song.”[55] Some of Calvin’s writings also relate the reformer believed Paul spoke about the importance of song, and from experience “singing has great force and power to move and enflame the hearts of people” to “praise God with…vehement and zeal.”[56] Like his fellow reformer Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer who believed so strongly that misuse of music could corrupt people that he banned it from services, Calvin believed music must be used wisely so it does not become “an instrument of vice or any kind of shamelessness.”[57] Although Calvin only allowed unison singing in church, he also believed Psalm-singing had its place in the home and on the field.[58] As author Virginia Folgers points out, the Palms became so popular that they were “sung…at work, in the fields, in the streets, and in the home,”[59] thus providing a vehicle for the Word to reach people from all walks and transform lives.

Although Martin Luther and John Calvin differed on some issues theologically, both knew the importance of Christians hearing and speaking the Word they incorporated into the worship of their churches. They believed that incorporating the Word into vernacular music so that common people could participate would promote the edification of Christians and transform lives. These practices went directly against the Catholic Church’s idea of papal supremacy that believed worship participation belonged to the elite clergy. Despite opposition, these reformers were able to reach the common people through their efforts that eventually effected people all over the world.

— Dan Koblitz | Contributing Writer for RWM | Linkedin

Footnotes & Bibliography below!

  1. Susan Boynton, “Religious Soundscapes: Liturgy and Music” in Christianity in Western Europe C.1100-C. 1500, ed. Miri Rubin and Walter Simons, vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 240.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 248.
  4. Robin Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), 21.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 26.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 31.
  9. Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel an Authoritative Illustrated Guide to All the Major Traditions of Music or Worship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 55.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 56.
  12. John Barber, “Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship,” Reform Perspectives Magazine 8, no. 26, (2006): 1.
  13. Wilson-Dickinson, 60.
  14. Barber, 1.
  15. Leaver, 9.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Wilson-Dickinson, 60.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. John Alexander Lamb, The Psalms in Christian Worship (London: Faith Press, 1962), 133.
  22. Andrew J. Fisher, “Music and Religious Change,” in Reform and Expansion 1500-1600, ed. R. Po-Chia Hsia, vol. 6 of The Cambridge History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 388.
  23. Barber, 2.
  24. Lamb, 134-35.
  25. Ibid., 135.
  26. Ibid., 134.
  27. Ibid.
  28. David Susan, “Some Parallel Emphases Between Luther’s Theology and His Thought about Music, and Their Contemporary
  29. Significance,” Concordia Journal 11, no. 1 (January 1985): 11, direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000943645&site=ehost-live (accessed September 28, 2013).
  30. Barber, 2.
  31. Fisher, 390.
  32. Edward A. Engelbrecht and Laura L. Lane, et al. eds., The Church From Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing house, 2011), 440.
  33. Fisher, 390.
  34. Susan, 11.
  35. Lamb, 135.
  36. Engelbrecht and Lane, 462.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Randall C. Zachman, “John Calvin (1509-1564)” in The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period, ed. Carter Lindberg (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 184.
  39. Engelbrecht and Lane, 463.
  40. Ibid., 464.
  41. Barber, 11.
  42. Engelbrecht and Lane, 464.
  43. Alasdair Heron, “Shaping the Worship of the Reformed Church in Geneva: Calvin on Prayer and Praise,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 68 no. 1 (November 2012): 5, (accessed September 28, 2013).
    Virginia Folgers, “The Importance of the Psalmody in the Reformed Tradition,” Hymn 33 (April 1982): 80, 1163&site=ehost-live (accessed August 30, 2013).
  44. Ibid.
  45. Engelbrecht and Lane, 466.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Zachman, 187.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Engelbrecht and Lane, 466.
  51. Folgers, 81.
  52. Barber, 8.
  53. Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 409.
  54. Olson, 409.
  55. Heron, 5.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid.
  58. Ibid., 6.
  59. Folgers, 81.

Appleby, David P. History of Church Music. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965.

Barber, John. “Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship.” Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8,   no. 26 (June 25 – July 1, 2006): 1-16.

Boynton, Susan. “Religious Soundscapes: Liturgy and Music.” In Christianity in Western Europe C. 1100-C.1500. Edited by Miri Rubin and Walter Simons. Vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Engelbrecht, Edward A. and Laura L. Lane, et al. eds., The Church From Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing house, 2011.

Fisher, Alexander J. “Music and Religious change.” In Reform and Expansion 1500—1600,           Edited by R. Po-Chia Hsia. Vol. 6 of The Cambridge History of Christianity Cambridge:     Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Folgers, Virginia Kickert. “The Importance of Psalmody in the Reformed Tradition.” Hymn 33     (April 1982): 79-83. direct=true& db=rfh&AN=ATLA000079 1163&site=ehost-live (accessed August 30,       2013).

Heron, Alasdair. “Shaping the Worship of the Reformed Church in Geneva: Calvin on Prayer       and Praise.” HTS 68, no. 1 (2012). (accessed September 28, 2013).

Lamb, John Alexander. The Psalms in Christian Worship. Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1962.

Robin Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Grand Rapids, MI:             William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007.

Mentzer, Raymond A. ed. “The Piety of Townspeople and City Folk.” In Reformation    Christianity. Edited by Peter Matheson, Vol. 5 of A People’s History of Christianity,           edited by Denis R. Janz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. “Daily Prayer in the Reformed Church of Strasbourg, 1525-1530.”            Worship 52, no. 2 (March 1978): 121-138.

Olson, Roger. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Susan, David. “Some Parallel Emphases Between Luther’s Theology and His Thought about        Music, and Their Contemporary Significance.” Concordia Journal 11, no. 1 (January      1985): 10.    rfh& AN=ATLA0000943645&site=ehost-live (accessed September 28, 2013).

Wilson-Dickson, Andrew. The Story of Christian Music. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Zachman, Randall C. “John Calvin (1509-1564).” In The Reformation Theologians: An      Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Carter Lindberg.          Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.