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Lutheran Musical Heritage

The 16th Century

Martin Luther had great impact on the worship and musical life of early Lutheranism.  He was an accomplished musician, a singer, a lute player, and one who knew much of the music and many of the musicians of his day.


He wrote to support the adequate funding of church music, the musical education of children in the schools, and the musical education of pastors and teachers.  He wrote new hymns as well as "corrected and improved" older hymns.  He composed at least one short polyphonic motet, "Non moriar sed vivam" ("I shall not die, but live").


When it came to worship and the liturgy, he continued the basic pattern and tradition of the medieval Mass with two exceptions.  He deleted the Canon of the Mass and the prayers at the Offertory.  Luther's basic approach was to retain whatever past traditions were not contrary to his understand of the Gospel.


Luther advocated certain new reforms that included the use of vernacular congregational song as an integral part of the liturgy, the importance of the sermon, and communion in both kinds.  Throughout all his liturgical and musical reforms, Luther always sought to demonstrate the continuity and unity of the reforming movement with the church catholic.


The Reformation was born when Renaissance polyphony was the prevailing musical style.  It is exemplified in the music of Dufay and Binchois and culminated in the music of Heinrich Isaac and the renowned Josquin Desprez.  This style was characterized by imitative pholyphony.  It usually was based on the foundation of Gregorianmelodies normally found in the tenor part.


This musical style, with words associated with melodies, reflected Luther's understanding that the Word of the Gospel was to be presented simply and preoclaimed musically in an objective fashion and not to be "interpreted."

                                                                                 -- Carl Shalk

The 17th Century...


The turbulent days of the church of the early Reformation and its dire struggle with the Roman Catholic church were past.  The Reformation made worshipers aware of the "Priesthood of All Believers."  In the 17th century, people in the Lutheran congregations continued to participate actively in worship.  More congregations now had printed hymnals.  Composers wrote music that built upon the old traditions, but also incorporated the new styles that were emerging.


Settings of Gospel motets gave people the opportunity to conitinue to hear the Word in traditional polyphonic settings called the "first practice."  Instruments and voices of the choir and congregation joined in stimulating settings of chorales.  Congregations often sang stanzas in alternation with choral and instrumenal stanzas.  Magnificent polychoral settings of chorales and Psalms were written for several choirs of voices and instruments.


The organ continued to introduce congregational and liturgical song.  The chorale prelude grew in importance as a vehicle to introduce chorale singing.  As time passed, organs began to accompany congregational song.


Under the influence of developments in the madrigal and opera, concerted music of the "second practice" became a part of church music.  The basso continuo and monody were adapted to compositions for worship.  The organ and instruments assumed new roles in concerted writing.  Choral music and congregational song changed, reflecting a new emphasis on personal peity and the expressive capability of concerted music.


Four masters of Lutheran church music provided leadership for a growing and vigorous practice.  early in the century, Michael Praetorius wrote splendid chorale arrangements and polychoral settings for voices and instruments.  Johann Hermann Schein wrote in the old polyphonic style, but also developed the scared madrigal in the concerted style.  Samuel Scheidt was the first great Lutheran organist and composer.  Heinrich Schütz, the most renowned composer of his time, contributed masterworks in all styles of sacred vocal music.


                                                                                                                                                                                                    -- Carlos Messerli  

The 18th Century...


This was an age of uneven support and recognition for sacred music.  Despite the difficulties, Johann Sebastian Bach created some of the most highly treasured church music of all time.  He wrote nearly 300 cantatas, hundreds of settings of Lutheran chorales, several Lutheran Masses, the great B-minor Masssettings of the Passionmotets, many organ settings of chorales, organ preludes, and fugues.


During this time traditional choral worship leadership was altered and, in many of the churches, the role of the choir was dimished.  Congregations sang fewer of the Reformation chorales.  The songs they did sing were changed from their original, rugged, rhythmic form to the even flow of a regular meter.  Hymnals, such as those of Johann Freylinghausen, contained hymns with smoother melodies and more subjective texts than those of the previous century.


Although Bach is considered great today, in his lifetime he was thought of as merely a well-respected church musician with special skills as an organist.  Born in 1685, he was a member of a large family of church musicians active for over 200 years.  His OBituary declared: "Bach was the greatest organist and clavier player that we have ever had," one who used "strange, new, expressive, and beautiful ideas" with "most perfect accuracy in performance."  today he is recognized as a master interpreter of Holy Scripture and Lutheran doctrine, especially expressed in Lutheran liturgy.  thoroughly devout, he often inscribed "SDG" or Soli Deo Gloria" ("To God alone be glory") on his works.


The most prominent Lutherna musician of the time was the highly productive Georg P. Telemann.  George F. Handel, though Lutheran in background, became famous for his operas and oratorios in England.  Dietrich Buxtehude was the greats organist in the early years of the century.



                                                                                                                                                                                              -- Carlos Messerli                                         


The 19th Century...


During the Age of Enlightenment, music in Lutheran churches withered.  Financial support for the church and its music declined, and many skilled musicians were forced to leave the church's service.  As a result, in many places, amatuers with little or no training led parish music.



To make matters worse, there were no schools to improve the skills of these amateurs.  Private tutors gave lessons to children of wealthy patrons.  Otherwise, musicians were trained in a kind of apprenticeship system.  Most people had no access to musical training.  It wasn't possible to go to a university and get a degree with  a "music major" or "music minor."  The situation spiraled downward for decades until conservatories began to appear in the mid- 19th century.


In spite of these difficulties, untrained musicians did make orginal contributions, particularly in congregational song.  The composers of the majority of 19th-century Peietist hymns were amateurs.  Passionate revival leaders wrote songs by the thousands.


Not all the congregational music was really "new."  Romantic historians rediscovered old hymn texts and music appeared in print for the first tim in centuries.  Lutherans, especially, were interested in their lost Reformation heritage.


During the 19th century, communities established amatuer choruses to perform public concerts.  These secular community choruses ranged widely in skill.  Since most of the singers were members of the local "choir-less" congregation, it was natural that many churches called on these organizations to sing in worship.  Their participation was more "concert" than liturgy.


In general, the favorite muscial form of the 18th- and 19th-century composers (including opera, sonata, symphony and concerto) didn't work well in Lutheran liturgy.  Among other problems, the compositions were too long.  The virtuoso display that audiences had come to expect seemed out of place in worship.  Thses concert works also were far beyond the skills of the untrained musicians in most congregations.


Recovery began as researchers studied the history, liturgy, and music of the church.  When historic theology, liturgy, and music were understood and restored, innovation took place.


Working with resources from the Reformation and earlier times as well as forms developed by J.S. Bach and his contempraries, siginifcant advances were made.  Near the end of the 19th century, composers like Max Reger produced works for the typical church musician in addition to the monumental peices they wrote for the concert halls.  the 20th-century Lutherans established schools to train church musicians and standards that these musicians needed to meet.


                                                                                                                                                                                                        -- Alan Mahnke  


The 20th Century...


Lutheran musicians faced many challenges throughout the 20th century. Historic forms that had served the church well were recovered. These included the sung liturgy of the Common Service and an incomparable hymnody, together with a renewed interest in sung psalmody.


A new eclectiscism prompted by various ecumenical efforts opened the church to a renewed understanding of the liturgy and the music of the church. Classic tonality and some aspects of earlier Romanticim remained dominant in the century.


At about mid-century, treasures of the historic tradition were made available in new musical editions. Lutheran church musicians also began to create a host of new still musically conservative, choral and organ settings of hymns. They also wrote anthems and settings for the liturgy based on traditional models. Shortly thereafter, many new hymns were created. These addressed social concerns as well as matters of taith and worship.


College, universtity, and seminary choirs, along with many parish music programs, insured that the finest music of the Lutheran tradition could be heard, even as they explored new and substantially different types of music.


Newer styles of serious music, including 12-tone and atonal music, offered limited application in worship. Electronically generated compositions had only selective use in the church. Pipe organs continued to be the standard instrument for churches, but electronic instruments also became popular.


In the last decades of the century, some marketing strategists urged parishes and composers to use "praise bands" and "easy listening" music. This music, while popular with some, had the effect for others of "dumbing down" the life of faith, its nuances, and ambiguities. They felt that it thereby avoided the challenge of wrestling with fundamental questions about salvation, law and Gospel, sin and grace, God, life, and death.


                                                                                                                                                                                                  -- Robert Hawkins



The 21st Century...


Now, just into the second decade of the 21st Century, the lutheran musical and liturgical worlds continue to wrestle with issues of style, content and form. Both the ELCA and LCMS have published new hymnals since the turn of the millenium in an effort to further refine their musical "zeitgeist." The popular trend in Hymnody in the 21st Century leans to a global ecumenical eclecticism, with an intentional effort being made to interpolate the diverse practices of many musical traditions from around the world, including: German Chorales, Scandinavian Hymnody, Anglican Hymnody, Roman Catholic Hymnody, Gospel, African "call and response" forms, music from the Asian Churches, and Native American chant, to name a few. The rapidly diminishing importance of borders in the age of the internet is further straining, what at one time, would have been very stable slowly evolving practices. The rise of fundamentalism and the "evangelical" movement have added fire to the flames of disagreement among the many schools of thought in the Lutheran Church about how the Lutheran practice can thrive and remain relevant in the new age.


Out of this turmoil there have been two primary streams of practice: accomdation and historical revival. Those in the accomodation camp fervently believe that buying into the popular "Contemporary Christian" culture of religious consumerism and the music attached to the industry is the only way to survive at the cost of a "Lutheran" identity and congregational song which contains little hefty theological content. The other trend is a a revival of historical practices of the Lutheran Church in both song and liturgy. Both of these ideas can be seen in ELCA's hymnal, Evangelica Lutheran Worship, which incorporates praise music and the popularly inspired work of Marty Haugen, while reintroducing Bach harmonizations of certain tunes and embracing historical liturgical forms.


Lutheran composers of many types and creeds continue to produce an ever diverse collection of music of all kinds. Music programs in churches are ever more important today as music education is less available from traditional sources, much like centuries past, making churches increasingly a center for music education once again.


Time marches on and each of us strive to do our very best to continue creating great worship experiences today as our forbearers did in their time.


                                                                                                                                                                                                     -- Daniel Sigmon