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Martin Luther: The Father of Protest Songs?

Music was crucial to Luther's Reformation momentum, and encouraged radical singers long after his death. Some have opined that his popular musical style is immediately comparable with some of the most well-known protest movements of the modern age.

Before 1517, the Catholic Church controlled most religious music in Europe. Lay participation was minimal. In church, most people only heard austere plain chant, sung in Latin by a choir. Passion plays – rowdy dramas describing biblical stories – introduced religious ideas to people in their own languages. But by the 16th Century, these plays had often slumped into an excuse for slapstick humour. And anyway, vernacular music rarely crossed the church threshold.

Luther shattered these strict divisions, and transformed Christian musical life. For him, religious music was not just for remote priests and choirs. Instead, it was “next to theology” and a “gift from God.” As such, it should be accessible to everyone. Anyone who disagreed, “deserved to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!”

Latin chanting was dumped in favour of communal singing in everyday German. This style soon became a key part of his followers’ identity.

“Luther’s use of German hymns was an important sign of change,” explains Andreas Loewe, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and Luther expert. “It was just as obvious as having married clergy, or being able to receive a cup of wine at Holy Communion as a lay person.”

Not that Luther promoted music just for abstract reasons of faith. He well understood how powerful music was in spreading his message. Like the best modern protest songs, his hymns were catchy and punchy. He added religious lyrics to recognisable folk songs. This was especially useful in an ignorant age. Even illiterate people – about 85% of the German population in 1500 – could learn songs and pass them on quickly.

Luther himself pushed these changes along. He encouraged children to learn music at school, and worked with other reformers to produce Protestant hymnbooks. Luther also wrote lyrics that “imitated the way people spoke,” says Loewe.

Luther himself stated that both music and lyrics should, “grow out of the true mother tongue.”

Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) is typical of his rousing simplicity:

Our God is a mighty fortress, A trusty shield and weapon!

Songs like this stiffened the hearts of Luther and his friends. They likely sang Ein Feste Burg at the Diet of Worms, when Luther was interrogated by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

But if Luther’s music was soothing to supporters, his hymns also grabbed new converts. New music buzzed from town to town before the Catholic authorities could swat it down. As with other aspects of the Reformation, the printing press was key.

“Luther’s hymns were sold ‘hot off the press’ as pamphlets, and taught to entire cities by travelling singers,” says Loewe.

Sometimes, Luther’s hymns worked faster than he did. In Magdeburg, massed singing of his anthems converted the town months before Luther arrived.

Contemporaries valued the spread of this music. Writing 50 years after Luther died, theologian Cornelius Becker noted that, “[Luther’s] songs were carried to people in far-away places in the souls and minds of pious Christians. It was not easy to block their progress.” Indeed, Lutheran hymns had soon skipped out of his stronghold in Saxony. They were sung in Catholic areas, and translated into English.

Luther’s music stayed popular after his death. Protestant troops sang Lutheran hymns as they went into battle during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th Century. Later Protestant composers also covered his hymns. Johann Sebastian Bach expanded Ein Feste Burg to a glorious 30-minute cantata, while Felix Mendelssohn added it to his aptly named Reformation symphony.

But Lutheran music never lost its radical muscle.

During the 1848 revolution, liberals sang a new version of Ein Feste Burgto promote “freedom” and “truth.” In the 1880s, German social democrats rewrote the same hymn to include references to human rights. A century later, opponents of a new nuclear waste plant used Ein Feste Burg to attack the “armed police.”

Loewe notices the irony here. “Just as the reformer took stirring tunes and composed new words for them,” he explains, “so many protest movements used Luther’s tunes to promote ideas other than Luther’s own.”

Through his hymns, Luther is grandfather of a musical revolution that shared and adapted, united in stomping change on the world through rousing melodies and simple words.

[ Adapted from an article by Andrea Valentino: link ]

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