A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Luther, Martin

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LUTHER, Martin, born at Eisleben, on St. Martin's Eve, Nov. 10, 1483. For the main facts of the life of the great Reformer, the reader must consult some other work, as our space compels us to confine ourselves to his relation to music, and especially to the hymns and services of the Church. It was after his departure from the Wartburg, March 22, 1522, that he began to occupy himself with projects for the reform of the services of the Church, among which his alterations in the musical parts of the Mass led to such great results. There is ample evidence that German hymns were sung during the service before Luther's alterations; but if not the actual founder, there is no doubt that he was the establisher of congregational singing. The musical part of the Mass had grown to an inordinate length; accordingly, in his first 'Formula Missæ' (1523), Luther objects to the singing of long graduals, and recommends that the choice of certain hymns should be left to the priest. The Reformer had long cherished the idea of a German Mass, and during the latter part of the year 1524 he was occupied with arranging that service. In order to help him in the musical part of his work, he summoned to Wittenberg two able musicians, Conrad Rupf, Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony, and Johann Walther, Cantor at the Court of Frederick the Wise at Torgau. To the latter we are indebted for much information about Luther as a musician. He says that at this time he stayed with Luther at Wittenberg for three weeks, and that the Reformer himself set to music several Gospels and Epistles and the words of consecration, inventing the tunes on his flute, while Walther noted them down. Luther used also to discuss the eight Church Tones; giving the Epistle to the 8th Tone, and the Gospel to the 6th. 'For,' said he, 'Christ is a gentle Lord, and His words are lovely; therefore let us take the 6th Tone for the Gospel; and since St. Paul is a grave apostle, we will set the Epistle to the 8th Tone.' The result of these labours was the publication of the 'Order of the German Mass,' which contained the following alterations. Instead of the introit there was ordered to be sung a hymn or German psalm ('Ich will den Herrn loben,' or 'Meine Seele soll sich rühmen'). Then followed the Kyrie Eleison, sung three times (instead of nine). After the Collect and Epistle a German hymn ('Nun bitten wir den heil'gen Geist,' or another) was sung, and after the Gospel, instead of the Latin Patrem, the Creed in German (Wir glauben all'). The sermon then followed, and after this a paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer, and the Exhortation to Communicants. After the Consecration, was sung 'Jesaia dem Propheten,' Huss's hymn 'Jesus Christus, unser Heiland,' or 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes.' This form of service was first used on Christmas Day, 1524, in the parish church of Wittenberg, but it was not published until the following year. It is evident that while introducing a more popular element into the music of the Mass, Luther did not despise the singing of a trained choir. In the 'Vermahnung zum Gebet wider den Türken' (1541) he says: 'I rejoice to let the 79th Psalm. "O God, the heathen are come," be sung as usual, one choir after another. Accordingly, let one sweet-voiced boy step before the desk in his choir and sing alone the antiphon or sentence "Domine, ne secundum," and after him let another boy sing the other sentence, "Domine, ne memineris"; and then let the whole choir sing on their knees, "Adjuva nos, Deus," just as it was in the Popish Fasts, for it sounds and looks very devotional.' At the same time that he was engaged in arranging the German Mass, Luther was turning his attention to writing and adapting hymns to be sung during the service. In 1524 he wrote to his friend, George Spalatin, 'I wish, after the example of the Prophets and ancient Fathers of the Church, to make German psalms for the people, that is to say, sacred hymns, so that the word of God may dwell among the people by means of song also.' In the same year (1524) the first Protestant hymn-book appeared: 'Etlich christliche Lyeder Lobgesang und Psalm dem reinen Wort Gottes gemess auss der h. gschrifft durch mancherlay Hochgelerter gemacht, in der Kirchen zu singen, wie es den zum tail bereyt zu Wittenburg in yebung ist. Witenburg, 1524.' It is not certain whether Luther actually arranged this book; it contains only eight hymns (four of which are by him), and five tunes. During the same year several other collections appeared, and their number increased so rapidly that space forbids the insertion of a list of even those that were published during Luther's lifetime. Scattered through these different collections, there is great difficulty in deciding what hymns are really Luther's, and what are merely adaptations; the lists given at the end of this article have been compiled from the latest authorities, especially from Herr Koch, in his great work, 'Geschichte des Kirchenlieds, etc.' (Stuttgart, 1866–77). The immediate popularity which these early Protestant hymns attained was immense: they were taught in the schools, and carried through the country by wandering scholars, until his enemies declared that Luther had destroyed more souls by his hymns than by his writings and speeches. Noble words, closely wedded to noble music, severely simple, yet never trivial, these hymns seem an echo of the Reformer's own great spirit, and sound even now as true and grand as when they first stirred Germany to its very soul. On June 11, 1525, Luther was married to Catherine von Bora, formerly a nun at Nimptsch in Saxony. This marriage proved a most happy connection, and the letters of his friends abound with descriptions of the domestic felicity to which it gave rise. We are told that after supper he used to sing motets and hymns with his children and friends, his favourite composers being Senfl and Josquin des Prés, the works of the latter of whom he particularly admired. Luther possessed a fine deep voice, and played both the flute and lute, the latter so well as to attract the attention of passers-by as he journeyed to Worms. It has been said that he wrote motets himself, but there is no proof of this, and it is probably a mistake arising from the existence, in the Munich Library, of a collection of motets with a preface by the Reformer. In 1538 Luther wrote a short treatise in praise of music; a poem by him on the same subject (entitled 'Frau Musika') also exists, and may be found in the Leipziger Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung for 1811. The latter years of Luther's life were principally spent at Wittenburg, but he died at Eisleben, on the 18th February, 1546. He was buried in the Schloss-Kirche at Wittenberg; his greatest hymn, 'Ein feste Burg,' being sung over his grave.

The following is a list of Hymns, the words of which were written or arranged by Luther, together with their dates, so far as it has been possible to ascertain them.

I. Translations and Arrangements of Latin Hymns.

  1. 'Jesus Christus unser Heiland,' 1524. From John Huss's hymn 'Jesus Christus nostra salus.'
  2. 'Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich.' 1529. From 'Da pacem Domine,' an antiphon of the 6th or 7th century.
  3. 'Christum wir sollen loben,' 1524. From a Christmas hymn by Cœlius Sedulius (5th cent.), 'A solis ortus.'
  4. 'Der du bist drei,' 1543. From 'O Lux beata,' an Epiphany hymn of the 5th century.
  5. 'Herr Gott, dich loben wir,' 1529. From the 'Te Deum.'
  6. 'Komm, Gott, Schöpfer,' 1524. From the 'Veni Creator.'
  7. 'Komm, heiliger Geist,' 1524. From the 'Veni sancte Spiritus' attributed to King Robert of France, 997.
  8. 'Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,' 1524. From a Christmas hymn by St. Ambrose, 'Veni Redemptor.'
  9. 'Was fürcht'st du Feind.' Dec. 12, 1541. From 'Hostis Herodes impie,' an Epiphany hymn by Cœlius Sedulius.
  10. 'Wir glauben all' an Einen Gott,' 1524. From the creed 'Patrem credimus.'

II. Amplifications of early German translations of Latin Hymns.

  1. 'Gelobet seyst du,' 1524. Six verses added to a 15th-century translation of the Christmas Sequence of Gregory the Great, 'Orates nunc omnes.'
  2. 'Mitten wir im Leben sind,' 1524. Two verses added to a 15th-century Funeral hymn on Notker's Antiphon 'Media vita in morte sumus.'

III. Corrections or Arrangements of early German Hymns.

  1. 'Christ lag in Todesbanden,' 1524. From the 12th-century hymn 'Christ ist uferstanden.'
  2. 'Gott der Vater, wohn uns bei,' 1524. From a 15th-century Litany.
  3. 'Gott sei gelobet und gebenedeiet,' 1524. From a sacramental hymn of the 16th century.
  4. 'Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist,' 1524. From a 13th-century Whitsuntide hymn.

IV. Hymns based upon Latin Psalms.

  1. 'Ach Gott vom Himmel,' 1523. Ps. xii. 'Salvum me fac.'
  2. a. 'Aus tiefer Noth,' 1523. First version, containing four verses. Ps. cxxx. 'De profundis.'
    b. Do., 1524. Second version, containing five verses.
  3. 'Ein feste Burg,' 1529. Ps. xlvi. 'Deus noster refugium.'
  4. 'Es spricht der Unweisen,' 1524. Ps. xlv. 'Dixit insipiens.'
  5. 'Es wollt uns Gott,' 1524. Ps. lxvli. 'Deus misereatur.'
  6. 'War Gott nicht mit uns,' 1524. Ps. cxxiv. 'Nisi qui Dominus.'
  7. 'Wohl dem, der in Gottesfürchte,' 1524. Ps. cxxvlii. 'Beati omnes.'

V. Hymns based upon passages of the Bible.

  1. 'Christ unser Herr,' 1641. The Baptism of Christ.
  2. 'Diess sind die heiligen zehn Gebot,' 1524. The Decalogue.
  3. 'Jesaia, dem Propheten,' 1526. The Vision of Isaiah.
  4. 'Mensch, willst du leben,' 1524. Abbreviated version of the Decalogue.
  5. 'Mit Fried und Freud,' 1524. The 'Nunc Dimittis.'
  6. 'Sie ist mir lieb,' 1635. The Christian Church (Rev. xii.).
  7. 'Vater unser,' 1539. The Lord's Prayer.
  8. 'Vom Himmel hoch,' 1535. The Nativity (a children's hymn).

VI. Original Hymns.

  1. 'Ein neues Lied,' 1523. A hymn to the memory of two Lutheran martyrs, H. Voes and J. Esch, who were burnt at Brussels July 1, 1523.
  2. 'Erhalt uns, Herr,' 1541. A children's hymn against the two arch-enemies of Christ, the Pope and the Turk.
  3. 'Jesus Christus, unser Heiland,' 1524. An Easter hymn.
  4. 'Nun freut euch,' 1523. A hymn of thanksgiving.
  5. 'Vom Himmel kam,' 1443. A Christmas hymn.


The following are the hymn-tunes which were probably composed by Luther.

  1. 'Jesaia dem Propheten das geschah.' Appeared in the place of the Sanctus in Luther's 'Eine Weiss, Christlich Mess zu halten,' 1526.
  2. 'Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott.' First appeared in 'Geistliche Lieder, auffs new gebessert zu Wittenberg. Dr. Mart. Luther, 1529.' This book was printed by Joseph Klug.
    The following arrangements of this hymn appeared during Luther's life:—
    1. For 3 voices, with the melody in the Tenor, in 'News Gesang, mit dreyen stimmen den Kirchen und Schulen zu nutz, neulich in Preussen durch Joannem Kugelmann gesetzt' (Augsburg, 1540). Hans Kugelmann was Kapellmeister to Duke Albert of Brandenburg.
    2. For 4 voices, with the melody in the Bass, in G. Rhaw's 'Newe deutsche gelstliche Gesenge cxxiii' (Wittenberg 1544).
    3. For 5 voices, with the melody in the Tenor, by Stephen Mahu, in G. Rhaw's Hymn-book.
    4. For 4 voices, with the melody in the Bass, by M. Agricola, in G. Rhaw's Hymn-book.
    5. For 4 voices, with the melody in the Bass, by L. Hellinck, in G. Rhaw's Hymn-book.
  3. 'Aus tiefer Noth ruf ich zu dir.' First appeared in the 'Geistliche Gesangbüchleyn. Tenor.' (Wittenberg 1524.)
  4. 'Ein neues Lied wir heben an.' First appeared in 'Enchiridion, Oder eyn Handtbüchlein eynem yetzlichen Christen fast nutzlich bey sich zu haben zur stetter vbung unnd trachtung Geystlicher gesenge vnd Psalmen, Rechtschaffen vnd kunstlich vertheutscht. 1524.' Printed at Erfurt.
  5. 'Es spricht der Unweisen Mund wohl.' Appeared in the 'Gesangbüchleyn,' 1524.
  6. 'Mensch, willst du leben seliglich.' From the 'Gesangbüchleyn,' 1524.
  7. 'Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin.' From the 'Gesangbüchleyn,' 1524.
  8. 'Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.' Appeared in Lotther's Magdeburg Gesangbuch, 1540.
  9. 'Jesus Christus unser Heiland.' From the 'Enchiridion,' 1524.
  10. 'Nun freut euch, liebe Christen g'mein.' From the so-called Achtliederbuch,'1524. In Adam Dyson's Hymn-book (Breslau 1525) it is set to the tune of 'Es ist das Heil,' which was probably composed by Speratus.
  11. 'Nun freut euch, liebe Christen g'mein.' From Klug's 'Geistliche Lieder' (Wittenberg 1529).
  12. 'Vater unser im Himmelreich.' In Köphyl's Strasburg Gesangbuch (1537) and in Lotther's Magdeburg Hymn-book (1540).
  13. 'Wohl dem, der in Gottesfürchte steht.' In the 'Getstliche Gesangbüchleyn,' 1524.

Of the above tunes, Nos. 1 and 2 are almost without doubt by Luther; Nos. 3 to 8 are very probably by him; and Nos. 9 to 13 are ascribed to him with less certainty. The following works contain much information as to Luther as a musician, and have been carefully consulted in the compilation of this article.

Forkel's Musikallscher Almanach for 1784.
The Leipziger Allgemeine musik. Zeitung for 1804 and 1810.
'Ueber Luther's Verdienst um den Kirchengesang.' Rambach (Hamburg 1813).
'Luther's geistllche Lieder nebst dessen Gedanken über die Musica.' Groll (Berlin 1817).
'Luther's Gedanken über die Musik.' Beck (Berlin 1825).
'Dr. Martin Luther's deutsche geistliche Lieder, etc.,' v. Winterfeld (Leipzig 1840).
'Luther's geistliche Lieder.' Wackernagel (Stuttgart 1848).
'Geschichte der biblisch-kirchlichen Dicht- und Tonkunst und ihrer Werke.' Schauer (Jena 1850).
'Choralkunde.' G. Döring (Dantzig, 1865).
'Geschichte des Kirchenlieds, etc.' Koch (Stuttgart, 1866–77).
'Luther musicien'; Revue et Gazette musicale, July 13, 1879.

[ W. B. S. ]