What was the reformation?

The reformation was a religious, political and cultural upheaval that split Catholic Europe in the 16th century. It began in the German town of Wittenberg in October 1517 with the publication of Martin Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ protesting at the Pope’s sale of ‘indulgences’ (offering time off from penance), followed later by Luther’s wholesale rejection of the power of the papacy.


Christians should, he said, be free to follow their faith through the teachings of the Gospel. This led to new forms of worship and a growing Lutheran church galvanised by Luther’s writings, widely circulated through the new power of the printing press.

By the second half of the 16th century, Lutheranism had become the state religion throughout much of Germany. The key ideas of the Reformation – a call to purify the church and a belief that the Bible, rather than tradition, should be the sole source of spiritual authority – inspired reforms across Europe, putting Henry VIII in a stronger position as regards the English Reformation, and encouraging the more extreme views of John Calvin in Switzerland.

There were, in effect, several Reformations, triggering wars, persecutions and ultimately the so-called Counter-Reformation almost 30 years later, the Catholic Church’s tardy but powerful response to the Protestants which, from the mid-16th century, saw the Catholic church grow more spiritual, literate and educated.

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Who was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther (1483-1547) was an Augustinian monk and theologian who took a stand against the Roman Church, reputedly nailing his 95 objections to Catholic excesses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.

After eventually breaking away from Rome, Luther created the climate within his new ‘reformed’ church for a fresh musical tradition to develop – one which found its perfect fulfilment in the music of Bach. Some 500 years after Luther’s spiritual reforms, the musical legacy of the Reformation lives on, with a wider reach and greater universal appeal than ever.

How Luther's reformation influenced music

The rather bleak austerity of Protestant reformers like John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland has rubbed off a little on Martin Luther’s posthumous reputation. But while Calvin and Zwingli were suspicious of music, either banning it entirely or limiting its use in church, Luther ‘always loved music’.

He was, by his own admission, an enthusiastic singer, lutenist and composer who delighted in the finest polyphonic music of the age. He particularly admired his contemporary Josquin Desprez (c1455-1521), who ‘preached the Gospel through music’ with ‘compositions which flow freely, gently, and cheerfully, are not cramped by the rules, and are like the song of the finch’.

Luther believed that ‘he who knows music has a good nature’, and was determined that music should play a central part in children’s education. There’s a very modern ring to his calls that ‘Necessity demands music be kept in schools. A teacher must be able to sing … and before a young man is ordained into the ministry, he should practise music regularly’.

At a deeper level Luther saw music and theology as inextricably linked, likening the Gospel to ‘music in performance’, and acknowledging that music had often ‘induced and inspired me to preach’. It was a powerful symbiotic relationship which encouraged him to devise new services for his church with music and preaching at their heart.

It’s something of a surprise to discover just how musical these services were. Rather than removing the old Catholic Mass and Vespers from the liturgy, he revised them, and so was able to retain both traditional plainchant and a great deal of Latin polyphonic music by composers like Josquin.

But Luther’s major innovation – with far-reaching consequences for Protestant church music – was the addition of an entirely new musical element. In 1523 he said he would introduce ‘as many songs as possible in the vernacular which people could sing during Mass’. With texts by Luther himself and his close colleagues, these congregational songs – or chorales – spread like wildfire, and drew congregations in ever greater numbers.

There’s nothing new under the sun, of course, and while Luther may have presented his congregational hymns as something of a novelty, many were just adaptations of music people had been singing for generations: overnight Veni sancte spiritus took on a more regular metre and became Komm Heiliger Geist (‘Come Holy Spirit’).

With no apparent misgivings Luther did the same with secular music. It says a lot about the musical tastes of early Lutherans that they should have known so silly a piece as Giovanni Gastoldi’s ‘fa-la-la’ canzonet ‘A lieta vita’, but it undoubtedly provided the perfect tune for the chorale text In dir ist Freude – ‘In Thee is gladness’.

The popular appeal of memorable melodies was just the beginning. Luther now instructed his colleague Johann Walter to use these chorale melodies as Catholic composers did plainsong: as a scaffold around which to build more elaborate music. Walter developed two styles: chordal, easy-to-sing harmonisations of hymn tunes, and more ambitious pieces in which the chorale inspired complex imitative textures – like those of Josquin.

These settings of early Wittenberg hymns, alongside five Latin motets, formed the first great work of Lutheran church music – the Geystliches, gesangk Buchleyn of 1524 – and thus the Lutheran tradition of combining simple congregational singing with complex choral music, in both German and Latin, was established.

So far, so unexciting – musically, at least. But things began to hot up for Lutheran church music with the rise of the new Baroque style which, with its colourful expression of the text, could not have been more favourable to the immediacy of the Lutheran message. The leading composer of the early German Baroque was Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), who spent much of his career as senior Kapellmeister at the Dresden Court Chapel – unrivalled in Lutheran Germany for its grandeur and thoroughly Italianate tastes.

Congregational singing seems to have been much less important in major court chapels like Dresden, and Schütz, who wasn’t at all interested in chorales, concentrated instead on enriching the liturgy in other ways.

He was particularly proud of adapting the new operatic recitative style to serve a spiritual purpose in his Christmas Story. Performed during Vespers at the Dresden court in December 1660, the declamatory writing for all the singers – from Herod to the Evangelist – is powerfully expressive and enriched by a wide variety of instrumental colours characterising each scene of the biblical narrative.

Luther may never actually have envisaged the wholesale use of instruments in church but it was a natural development of his music-friendly theology. The colourful publications of Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) supplied north German churches with all they needed, from the simplest congregational hymns to polychoral motets for massive vocal and instrumental forces. While in Hamburg, Thomas Selle (1599-1663) was one of several enterprising Kapellmeisters who built up enviable musical establishments with the express purpose of making church music a leading feature of the city’s cultural life.

The organ was always at the centre of Lutheran worship, and as churches increased in size to cater for swelling congregations, so organ design advanced to create larger and more versatile instruments. Germany became the centre of organ development, putting builders like Gottfried Silbermann at the very forefront of modern technology. In the driving seat, an ambitious new generation of organists grew up to exploit these exciting new resources.

At the Marienkirche in Lübeck the talented Franz Tunder (1614-67) developed a wide variety of approaches, from free, quasi-improvised pieces, to stricter fugal ones, but none more inventive than the preludes and fantasias in which he teased out the musical possibilities of the chorales sung and cherished by his congregation. Tunder’s fantasia on Christ lag in Todesbanden is a masterpiece of ingenious variation technique, and one of many such works written at the time which elevate the humble Lutheran chorale to the greatest musical heights.

An unexpected by-product of the music-loving Lutheran Reformation was the birth of the German public concert – in church. Tunder began presenting occasional concerts of organ and sacred vocal music at the Marienkirche, which his successor, Dietrich Buxtehude, built up into an annual concert series. A Lübeck guidebook of 1697 tells us that these afternoon concerts, held immediately after Vespers, were relaxed affairs offering a leisurely succession of ‘pleasant vocal and instrumental music’. Admission was free and the costs were borne by local businessmen and donors who received a printed libretto and a good seat in return. The concerts became famous throughout Europe, attracting many distinguished visitors, including Bach in 1705.

By the 18th century, the Reformation may have lost its pioneering zeal, but by now Lutheranism was firmly established as the state religion in Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltics. With its moral code firmly embedded in society, church and council authorities worked in consort to administer musical life. For Bach this meant that taking up his post as Thomaskantor of Leipzig in 1723 was dependent on passing an exam in Lutheran theology; keeping his position meant submitting to supervision from the local council – an indignity he always resented.

But was Bach a Lutheran by conviction or convenience? It’s been argued that, since he gave up writing new church music some 20 years before his death, his religious convictions were only skin-deep. Yet the recent discovery of Bach’s personal copy of the great Lutheran Bible of 1681, complete with his copious annotations, suggests the presence of a deep and intellectually rigorous faith which had always nourished his music. On one page he noted – ‘NB. Where there is devotional music, God with his grace is always present’.

Bach’s music is in many ways the culmination of the Lutheran tradition. The organ chorale preludes, cantatas, Passions, and even the B minor Mass, were all self-consciously composed within the sphere of Lutheran theology and practice. But Bach’s music didn’t just complement the liturgy, it surpassed its everyday needs, perhaps even with an eye consciously fixed on posterity. The close bond which Luther recognised between music and theology ultimately bore fruit in musical masterpieces which have, remarkably, transcended their original time and place to inspire and enrich the wider modern world.

Some five hundred years after the Reformation there’s much to celebrate. But while marvelling at the power of Bach’s music, we should also keep an ear out for performances of works by minor Lutheran masters – the likes of Tunder, Kuhnau, Pachelbel and Buxtehude: composers whose rich, untapped legacy could benefit most from this year’s anniversary. There’ll also be a chance to get to know many more of Bach’s cantatas, most of which are still never regularly performed. Perhaps we’ll even get to understand more about their perplexing Lutheran texts.

Bach and his contemporaries would doubtless have approved of this year’s celebrations. They honoured the anniversary of the Reformation every year with a festal cantata, and there were many written for the bi-centenary of 1717, including one by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor at Leipzig, and a brassy setting by Telemann.

For the 1723 festivities, Bach based his cantata on Luther’s most famous hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott whose ringing first line – ‘A mighty fortress is our God’ – exactly captures the powerful optimism of Luther’s bold Reformation and the resolute spirit which has sustained it.


Main image © Getty Images


Simon HeighesJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine