Music of the Reformation

Reformation Sunday is October 25, 2015 and it might be interesting to reflect on how church music changed during this time. Of the various leaders of the Reformation movement (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and even Henry VIII) it’s been said that Martin Luther (being an accomplished musician himself) had the strongest connection to music and that he had the most impact on the music of the church and on composers who came after him.
The Word of God was brought closer to the people through the use of the national language (rather than Latin), and through music. Hymns were meant to be easily understood and would allow the congregation to participate fully as they offered their praise and thanksgiving in song. Luther considered music to be a gift from God, rather than a human invention and as such, was to be used in His service.
The text of the hymns was most important in worship and the music was to reflect this. The tunes were kept simple in order to make hymn singing accessible to all the people. From these simple tunes, basic harmony was added, also reflecting the text and this format gave rise the “chorale” we know today and the divisions of harmony we use: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
Martin Luther was a great proponent of the people’s music and used popular tunes, changing the words to sacred text. This practice was called contrafacta or “parodies” of secular songs. Our beautiful hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, can be traced back to a song by Hans Leo Hassler, My Peace of Mind is Shattered (by a tender maiden’s charms). This practice continues today as we use familiar tunes to new words.
As we sing our hymns, either as a simple tune or in four part harmony, we can reflect on how the words are made more meaningful to us and how each one of us is able to worship fully, praising God through music.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *