The Music Philosophies of Martin Luther and John Calvin

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READY FOR a short quiz? At what time in Protestant church history did organists begin to accompany congregational singing? In what century did the church begin to divide singers into the groups of choir and congregation that we know of today? Was the strophic hymn that is sung today always in four-part harmony? Were their tunes always original or did some derive from secular songs? Can you name a theologian responsible for changing texts from Latin to the vernacular? Regardless of how you think you did, the answers are forthcoming. And the Reformation theologians Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-64) are involved in some of the answers.

It should not require Dan Brown's controversial The Da Vinci Code to inspire us to brush up on church history. Yet many church musicians have a very sketchy knowledge of the historical background of hymns, Reformation performance practices, and church history. In order to offer a fair comparison between the music philosophies of Martin Luther and John Calvin, some historical background information on Protestant church history is needed.

In ten years, barring divine intervention, the Protestant Reformation will have its 500th anniversary. The Reformation came about because of objections to practices within the Catholic Church. Also the Renaissance, with its emphasis on humanism, individual freedom, and dignity, caused many to feel the Church was too controlling. In Germany, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a monk and professor of theology, posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg as a protest (for a list of the 95 theses, go to and then type in Luther's 95 Theses). When Luther gained followers, the Lutheran Church and Protestantism began.

Luther, who was a singer and composer, believed in the ethical power of music. An admirer of Josquin des Prez and Netherlandish polyphony, he continued much of the Catholic liturgy in his church services, and retained much of the Latin. But a new style of music came into being. It was the strophic congregational hymn called a choral in German, or kirchenlied (church song), or chorale in English. In its infancy it had two elements, a text and a tune, and was monophonie like plainsong. As Catholic music in the 16th century was an outgrowth of plainsong, Protestant music of the 17th and 18th centuries was an outgrowth of the chorale.

In 1524, four collections of chorales were published, and many more followed. The tunes were either original, or based on existing liturgical chants, or were contra/acia (a variation of a secular song with a change in text to give it a spiritual meaning). These chorales were originally sung in unison by the entire congregation, not harmonized or accompanied.

Lutherans began to write polyphonic settings for these chorales, but polyphony was intended to be sung by a trained choir, not by the congregation.1 The congregation would only sing the chorales in unison and unaccompanied. Thus we have the division of the two music groups in the Protestant church service already established as early as the 16th century. Basically, this format continues today, with the congregation singing hymns of a simplified nature, and the choir singing more detailed and elaborate pieces of music.

A gradual change took place during the last third of the 16th century when more chorales were published in a homophonic setting, known as the cantional style. In this style, the four parts sang the same words together and the harmony was strictly chordal, the kind of structure that we know in our hymns today. The chorale melody was moved from the traditional tenor part to the sopranos, with the lower three voices now supplying the harmony. This texture of the Protestant hymn has, for the most part, stayed the same for centuries. Although the majority of hymns in hymnbooks today are not based on a German chorale tune, the homophonic structure, the theology of the text, and the overall form of these hymns are based on the genre of the German chorale established in the 16th century. …