Reformed Church Music


During the Reformation in the 16th century music in the church took a new direction. John Calvin's Genevan Psalter has been sung by the church ever since.

Text and Tune


Much can be said about the relation between text and tune, especially regarding the Genevan tunes as you can find in our Book of Praise. (This matter is a complicated subject and is not covered on this website.) On this page you can read about this subject from another point of view.  

1. The relation between text and tune

According to Johann Walter music is "wrapped up and locked up in theology, so that he who desires, pursues, and studies theology at the same lays hold of the art of music, even though he may fail to see, feel, or understand this." (Preface to Lob und Preis der loblichen Kunst Musica) Music and theology share a common root in the Word; both come from God, both employ the sense of hearing. Luther often referred to music as a gift of God and accorded it the highest place and greatest honor after theology.

In his Table Talks Luther said, "The notes bring the text to life," (Luther, Martin. Tischreden. No. 2545. Quoted in F. Blume et al., Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974) and elsewhere he stated: "After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music." (Martin Luther in the Preface to Georg Rhaus "Symphoniae Lucundae." Luther's Works, LIII). 
This means that hymn singing is preaching, a return of God’s Word to the people! Luther, then, restored singing to the church as preaching, the speaking "to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19) so that "the Word of Christ [might] richly dwell" in them (Col. 3:16). 
Because the hymn was regarded as a proedicatio sonora — a resounding sermon, it was placed "on the same level as the proclamation and prayers of the pastor." (Schalk, C., ed. Key Words in Church Music (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978) Consequently, the Reformation accorded congregational song an autonomous place in the liturgy. It was not simply regarded as the people’s answer to the sermon, but instead stood side by side with the sermon, albeit in sequential order. (Blankenburg. W. "Der Gottdienstliche Liedgesang der Geineinde," in Leiturgia (Kassel: Johannes Stauda-Verlag. 1961)).

The Word of God could become the Living Word only when it was preached, and only then could it awaken faith. Since music (the notes) "make the text live," God preached the Gospel also through music. Both music and theology then are "bearers and interpreters of the Word of God, being living voices of the Gospel."

Quoted from an article by P. Janson, "A Reason to Sing". 
This article appeared in Reformation & Revival Journal, Volume 4, Number 4 - Fall 1995, the theme being "Music".


2. Importance of biblical hymns according to Martin Luther

The title page of the first Lutheran hymn book, Das Achtliederbuch (1524), states: "Some Christian hymns, canticles, and Psalms, made according to the pure Word of God, from Holy Scriptures, by several very learned men, to sing in church as it is in part already practiced in Wittenberg."

Martin Luther on writing chorales: "This should be done that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which through God’s grace is now being proclaimed, might be set going and spread among men."  
In a letter to Spalatinus, secretary to Frederick the Wise, Luther writes: "[Our] plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church, and to compose psalms for the people [in the] vernacular, that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music." 
A Jesuit, named Conzenius, is known to have remarked that Luther persuaded more people with his hymns than with his sermons.

It is often said that "the reformers restored congregational singing". This is true, but they did more than that - they restored preaching to the congregation - a most appropriate activity for lay priests! 
"If, now, the congregation is to proclaim the divine truth, it must have a sermon worth preaching. This is the reason for the substantial ... doctrinal content in many of the Reformation hymns." 

Hymns should be biblical:

The purpose of the Lutheran chorale was to let the Word of God dwell among the people. The poetry of the hymn needed to be thoroughly biblical, but devoid of complex imagery; the words had to speak to the people. From a letter to Georg Burkhardt, whom Luther had requested to write hymn texts based on the Psalms, it is clear that Luther wanted the congregation to understand that which they were singing, so that they could indeed sing with heart and mind.

Luther wrote: "I would like you to avoid any new words of the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and the most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt; and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the psalm. You need a free hand here: maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words."

For his hymn texts Luther translated Latin hymns and liturgical chants of the Roman church, and "improved them in a Christian manner," i.e., purged them from wrong doctrine. Luther’s own religious poetry adhered closely to the everlasting truths of Scripture. He based some of his chorale texts on the Old Testament Psalms and on other Scripture passages

Luther did not insist that all texts used in the church service had to be literally from the Bible or close adaptations thereof; however, he did require that texts be theologically sound. Whatever the source of the text, it had to be doctrinally "pure and apt," for Luther recognized the power of hymnody. Hymnody could either proclaim truth or error, and the Lutheran chorale was to preach the Word of God so that also through song the message of salvation would be disseminated.