DID LUTHER USE TAVERN MUSIC?

Republished February 23, 2006 (updated November 14, 2002; first published August 24, 2000) (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, fbns@wayoflife.org) –

Most books in support of Contemporary Christian Music justify the use of rock music because of Martin Luther’s alleged use of secular tavern songs, but this is based on an inaccurate view of Luther’s music. In reality, what Luther did is nothing like what Christian rockers are doing today. The following are some of the serious differences between Luther’s music and CCM. (An excellent overview of this is found in Measuring the Music by John Makujina, chapter 7.)

(1) LUTHER WAS EXTREMELY CONSCIOUS OF THE DANGER OF USING THE WORLD’S MUSIC AND WARNED THAT MUSIC HAS THE POWER FOR GOOD OR EVIL. Note the following quote: “For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate . . . what more effective means than music could you find?” (Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae Iucundae,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, 323). He warns that music is “a mistress and governess of those human emotions…” (Ibid.). Thus it is obvious that Luther did not hold the CCM philosophy that music is neutral and without inherent moral qualities.

(2) LUTHER RARELY BORROWED FROM SECULAR MUSIC, AND WHEN HE DID HE CHANGED IT TO REMOVE WORLDLY INFLUENCES. Luther carefully changed the music to fit the Christian message. Of his 37 chorales, only one came directly from a secular song, and it was later replaced by a new tune he had written himself. “By avoiding dance tunes and ‘de-rhythming’ other songs, Luther achieved a chorale with a marked rhythm, but without the devices that would remind the people of the secular world. … Luther chose only those tunes which would best lend themselves to sacred themes and avoided the vulgar, ‘rollicking drinking songs’ and dance tunes. … He carefully tested the melodies he considered, and when necessary molded them into suitability” (Robert Harrell, Martin Luther: His Music, His Message, 1980). “He was not content to accept anything uncritically: he was jealous of congruity between the theme of the verse and the spirit of the music. He carefully tested the propriety for their purpose of the melodies he considered, and where necessary molded them into suitability” (Millar Patrick, The Story of the Church’s Song, p. 74). “Rollicking drinking songs were available in the 16th century too. Luther steered clear of them. He never considered music a mere tool that could be employed regardless of its original association but was careful to match text and tune, so that each text would have its own proper tune and so that both would complement each other” (Ulrich Leupold, an authority on Luther, “Learning from Luther?” Journal of Church Music, July-August 1996, p. 5). “It is perhaps in his selectivity of rhythm that we notice the seldom-acknowledged conservatism of Luther. In order for the congregation to sing in unison, a song had to contain some form of rhythm. The plainsong (Gregorian chant), however, lacked the necessary rhythm. On the other hand, dance songs and drinking songs produced a rhythm far too intense and definite for Luther’s purposes. Therefore, it is believed that in developing his chorales, Luther managed to discard dance songs altogether and limit the rhythm in other songs” (Makujina, Measuring the Music, p. 192).

(3) THOUGH LUTHER WANTED TO WRITE SPIRITUAL SONGS THAT WERE PLEASING TO YOUNG PEOPLE, HE WAS CAREFUL TO WEAN THEM AWAY FROM FLESHLY MUSIC. “And these songs were arranged in four parts to give the young--who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts--something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth” (emphasis added) (Martin Luther, “Preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 316).

This is certainly not what we see in CCM! Not only does CCM itself develop worldly appetites in music by uncritically adopting the world’s music, but most of the CCM musicians are hooked directly into secular rock music in their daily lives. We have documented this extensively in our book Contemporary Christian Music Under the Spotlight.

(4) LUTHER WAS NOT REFERRING TO SECULAR MUSIC WHEN HE ASKED “WHY SHOULD THE DEVIL HAVE ALL THE GOOD MUSIC?”

The following is from Michael Terenzoni: “Luther's quote ‘Why should the devil have all the good music’ was unfortunately misstated by a Christian music artist years ago to justify melding contemporary secular music styles to Christianity. Nothing can be further from the truth. That hymn uses German bar form AABA. AABA is standard form for many hymns, German and otherwise. Luther composed the music and the text himself to ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God.’ His statement above was an intentional swipe at the Roman papacy: ‘Why should the papacy/Catholic Church have all the great art music--let's have it in the Christian church.’  He was referring to the Catholic sacred music of the time of course, such as that of composer Josquin Desprez. So the whole idea of CCM using Luther is patently false, even ridiculous.”