Introduction to
The Lutheran Musical Tradition

Philip H. Pfatteicher
Associate Pastor, First Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh
Adjunct Professor of Sacred Music, Duquesne University

Martin Luther was himself a musician, who sang (in a tenor voice), played the lute, and composed tunes. This combined with his natural conservatism and love for the traditional practice of the Church to influence the reforming movement that bears his name. For Luther, music was next in importance to theology, a living voice of the Gospel, a gift from God to be used in all its fullness in Christian praise and prayer. From Luther’s Latin Mass and his German Mass to the present, except for a time in certain places that suffered from the ravages of rationalism, music has been an integral part of Lutheran worship. Not only are hymns expected in the Lutheran service, but the service itself is expected to be chanted, at least by the congregation and usually by the minister as well. A said service is practically unknown in Lutheran use.

Music in the Lutheran Church finds its most natural and comfortable place in the context of the liturgy. It is in the liturgy that music in Lutheran worship finds its highest goal and achieves its greatest fulfillment. Luther encouraged the most sophisticated forms of the music of his day, Gregorian chant and classical polyphony, to be taught to the young and sung in church together with the simpler congregational chorales. In contrast to both the Latin tradition and that of the Calvinists, the Reformers’ understanding of music as a gift from God encouraged the interaction of simple congregational song and music of the most sophisticated kind. The result was a tradition of church music that continues to flourish.

The chief musical reform of the Lutheran Church in the sixteenth century was the establishment of congregational song as a vital ingredient in corporate worship. Congregational singing centers in the singing of hymns, particularly the Lutheran chorale. This distinctive body of words and melodies, which took shape in the early years of the Reformation was drawn from chants of the medieval Church, the popular pre-Reformation "kyrie songs," from pre-Reformation non-liturgical Latin and Latin-German songs, from secular melodies to which sacred words were set, and newly-written texts and melodies. This unique form became known as the Lutheran chorale. The themes were the basic facts and proclamation of the Christian faith; the melodies, sung by the congregation in unison and without accompaniment, were vigorous, rhythmic, and in the best sense of the word popular.

The unique wedding of text and melody in the Lutheran chorales gave rise to a distinctive Lutheran custom of singing hymns in alternation between congregation, choir, and organ, alternating stanza by stanza throughout the entire hymn provided variety and also afforded opportunity to meditate on the words of the text as it was sung by the choir or played by the voice of the organ.

Moreover, certain chorales became attached to certain Sundays and feasts of the Church year. A complete series was developed, the chorale for the day becoming a kind of distinctive Lutheran proper in addition to the Introit, Collect, Lessons, and Gradual.

In Lutheran use, the choir primarily has a liturgical function, supporting and enriching the singing of the congregation, singing the portions of the liturgy entrusted to it, presenting appropriate attendant music not just to cover but to explicate actions of the liturgy.

Although the organ has pride of place in Lutheran worship, the Lutheran Church has always welcomed the use of a variety of instruments such as brass, strings, woodwinds, bells, percussion.

The German title for what in other churches is called the organist and choir director, the precentor in Anglican cathedrals, is Kantor or Cantor. The title is employed in many Lutheran churches and is not to be confused with one who leads the singing in current Roman Catholic practice. In the Lutheran Church the cantor is the parish musician who plays the organ, directs the choirs, and supervises all the music of the parish.

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St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
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