When Martin Luther shared his fresh understanding of justification by faith—God’s unconditional grace toward sinners, given as a gift solely for Christ’s sake—he employed every tool at his disposal to spread this good Word. For sure, the Good News of Christ needed to shine forth in every service of worship.
But the liturgy of the medieval Catholic church was more a spectacle to be watched than an experience to be shared. The language of the liturgy was Latin, the priest was the main actor, the music “performed” by choirs and cantors. Worshipers all too often felt like onlookers more than participants.
Luther on Music in Worship
Luther boldly transformed this status quo. The liturgy—like the freshly-translated Scriptures—was recast in the vernacular of the German people. Worship was transformed from a priestly monologue into a living dialogue between pastor and people. And music was no longer restricted to the choir loft and chancel. Luther placed German hymns in the hands (the first Lutheran hymnbook appeared in 1524) and hearts of the faithful.
In his deep love for music and his dedication to using it to convey the Gospel, Luther’s attitude differed from that of some of his fellow reformers. “It’s worth noting that Luther and sixteenth-century Swiss reformer John Calvin had basically the same educational background. Both were versed in the music theory and musical practice of the time. But they went in very different directions….Like Luther, Calvin knew the power music had to move people, but Calvin was skeptical about how this power could be used; he was concerned that the devil might work through the music to move people in a bad way. Luther, however, trusted that music was a gift from God that could be used both to express faith and to evoke faith.”
Luther made no bones about articulating his lofty vision for music in an “always reforming” church: “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions…which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them…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—and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good?—what more effective means than music could you find?…”
Bach: The Fifth Evangelist
Two centuries after Luther’s birth, the man who would do more than any other Lutheran to put flesh-and-bones on the Great Reformer’s vision for music in worship came along. Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a family of notable church musicians on March 21, 1685 in the village of Eisenach, where Luther himself had lived for a time while attending grammar school. Bach’s father and older brother imparted their musical gifts to young Johann while he attended schools in the German towns of Eisenach, Ohrdruf and Luneberg.
For the first half of his career (1703 to 1723) Bach moved around to various German cities that needed his gifts as an organist, choir master and composer. With his first wife (and cousin), Maria Barbara Bach, he had seven children. Following Maria’s death in 1720 Bach married Anna Magdalena Wulcken, who bore his next thirteen children. Nine of Bach’s twenty children survived him!
In 1723, Bach became the music director in Leipzig’s famous churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, and he taught music in the St. Thomas school and the local university. These were Bach’s most fertile years as a composer and church musician. He composed nearly two hundred cantatas, each of which was based on the appointed scripture readings for the Sundays in the liturgical year. Bach is probably remembered most often for his great works such as the B Minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion, which was first performed in St. Thomas Church on Good Friday in 1729.
The key to Bach’s remarkable success as a church musician was his ability to synthesize music and theology. This synthesis was perhaps best symbolized by the letters SDG which Bach penned on nearly all of his compositions—standing for Soli Deo Gloria, “to God alone the glory.” In a Bible that Bach owned there is a marginal note in Bach’s own handwriting (near a passage in II Chronicles): “Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.” Bach’s uncanny ability to wed theology and music led Archbishop Nathan Soderblom (1866-1931) to nickname him “The Fifth Evangelist” (i.e. after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
In our day, Johann Sebastian Bach is perhaps (after Martin Luther himself) one of the world’s most well-known Lutherans. But such was not always the case. When Bach died on July 28, 1750 he was destitute, buried in a pauper’s grave.
Once he passed from the scene his music was largely neglected until it was “rediscovered” by the 19th century German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Almost single-handedly, Mendelssohn revived interest in Johann Sebastian Bach and his musical legacy. Thanks to Mendelssohn and his musical heirs, interest in and appreciation for J.S. Bach’s music continues into our own day.
In 2017 Bach’s grave inside Leipzig’s St Thomas Church (where his remains were reburied in 1950) is proving to be a place of pilgrimage for large crowds of Reformation500 visitors for whom sacred music remains, in Luther’s words, “second only to the Word of God.”
For Reflection and Discussion:
- In our Lutheran calendar of commemorations we remember J.S. Bach every year on July 28th—the day of his death in 1750. Give thanks for Bach and all church musicians with this prayer: “O God of majesty, whom saints and angels delight to worship: Pour out your Spirit on your servants who, with the gifts of music, enliven our praises and proclaim you word with power. Through this ministry give us new awareness of your beauty and grace, and join our voices with all the choirs of heaven, both now and forever; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (ELW p. 74)
- Bach is responsible for eight arrangements of familiar hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Arrangers have the gift of giving new life to old tunes (many of which in their original arrangements we might find difficult to sing). Take a look at hymns 310, 351, 405, 480, 501, 606, 703, and 876—and imagine how our worship would be impoverished had God bestowed on Bach the gift of “making old tunes new.”
- Discuss with others in your church how you might observe Reformation500 in ways that lift up our rich heritage of Lutheran church music. Consider hosting a hymnfest or concert featuring the works of Bach and other church musicians.
- Reflect on ways that music enhances worship for you and for others in your faith community. Remembering that all 200+ of Bach’s cantatas were new in the 1700s, how are we still making room for those who want to “sing a new song to the Lord?” (Psalm 96:1)
- Write thank-you notes to worship leaders in your congregation who play instruments, sing in choirs or lead others in song.
Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.
-  Kathryn A. Kleinhans, “Luther, Music, and the Reformation” in Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans (Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 101. Quoted by Eric W. Gritsch in The Wit of Martin Luther (Fortress, 2006), pp. 83-84. “A cantata is a large multi-movement choral and instrumental composition meant to serve as musical commentary on the readings and theme for the Sunday, a kind of musical sermon.” Karen Black, “J.S. Bach as Theologian-Musician,” in Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans (Augsburg Fortress 2016), p. 106.
 Soli Deo Gloria is also the motto for our own Concordia College of Moorhead, MN.
 If your congregation uses Lutheran Book of Worship, look at hymns 219 and 242 which were both arranged by Bach.