One of the most significant events of the Renaissance was the religious movement of the Sixteenth Century. This milestone, known as the Protestant Reformation, was the most serious upheaval in the Christian Church since the introduction of Christianity into Europe. Primarily, this revolution was neither political, philosophical, nor literary. It was a revolt that was centrally religious and idealistically moral in its motivation. It did,
however, achieve revolution in politics, philosophy, literature, art, and music in the end, although it was not begun for the sake of these aims.
The German Reformation was directed by a man of genius and energy, Martin Luther. Luther was born November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Thuringia (a province noted for its many musicians even up to the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach). Luther was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church. After attending the Latin Schools at Mansfeld, Magdeburg, and Eisenach, he entered the University of Erfurt in 1501. From this institution he received the Bachelor's degree in 1502 and the Master's degree in 1505. He entered an Augustinian Monastery on July 17, 1505 to become a monk. Two years later, he was ordained as a priest. In 1508 Luther was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University, and he also studied there subsequently to receive the Doctor of Theology degree in 1512. In 1515 Luther was appointed Augustinian Vicar for Meissen and Thuringia. During the period of his appointment as Vicar, Luther underwent a
modification in his views and beliefs.
It is with music as well as theology that Luther brought about sweeping reforms in the German Church. During Luther's time, congregational chorales were performed in the service without accompaniment. They were most often sung with the choir in unison, and occasionally the congregation would sing the melody while the choir sang a simple polyphonic harmonization. However, the pipe organ was never used to accompany hymns. The general view of Luther toward the organ was not at all enthusiastic because of its "primitive" nature (mean-tone tuning). The pipe organ was used to preludize to give the initial pitch to the priest and choir. And it was used with chorales in alternation with the choir, one verse played by the organ and the next sung.
Martin Luther did not pretend to be a great composer, but he was a practical musician who possessed considerable skills. He had the good sense to call upon professional composers for help when the need arose. His role as a musical Reformer is generally clear, but the extent to which he was a composer of original music we do not know with certainty. Some authorities say that he composed no chorale melodies at all; while others say that he wrote over one hundred hymns. The degree to which Luther composed is only moderately important, for his greatness lies in the freedom and elasticity with which he established the Lutheran service and in the great importance he attributed to
The Reformation brought into existence a new Church, a new liturgical service, and many new musical practices. Luther modified the Mass and changed it from a liturgy sung by the choir and priests exclusively to a vehicle of congregational worship that included all believers. Martin Luther viewed music as having powers to repulse evil and to glorify God at the same time. All of his musical reforms were derived from the old, but with a new concept of purpose and understanding.