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Saturday morning quotes 2.4: Martin Luther’s lute

June 16, 2012

Whoever despises music, I am displeased with him. Next to theology I give place to music; for thereby all anger is forgotten, the devil is driven away, and melancholy and many tribulations and evil thoughts are expelled.

- Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) was known to have played the lute, and this has led to wild speculation about the secular nature of his musical ideas down to absurdly wondering whether he was even actually responsible for the modern Guitar Mass.

People who had access to a musical education during Luther’s time are likely to have played the lute, and Martin Luther was no exception.  And instrumental music in the liturgical context was not as uncommon as advocates of the a cappella heresy would like us to believe.  In fact, the Council of Sens, which convened in 1528, addressed the use of secular tunes in the Ordinary of the Mass, and how they were played on diverse stringed and wind instruments–apparently a common and widespread practice at the time.

As a young monk in the Erfurt district (probably between 1507 and 1512), Luther attended a mass at which the Kyrie and Patrem were sung by a bass-voiced sacristan who accompanied himself on the lute.  With his typically wry sense of humour, Luther implies that the lute replaced the organ at this service: “I could hardly refrain from laughing because I was not accustomed to such organ playing…”

- Leslie Korrick, “Instrumental music in the early 16th-century Mass: new evidence”, Early Music, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Aug., 1990), p. 362

Ink has been spilled speculating whether Luther used popular tunes or outright bawdy tavern songs as the basis for some of his self-composed hymn tunes.  Undoubtedly, there is a bit of attitude emanating from both sides of the peanut gallery and spinning this information in different directions: More orthodox Catholics would like to point out examples of how Luther was deliberately provocative and embraced heretical practices; Lutherans always like to point to Luther’s bold and independent reforms that encouraged congregational singing.

But as far as we know, sources of Luther’s hymn tunes were really the same sources available to any composer of the time.  Contemporary composers including Jacob Obrecht (c. 1457 – 1505) and Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450 – 1517) were known to have straddled the fence with some of most compelling motets and Mass settings balanced with some outright bawdy secular songs.

The compositional practice we call ‘parody’ technique today was used by composers for musical settings of the Mass.  The technique simply employs a pre-existing tune as the thematic basis for the five movements of the Ordinary of the Mass, and had nothing to do with our modern understanding of the term ‘parody’ as a deliberately provocative comical device.

Reforms after the Council of Trent (1562) banned the incorporation of secular material in Mass settings, as the Vatican sought to “… banish from church all music which contains, whether in the singing or the organ playing, things that are lascivious or impure.”  Nevertheless, the champion of sacred music after the Council of Trent was Palestrina, who was known to have worked out his Mass settings on the lute, bringing us full circle.

6 Comments
  1. Edward Doughtie permalink

    “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”

  2. It seems Luther led what we might call a sense of balance in his life:

    “Who loves not women, wine and song,
    He lives a fool his whole life long.”

  3. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Luther şi Lăuta

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 2.37: More from Martin Luther « Unquiet Thoughts
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  3. Martin Luther’s lute | Bach Radio

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