A priceless music legacy

I feel blessed to have been placed by God in a family and a part of Christendom that cherishes the now 500-year-old Reformation tradition. Most crucial is the strong emphasis the Reformation placed on the Bible as God’s all-sufficient Word, and on its reading and study by all Christians.

Also essential to me personally was the Reformation’s reclaiming of music “for the people.” The Reformers realized that congregational song is vital, a key element in a church’s knowledge and understanding of its own theology. As a near life-long church musician from an extended family of  musicians, I particularly treasure the role of music in Reformed and Lutheran worship.  

For centuries, pre-Reformation church music had been provided by professionals singing in Latin, and in styles in which even the Latin became increasingly unintelligible. Paid musicians weren’t the problem. The issue was music’s remoteness from the Mass-goers, creating an inability to participate and understand the texts being sung. In response, the two major 16th century Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, took distinctly different paths to reinvigorate church music.  

In unison
Calvin was convinced that the only appropriate music for public worship were “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” based only on direct words from Scripture, in the vernacular language, and a cappella (unaccompanied). Worship music must be “free from vicious attractions, and from that foolish delight, by which it seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity,” he said. He charged that the existing Roman church had made worship “more splendid and inviting” – a bad thing – by employing “organs, and many other such ludicrous things, by which the Word and worship of God are exceedingly profaned, the people being much more attached to those rites than to the understanding of the divine Word” (Homily on 1 Sam. 18:1-9).

Thus developed the tradition of the Genevan Psalms. It became a splendid tradition (I use the word advisedly!). The tunes used to set the Psalm texts are sturdy, direct, rhythmic and well-suited to strong a cappella singing in unison. It’s a tradition I love, full of biblical and musical strength. I sorrow that most Reformed churches are now neglecting it.

In harmony
On the other hand, Luther was himself a musician, which strongly influenced his approach. “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise,” he said. And: “Looking at music itself, you will find that from the beginning of the world it has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound or harmony . . . ” (Luther’s Works, v. 53). Luther marveled at the human voice as our own unique, divinely created instrument, but also recognized that the voice can be enhanced in worship with appropriate instruments. Thus he himself wrote a body of chorales with easily singable tunes and applicable harmonies which present texts that  embody biblical truths while not directly quoting the Bible. They were in German, rhymed for easy memorization.

I’m the music director in a Lutheran church. A privilege of my position is the choosing of our weekly hymns, and in what manner we’ll sing or chant the appointed Psalm. Our hymnal contains many chorales by Luther and subsequent generations of Lutheran composers. As time goes by, we sing them all (along with a lot of other hymns), and then start over again. What I’ve also brought into our worship – and which my Lutheran congregation, and the pastor, have come to appreciate – are Genevan Psalms from the Psalter Hymnal.

It’s the best of two Reformed musical worlds. Our small congregation sings very well, a legacy from Luther himself. That we can also incorporate Psalms from the Calvinist tradition I so value is a gift for which I regularly give thanks to God – the sovereign God who formed his church on earth, who changed its course 500 years ago, who still leads it today so that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

Lord Jesus Christ, your pow’r make known,
for you are Lord of hosts alone;
defend your holy Church that we
may sing your praise triumphantly.

Text: Martin Luther; tune: ERHALT UNS, HERR, J. Klug, 1543

Marian Van Til is a freelance writer living in Youngstown, N.Y., and a former CC editor.


  • Marian Van Til

    Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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