A Musical Reformation

A Musical Reformation: From Martin Luther to Contemporary Church Music

The Protestant Reformation resulted in a break from the Catholic Church that not only affected fundamental beliefs of Protestant churches but also the practices that developed within them. While the traditions of the Catholic Church had been preserved over centuries, Protestantism had no set traditions at its genesis, and since, before the Reformation, “people were intensely religious” (Hillerbrand xiii), there was little to influence Protestantism but the already established practices of Catholicism and contemporary culture. However, the traditions of Protestantism developed alongside the culture surrounding it, while the practices of the Catholic Church stayed mostly static. Due to the importance of musical worship in the Christian tradition, this secular influence also affected the styles and structures of new compositions within the Protestant Church, and as a result, the Protestant music composed since the Reformation, including the Christian music of today, continues to be influenced by secular culture. In recent decades, Christian composers have become financially reliant on the general population of churchgoers rather than the Church in their production of worship music, and thus, the secular influence on contemporary Christian music has strengthened.

In 1517, Martin Luther posted his “95 theses onto a Wittenberg church door” (Pelz 19) in an effort to start a discussion about the controversy around the sale of indulgences. His theses were simply highlighting “a minor point of Catholic theology” and were not meant to be “directed against the hierarchy and the papacy” but many perceived it to be an attack on the established Church (Hillerbrand xiv). Luther’s issue with the sale of indulgences, according to Andrew Johnston, was not that indulgences were inherently bad but, rather, that the Catholic Church should not suggest “that escape from punishment in purgatory could be bought.” Nonetheless, the general perception that Luther’s actions were meant to berate Catholic leaders developed his initial critique of Catholicism into a disdain for “more central issues” and led to the birth of Protestantism.

In its early years, Protestantism was still strongly connected to the Catholic Church, as Luther’s theses were not meant to create a division between the Catholic Church and its dissidents. However, he wanted Christianity to be more accessible to those not familiar with Latin, the language of the Church. Latin was a language for higher class citizens with formal education, and Luther wanted the Church, in Germany, to integrate the native German language for citizens without that level of education. With reference to the book of Colossians, Luther expressed his belief that the lower classes of Germans needed access to Christian music in order to follow St. Paul’s command “to sing psalms and spiritual songs to the Lord” (Strunk 152), and as a result, he composed a German Mass, which was published in 1524 (151).

Though Luther called for a change in the accessibility of the Church to the general population, he did not entirely reject all aspects of Catholicism. He celebrated Christian music as a gift from God and his fondness for the music of Catholic composer Josquin des Prez demonstrated his ability to look beyond the lines of denomination in this regard. As Luther was a composer of hymns, the influence of Catholic compositions on his own work, inevitably, had an impact on the compositions of other Protestant composers. Both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, for example, developed church music for the participation of the congregation–pieces that were melodically and rhythmically simple, making them easy to sing. Many of these were compiled into hymnals that were used by members of the Church to sing during service. Hymns by Luther, such as his “Nun fruet euch, lieben Christen g’mien” and “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” are still performed to this day.

The developments and changes within Protestant music can be observed through the changes made to Luther’s “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” by subsequent composers. The lyrics and music of the original composition are known to have been written by Luther, but the exact time of the hymn’s publication is unknown. A version of it, with Luther’s signature, is still in circulation, and a number of contemporary hymnals are to have been composed contain versions that are attributed to Luther.

The image above shows the simple melody Luther set to the words of Psalm 46. Its simplicity is a result of its intended use by a church’s congregation, and the melody reflects this. There is never a leap greater than the interval of a fifth and the majority of the piece moves in stepwise motion. Many composers have been influenced by this piece, including Felix Mendelssohn in his “Reformation Symphony” and Richard Wagner’s Kaisermarch (Fuller-Maitland and Grove 484). The main distinction between Luther’s original composition and modern versions of the piece is a change in instrumentation that is tailored to contemporary listeners. However, one of its earliest adaptations goes beyond this to make drastic changes to the melody of “Ein’ feste burg” musically and structurally.

J.S. Bach’s adaptation of this hymn into a cantata demonstrated that not all compositions in the Protestant tradition were written for the sake of simplicity. The cantatas of J.S. Bach, for one, were meant for performance by trained church musicians on different Sundays throughout the year rather than communal singing. Composed between 1727 and 1731, the length of Bach’s “Ein’ feste Burg” goes far beyond the original hymn, and the arrangement of its text is somewhat modernized. In the first movement of the piece, the text is rotated in canonic imitation with each voice singing the first two lines of Luther’s text. The tenor is the first to start the cycle in measure 1, followed by the alto in measure 6. In measure 11, the soprano joins and is followed by the bass in measure 16. It isn’t until the 60th measure that the third and fourth lines (“Er hilft uns frei aus aller Noth, / die uns jetzt hat betroffen.”) are introduced and Bach reestablishes the canonic imitation between them. Because it was meant for a church congregation, the text of Luther’s hymns was constructed so that each line would transition into the next until the end of the piece rather than returning to the beginning of a line already sung. These hymns also did not require the congregation to begin their lines at different times, which kept the work short and easy to sing. Bach’s cantata also differed from the original composition through the complexity of its orchestration. It makes use of many different instruments, including trumpets, timpani, and strings, and allows for a fuller texture in lieu of the liturgical and chant-like texture given to congregational hymns by pianos and organs. Below is the first iteration of the hymn’s text in Bach’s setting, introduced by the tenor voice, and underneath that, the same section of Luther’s hymn.


The differences between the two settings can be seen in the embellishments Bach added to Luther’s original melody. The singing of “feste” is drawn out from the second beat of the first measure until the end of the fourth measure’s second beat, and in the singing of this single word, there are four embellishments on Luther’s original melody: the eighth notes in measure 2, the eighth note on D in measure 3, and the quarter note that ends the word in measure 4. These, as well as the the quarter note on “ist” in measure 4, are used as passing notes that fill the gaps between the leaps in Luther’s melody. In measures 5 and 6, the change of melody on “unser” is also noticeable. Luther’s melody uses three pitches for the word with the last two purposed as passing tones between “un-“ and “Gott.” Bach, on the other hand, uses two with the second leaping up a fourth between “un-“ and “-ser” and down a fifth to “Gott.” 

One of the most recent adaptations of the hymn was arranged by Chris Rice, a former Christian artist who was most famous in the world of Christian music for his song, “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus).” As with many modern arrangements, Rice’s version of “Ein’ feste Burg” mostly remains faithful to the original melody but, because it was adapted within a different era of the Protestant church, the song has a different timbre to it. The introduction is comprised of harmonic arpeggiations and the melody, unlike in traditional hymns, doesn’t begin until the second half of the first beat in measure four. Rice uses the guitar to build harmonies, a task that might previously been accomplished by moving chords on a piano or organ. He only slightly embellishes Luther’s melody, adding the D-sharp on the “r” in fortress to create a more fluid motion to the F# that begins “is.” The four sixteenth notes at the end of the line, elongating the singing of “failing,” is another embellishment absent in Luther’s composition. The transcription of the melody below, alongside Luther’s composition, demonstrates the way these embellishments have been used to develop the melody, but it is clear that the general structure of the original hymn remains essential to Rice’s adaptation. 

The trends in Chris Rice’s adaptation of Luther’s hymn are apparent in the work of other Christian musicians as well. Page CXVI is a contemporary Christian band whose oeuvre is almost entirely composed of new arrangements of old hymns. Their adaptation of the Lutheran hymn, “Stille meine Wille, dein Jesus hilft siegen,” which was originally written by Katharina von Schlegel, is commonly performed in contemporary nondenominational churches in the United States, including the collective of Reality churches that have been planted in London and along the west coast of the U.S. The adaptation maintains the hymns short length and simple melodic progression, imitating the original melody; however, instead of only singing through the hymn’s original text, it adds embellishments to the melody through passing tones and repeated lines, while also removing small sections of the lyrics and, as a result, other parts of the original melody. The instrumentation of the hymn is also expanded beyond an organ in this version beyond to include the guitar, trumpets, a drum set, and—in lieu of the organ—an electronic keyboard.

The cover of the hymn “Come Thou Fount,” also arranged by Page CXVI, demonstrates a different development in contemporary Christian music. The piece has a similar instrumentation to the band’s arrangement of “Be Still My Soul,” but instead of removing parts of the lyrics and melody, it introduces a new bridge composed of new music and words. This is a trend demonstrated in other contemporary hymn adaptations. Chris Tomlin’s arrangement of “Amazing Grace,” for example, adds the famous “My Chains Are Gone” bridge before the hymn’s last verse.

Another version of “Come Thou Fount” was arranged by the band Kings Kaleidoscope, which approaches the hymn in a different manner. Making use of the development of electronic music, the band uses the electronic keyboard to create an atmospheric synth as the hymn’s harmony, alternating between two chords, E-major and C-sharp minor, for the majority of the work. In the beginning of the hymn, this is only supplemented with a simple rhythmic pattern of drumstick hits against the rim of a drum; it is not until the 1:20 mark that the piece introduces new sounds, and yet, they are not new instruments but, rather, more keyboard synths. At the 2:14 mark, the introduction of trumpets makes the band’s intentions clear—the piece is slowly building, hitting certain points of the song to build emotional intensity. The trumpets, which repeat a melody to contrast the melody being sung, are accompanied by a faster rhythmic progression that utilizes the rest of the drum set. Not long after strings and new keyboard synths are added in order to continue building the piece’s intensity. For the final verse, which is a repeat of the first verse, the trumpets are dropped out and the synth layers are reduced, removing the fullness of the piece’s center. As a result of the reduction of layers in this final verse, there is a perceived quiet—perhaps an attempt to leave space for the audience to reflect on the emotions evoked by the earlier parts of the piece and, in addition, the fullness of God.

Modernizations of old hymns demonstrate a relationship between the transformation of popular culture and changes in the culture of Christianity. This trend is nothing new. An 1867 issue of Watson’s Art Journal explains that even in the 19th century, “a great proportion of [Protestant] church music—even old hymns and psalms—[was] taken from operas, musical dramas, masses, national melodies, songs, etc.” (236), the embodiment of popular culture in that period. This suggests some degree of merging between the sacred and secular, a topic that has been studied in academic circles for years, but the extent of the connection—or lack thereof—between the two realms remains uncertain. The sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that the separation between the sacred and secular was definite, claiming that the sacred was, simply, that which was separate from “everyday mundane social life” (Chang and Lim 393), but Howard S. Becker, on the other hand, believed Durkheim’s definition to be an oversimplification. He saw the sacred as broader than simply religion or that which was holy and stated that the antithesis to religion was the profane rather than the secular. Chang and Lim, siding with Durkheim, focus the conversation of their paper on the sacred as religious but point out that people “practice their faiths within the larger context of a ‘secular society’ and thus inevitably interact with that society.”

Looking back at the Protestant Reformation, this is evident in the responses to the actions of the movement’s leaders. William A. Pelz explains that these theologians’ attacks on the Catholic Church were interpreted “as a call to reject the established order—both lay and clerical,” but because the Christian tradition was so engrained in the culture of Europe, the movement against the established order was based “in Biblical tones” though “the motivation [was] a bit more secular” (21). In modern times, the influence of secular culture is evident in many places. The extensive production of Christian albums, for example, comprised of short songs that are easy for singing along, as well as the changes in instrumentation in contemporary Christian music demonstrates one aspect of the development of Protestantism alongside secular culture.

The origins of contemporary Christian music groups demonstrates that many of the changes in the style of popular Christian music are results of the lack of patronage available to musicians through the church. The majority of modern churches have come to be seen as a place to build community, and as such, many of the positions related to the Sunday services, especially in smaller churches, have become volunteer-based rather than salaried jobs. In the 18th century, J.S. Bach spent many years working as the St. Thomas cantor in Leipzig “composing church music,” producing around “150 compositions…between 1723 and 1727” (Marshall 497). For modern day Christian musicians, however, this has become a problem, as they are no longer able to earn money through the church and, thus, their ability to make a living is dependent on a paying fan base—just as it is in popular music. In order to facilitate this process for musicians, Christian music labels have begun to emerge. Many of these labels were established from churches but are considered to be separate—to varying degrees—from those churches. The most prominent of these is Hillsong. It was originally established as a church in Sydney, Australia, and has since planted churches internationally. While their churches are prevalent, the organization is most famous for its creation of their first Christian band, Hillsong United, which is known for combining Christian music styles with the characteristics of modern popular music. A search through the media section of Hillsong’s website reveals that this is, in fact, the aim of the group. The church, it states, is meant to be “a global movement positioned at the intersection of Christianity and culture.” Their other bands are no exception to this. Hillsong Worship has reached “50 million people in 60 languages” and their more recent Hillsong Young & Free was established as “youth music ministry” directed at the next generation.

As the culture around them begins to change, churches have begun to adapt their approaches to audience engagement. As Rick McDaniel points out, in his editorial for the Huffington Post, what would once have never been considered proper church attire—“jeans and flip flops”—is now prevalent in churches around the U.S., and sermons that contemplate the intricacies of the Biblical text have been replaced by “messages that focus on sex, success, and decision making.” “Traditional churches” are falling by the wayside in lieu of churches that “meet [the] needs” of contemporary churchgoers. What McDaniel observes is that these churches are doing a better job of engaging young adults as well as “people from all kinds of racial and ethnic backgrounds” because people are drawn in by the idea of worshipping in “a culturally relevant way.”

For many contemporary churches, cultural relevance has translated to monetization. The websites of churches similar to Hillsong, such as Fearless LA and Bethel Church, and Christian music labels demonstrate the extent to which Christian culture has become monetized. Both Hillsong and Bethel sells music, books, and sermons on their respective websites. Fearless LA, a church in downtown Los Angeles, rents a space that doubles as the nightclub Exchange LA and sells church paraphernalia online and at a small station inside the church. The highly controversial Joel Osteen, who pastors Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, is often chastised for his promotion of the prosperity gospel, which promotes “doing good things to leverage material blessings from God,” according to Rick Henderson. Because the capitalist nature of the United States has entrenched Christian culture in money, Osteen’s message has become more relevant to churchgoers than ever. At the most basic level, money keeps pastors, Christian musicians, and other church employees, whose jobs and careers are based in the religion, afloat, but as Chris Lehmann explains, Osteen urges Christians to focus on money by suggesting that wealth is “an expression of personal greatness.” What is interesting about his advocacy for the prosperity gospel, apart from the controversy that surrounds it, is that it brings the modern-day Protestant church back to indulgences from which Protestantism was meant to break. In Luther’s time, the Catholic Church suggested that paying indulgences would reward you in heaven, but Osteen gives indulgences a contemporary brand, claiming that as long as Christians pay with “their total trust in God’s worldly designs for the faithful,” God will grant them “great riches”—an idea that contradicts the Christian belief that the current world should be shunned in order to attain eternal life.

The nature of the Protestant church has changed drastically since Luther incited the Protestant Reformation. This is especially visible in the culture of music production and performance within the Church. Before the Reformation and in the early years of Protestantism, musicians could build careers from composing music for the church. As Protestantism progressed, composers were replaced by worship teams comprised of volunteers from the church congregation, who performed songs written by popular Christian artists, including Page CXVI, Kings Kaleidoscope, and Chris Tomlin. The gradual developments in Christian culture were often the result of the changing secular culture in which the Church was situated, and as churches stopped paying for in-house composers, Christian musicians began to approach music production and distribution through mainstream channels, focusing on earning money through fans rather than patronage from the Church. This change highlights the Church’s general move toward monetization. Today, many Christian labels are born out of already established churches, and those same churches often run online or on-campus stores to sell paraphernalia related to those labels or the specific church. The message that has evolved out of this change—often referred to as the prosperity gospel—suggests that the church may have come full circle as it finds itself promoting a passion for money that is not far removed from the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences.


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