Music News October 2017

I've never been to Wittenburg nor seen the church there, but I've always imagined that it's door must be very similar to ours with it's arched top and heavy timbers bound together with iron straps and hand cut nails. I have also, on a few occasions when I disagreed with church policy, imagined nailing my own set of theses to the door as a German monk did exactly 500 years ago this month. While I would be hard pressed to come up with more than just a few insignificant ones, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in October of 1517 and set in motion the most significant event in the history of the Christian Church outside of the life of Jesus and the conversion of Constantine.

With a little help from John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Johannes Gutenberg, Luther's Reformation transformed both the Christian faith and Western culture leading to the development of the Protestant church, the English Reformation, the Counter Reformation, and the 30 Years War. Luther's initial gripe was with the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints and the selling of indulgences where the pope essentially offered credits for heaven in exchange for money to help build St. Peter's Basilica. Luther believed that salvation could only come by grace through faith in God and that scripture was the ultimate religious authority rather than the Pope.

The effect of the Reformation on western music was trans-formative as well. The Protestant doctrine made worship more participatory and accessible to the average person in many ways including the translation of both the Gospel and the language of the service to the vernacular. While Calvin and some of the other reformers wanted to reign in the role of music in the church, Luther believed that music was the greatest gift from God after only religion itself. He wanted the congregation to be able to participate and not just listen to the beautiful polyphony of the choir, and so he applied sacred texts to simple unison tunes including well known secular ones that the people could easily sing. The classic example of this is Martin Luther's great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" set to the tune of a common German drinking song. These chorale tunes were then harmonized by composers such as J.S. Bach and hymn singing as we know it today was born.

My observation over the years is that Episcopalians, somewhere in between Catholics and Protestants, are not quite sure what to make of the Reformation. While Lutherans, Presbyterians, and other Protestants see it as the birth of their denominations, for the Anglican tradition, of which we are a part, it is not quite so clear. Although the less than noble genesis of the Anglican Church was born out of Henry the VIII's lust and desire for a male heir, the influence of the Reformation on the development of the Anglican Church is still enormously significant. Signs of this can be seen in both word and song. If you are in doubt, take a stroll up the aisle to see the image of Martin Luther carved into our pulpit and browse the index of the hymnal to see the multitude of hymn tunes with German names. And finally, on Sunday, October 29, Reformation Day, remember, as you walk through those heavy oaken doors, the 95 theses that started it all exactly 500 years ago.