A little over four hundred years ago a little known priest and professor of theology started what he hoped would be a life changing debate within the Catholic Church that would bring about real and needed change in the culture and practice of the Church. Instead, Martin Luther helped start a revolution that became known as the Reformation.
One of the many changes that the Reformation brought about was in the music that was a part of the worship service. The Calvinist churches distrusted the use of art in places of worship and in services and prohibited instrumental music and the singing of any text not found in the Bible. Their main musical contribution to service music became the Book of Psalms translated into the vernacular and set to new tunes, popular tunes or plainchant melodies.
On the other hand, Luther “viewed music as an expression of faith, (and) a vehicle of prayer and praise.” He developed both service music in which the congregation had greater participation, and music in the form of strophic hymns, sung in unison, as a means of inspiration and instruction. As time passed, these familiar hymn tunes were harmonized to be sung in four parts.
The tunes were also taken as the basis for other music in the worship service. A rich flowering of liturgical music developed in the form of organ chorale preludes and other instrumental and vocal forms. The tunes would call to mind the well-known texts and thus their theological, inspirational, and instructive content. The tunes would then be embellished in form and variation. This is a tradition that continues today. Many of the pieces that Linda plays during the service are based on hymn tunes. She sometimes ‘reminds’ you of these tunes by playing them on a solo stop before the “prelude” and she sometimes plays the harmonized hymn afterward.
Over the years, church music has adopted new styles and used texts that both draw from the tradition and breaks new ground, reflecting new understandings of the message and life of the church within contemporary life.