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Did Luther use tunes from love songs?

It is irresponsible to claim that Luther used tunes from secular loves songs for his hymns and compare it to today’s situation.

If there is one argument in defense of bringing secular musical forms into the church that I’ve heard more than any other, it is certainly one that insists that Luther used tunes from love songs or drinking songs, so why shouldn’t we?

Did Luther (and others after him) use tunes that were originally intended for non-liturgical purposes when producing their hymns? Absolutely. But to compare that practice to taking pop tunes or styles today into the church is a comparison between apples and oranges. Some make this comparison ignorantly to be sure; yet I have heard plenty others who should know better make the argument without any historical context, which is irresponsible in my opinion.

Here’s what Luther did, and why it is illegitimate to compare what he did to today’s cultural situation:

Luther’s push for vernacular church music led him to adopt musical forms that were also in the vernacular — more accessible forms with which common worshipers could more easily participate. Therefore, he used idioms from folk music traditions such as that of the Meistersingers and Minnesingers to set his church music.

Luther’s tunes came from a variety of sources:1

  • Gregorian Chant
    • ALL EHR’ UND LOB SOLL GOTTES SEIN (“All Glory Be to God Alone” – Gloria tempore paschali
    • KYRIE, GOTT VATER IN EWIGKEIT (“Kyrie, God Father in Heaven Above”) – Kyrie fons bonitatis
    • EIN FEST BERG (“A Mighty Fortress”) was “woven out of Gregorian reminiscences.”2
  • Latin Office Hymns
  • German Leisen (religious German folksongs)
    • NUN BITTEN WIR DEN HEILIGEN GEIST (“Now Let Us Pray to God the Holy Ghost”)
    • WIR GLAUBEN ALL AN EINEN GOTT (“We All Believe in One True God”)
  • Secular Folk Tunes
    • O WELT, ICH MUSS DICH LASSEN (“O World, I Now Must Leave Thee”) – “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” He eventually changed the tune because he “was embarrassed to hear the tune of his Christmas hymn sung in inns and dance halls.”3
    • VON HIMMEL HOCH DA DOMM ICH HER (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”) – “Ich komm aus fremden Landen her”
  • Original Tunes Modeled in the Character of German Folk Tunes

So in a few cases, Luther did borrow tunes from the “secular” folk culture for his hymns. However, it is essential to recognize the culture difference between Luther’s day and ours. Luther saw no sacred/secular distinction in terms of conventional use. As Blume notes, such a distinction did not even exist in the early 1500s:

In view of this, it was not important, at least in the first half of the 16th century, whether the text generally associated with the music was sacred or secular. In contrast to the humanistic thought affecting the educated classes ever more strongly in the course of the 16th century, Protestantism preserved the medieval classification of the world, with secular art subjected to an intellectual discipline characterized by piety and churchliness. Under these conditions the disparity between sacred and secular music could at first hardly become a problem.4

Indeed, up until the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Church most significantly influenced folk culture, not visa versa. Reese (1940) explains this with the example of the French troubadours, the basis for the Minnesingers’ music:

The music of the Church was doubtless enriched by the music of the people; but it was very likely more influential than influenced. For the troubadour to model his songs directly on ecclesiastical melodies was both natural and easy. He heard music in the churches, and he attended churches frequently. . . . As we have noted . . . there was no sharp line of demarcation between sacred and secular music.5

In other words, the music of the Church and the music of the folk culture sounded very similar because the Church dominated the culture of the West. The folk culture borrowed from the Church, not the other way around. Consider the following diverse scholars’ comments on this matter:

“Such a free use and adaptation of secular melodies for sacred purposes was made possible in part because the distinction between sacred and secular musical styles as we think of it today was for most practical purposes nonexistent.”6

“Those who taught and those who studied [music] were associated with the work of the church, and many melodies written for secular texts were produced by the same men who wrote melodies for church use.”7

“In Luther’s time, the dichotomy between secular/sacred and popular/classical music was not as wide as it is today.”8

“Stylistically there is very little difference between a German popular song in the sixteenth century, a sacred Protestant chorale and a Leise.”9

“The fluid boundary between the sacred and secular spheres made popular music welcome in the Christian churches of Germany, either as part of the liturgy or in paraliturgical religious activities. Religious song was also at home in the non-sacred world, sung as devotion or as entertainment in the same homes and streets where secular pieces predominated.”10

“All types of [folk] music were monophonic . . . composed of four to eight lines of poetry, and based on simple musical structures such as the German Bar form (AAB).”11

The character of even secular tunes in Luther’s day was “marked by devotional earnestness and great dignity. . . . The emotional element in music was yet developed, and even the love song of Luther’s time was a serious and weighty affair.”12

Additionally, a recognition of Luther’s discernment and conservatism in his mixing church music with folk forms is important. Clearly, Luther was quite selective in his choices of music idioms. Despite the plethora of more debase secular forms such as dance songs and drinking songs, Luther was careful to reject those with rhythms too intense for use in the church. As Robert Harell Explains,

Strongly rhythmic dance music also existed in Luther’s day. The rhythms from these songs do not appear in Luther’s music; rather, the rhythmic basis of the chorales lies in the word accents instead of dance rhythms.13

Ulrich Leupold maintains this observation:

Rollicking drinking songs were available in the 16th century too. Luther steered clear of them. He never considered music a mere tool that could be employed regardless of its original association but was careful to match text and tune, so that each text would have its own proper tune and so that both would complement each other.14

An additional proof that Luther believed in a distinction between spiritual music and carnal music is that he thought that his music, which he considered intrinsically good, could actually “wean [young people] way from carnal and lascivious songs, and interest them in what is good and wholesome. Only thus will they learn, as they should, to love and appreciate what is intrinsically good.”15

The cultural climate of Luther’s day couldn’t be more different than ours is today; the Church dominated culture then, whereas secular values dominate today. The folk love songs of Luther’s day were serious and weighty, whereas today they are flippant and trite (if not downright banal). It is therefore illegitimate to compare Luther’s practice to ours.

There may be other arguments to use in defense of bringing secular pop tunes and styles into the church, but this one is not historically honest nor intellectually valid.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. From Carl Schalk, Key Words in Church Music: Definition Essays on Concepts, Practices, and Movements of Thought in Church Music, Rev. and enl. ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2004), 70-71. []
  2. Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach (1908), trans by Ernest Newman, 2 vols (Neptune City, NJ: Paganiniana, 1980), 1:16. []
  3. Paul Nettl, Luther and Music (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), 48. []
  4. Friedrich Blume, et al, Protestant Church Music: A History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974), 29. []
  5. Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1940), 218. []
  6. Carl Schalk, “German Hymnody,” in Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 21. []
  7. Edwin Liemohn, The Choral (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1963), 12-13. []
  8. David W. Music, “Getting Luther out of the Barroom” in The Hymn, July 1994, 51. []
  9. Rebecca Wagner Oettinger, Music as Propaganda in the German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 21. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Ibid. []
  12. Peter Christian Lutkin, Music in the Church (New York: AMS, 1970), 14. []
  13. Harrell, 36. []
  14. Ulrich S. Leupold, “Learning from Luther? Some Observations on Luther’s Hymns,” Journal of Church Music 8 (July-August 1966): 5. []
  15. George W. Forell, et al, Luther and Culture, (Decorah, IA: Luther College, 1960), 167. []