Martin Luther

About Martin Luther

Although Martin Luther is better known as a Christian reformer and founder of the Lutheran Church, he was also instrumental in placing greater importance on the role of music in worship and was himself a composer and arranger. He believed that melody, rhythm and performance of a hymn or chant must be fully in harmony with the text's language and its natural inflections. Beside his emphasis on church music, he was also instrumental in the reform of music instruction in schools.
Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483. His father, a prosperous miner, wanted a career in law for his son. After taking degrees at the University of Erfurt, Luther did briefly begin studies in law, but abandoned them to become a monk in 1505. During his school years, Luther's vocal skills were already in evidence: he received free board from an elderly female admirer of his delicate but attractive tenor voice.
Luther was ordained a priest in 1507 and five years later earned a doctorate degree in theology. By 1517, having already formulated teachings that were in conflict with those of the Church, he presented his famous 95 Theses. Over the next several years he continued issuing criticism of Church precepts and fueled much theological debate at home and abroad. In 1521, he was excommunicated from the Church.
Initially, Luther was a fugitive in his homeland, hidden away by friends. It was around this time that he began to compose hymns, as is attested by the 1523 Hans Sachs poem "The Nightingale of Wittenberg." Luther's famous Ein feste Burg ist Unser Gott dates to this time, as does his marriage (June 13, 1525) to Catherine von Bora, a former nun. By the nineteenth century, general wisdom dictated that Luther had not composed the hymn melodies ascribed to him. By the mid-twentieth, scholars were more apt to say that Luther was indeed the creator or arranger, of most, perhaps all the melodies for which his texts were used. By the end of the twentieth a more balanced assessment took hold; that Luther was incontrovertibly the author of at least three hymns, and had a hand in most others accredited to him, but worked closely with Johann Walter and possibly others to bring the hymns to a final form deemed acceptable for worship.
With the 1529 publication of his so-named "Large" and "Small" catechisms, and especially with the 1530 appearance of the Augsburg Confession (written by theologian Philipp Melanchton, with Luther's consent), the Reformation began to take hold. In his remaining years Luther continued to promote his ideas and to forge ahead with the Reformation. He died in 1546, shortly after serving as an arbiter in a dispute between the brothers Gebhard and Albrecht von Mansfeld.