Martin Luther on Music

“I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone.  But I am so overwhelmed by the diversity and magnitude of its virtue and benefits that I can find neither beginning nor end or method for my discourse.  As much as I want to commend it, my praise is bound to be wanting and inadequate.  For who can comprehend it all?  And even if you wanted to encompass all of it, you would appear to have grasped nothing at all.” Martin Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 53, pp. 321-322.

Martin Luther demonstrated his love of music, especially in Christian worship, throughout his adult life.  Luther studied music as one of the liberal arts.  In this famous preface, written in 1538, Luther described music as a divine gift that appears throughout nature but reaches its perfection in human beings.

“First then, looking at music itself, you will find that from the beginning of the world it has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively.  For nothing is without sound or harmony.  Even the air, which of itself is invisible and imperceptible to all our senses, and which, since it lacks both voice and speech, is the least musical of all things, becomes sonorous, audible, and comprehensible when it is set in motion….Music is still more wonderful in living things, especially birds….And yet, compared to the human voice, all this hardly deserves the name of music, so abundant and incomprehensible is here the munificence and wisdom of our most gracious Creator.” Ibid., 322.

After Luther marveled at the human voice as an instrument that confounds philosophers, he praised the benefit of the divine gift of music.  He understood its power over the human mind and soul to be next to Holy Scripture.

“We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.  She is mistress and governess of those human emotions….which as masters govern men or more often overwhelm them….For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate….what more effective means than music could you find?” Ibid., 323. [Emphasis added]

For this reason, Luther explained that the ancient prophets and fathers combined music and God’s Word.  Thus humans combine the gifts of language and song to praise God.

“But when [musical] learning is added to all this and artistic music which corrects, develops, and refines the natural music, then at last it is possible to taste with wonder (yet not to comprehend) God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music.” Ibid., 324.


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