Did Martin Luther really use tavern tunes in church?
It has been claimed by many people over the years that Martin Luther boldly seized songs commonly sung in taverns and by simply replacing the secular lyrics with spiritual ones made these tunes the basis of congregational song in worship. In the interest of historical accuracy, in fairness to the reformer, and for the purpose of conversation about appropriate worship music today, this claim must be challenged, or at least be carefully qualified. At its worst this claim is a misrepresentation of fact. At its best, it is a misleading oversimplification of Luther’s intention and his practice of liturgical music.
Comparing the music situation of Luther’s time with our own is like comparing apples with oranges. At the time of Luther, "The distinction between sacred and secular musical styles as we think of it today was for the most practical purposes nonexistent" (Carl Schalk, "German Hymnody," Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship). One simply cannot speak of "secular" or "popular" music in early sixteenth-century Germany in the same way we do today.
Did Luther borrow melodies not normally used in worship for congregational song? Yes, definitely. There were, in fact, four sources of melodies used for congregational hymnody in the churches that followed Luther’s reforms early in the sixteenth century.
- Many popular hymn tunes were already in existence. Prior to Luther’s reforms, these tunes were not sung at Mass but during religious pilgrimages and other devotions outside the liturgy. They were taken over by the reformers for use in the liturgy with little or no change. "O Lord, We Praise You" (ELW 499) is an example of this kind of hymn.
- The reformers made use of the chant melodies that were sung by choirs in worship. Originally sung in Latin, the texts sung with these tunes were translated into German and modified to make them easier for a congregation of untrained singers. "Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord" (ELW 395) is an example of this.
- The art of creating simple melodies that could be used for congregational song was widely encouraged. Luther’s own "A Mighty Fortress" (ELW 503-505) is a fine example of a hymn tune from the pen of a man with considerable musical talent.
- There were indeed instances in which Luther and his colleagues used melodies (and sometimes part of the poetry) from nonliturgical songs. The first stanza of "From Heav’n Above" (ELW 268) was based upon a light-hearted love song, "From Distant Land I Come To You." Originally the hymn text was sung to the love song tune. Since this tune was still being sung in taverns and other places for entertainment, it was not long before the reformers substituted a newly composed melody for the original. It is this new melody that survives as the standard tune to this day.
So, using Luther as a model, is it appropriate today to use music with secular roots with sacred lyrics for congregational song in worship? Let’s consider several points.
- The music for entertainment and diversion during Luther’s time was corporate song. This music was intended to be sung by a group of people, perhaps gathered around a lute or harpsichord at the table or at the bar. Such music is radically different from music performed by a soloist or band with groups of people passively listening. To expect a congregation to sing, we must give them songs that are intended for corporate singing and we must lead them appropriately. Otherwise, all we get is a group of people singing along with the soloist, choir, organist, or band. This is not the same as full, active, and conscious participation.
- Luther used the music at hand but always transformed it into something new for use in worship. A similar thing happened with the German language as he translated the Bible. Luther literally created a new German to adequately translate the Scriptures. Scripture had an effect on the language, just as the language affected Scripture. A similar transformation occurred with music. As tunes were borrowed from the culture for use in public worship, they were molded into something brand new.
- Immediately following the German Reformation, many new hymn texts were being written, but there were few hymn tunes on which to draw. Luther lamented over the dearth of available tunes for use by congregations in worship. That situation does not exist today.
- The historic example of the hymn, "From Heav’n Above" (for which the original tune was replaced with a new one because of the tune’s connections with nonsacred activity) shows that the association a particular tune carried with it affected its use in worship. Certainly many tunes that were originally coupled with secular texts have found their way into the canon of Christian hymnody. The tune Ash Grove (ELW 547 & 881) is a Welsh folk melody but holds few secular connotations for most Americans. The tune is now more closely associated with the texts found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship than the original secular text. Therefore, the associations connected with this tune are not as problematic as they would be by writing sacred words to a tune like "Jingle Bells," for example.
- The lack of sophisticated printing or recording technology in Luther’s day meant that any song worthy of copying by hand or learning by aural repetition was going to last. With today’s technology, it is impossible for most congregations to stay completely contemporary. The popular music of our day simply changes too quickly. Although there may be a place in worship for some music with a short life span, longevity usually equals quality. As Lutherans, we literally "sing God’s Word." Only music of high quality can adequately bear that responsibility. To be fair, we cannot always predict what will endure, but the goal remains nonetheless.
The challenge for us is to break open the musical idioms and ideas of our day to discover melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and instrumentation that can be transformed for use in worship. We must not forget our past. We need continually to rediscover the treasures of our heritage for use today. However, we must never allow our congregations to become museums masquerading as worshiping communities by failing to challenge our worshipers with new melodies. Music of all kinds holds potential for use in worship, but rarely is developing new hymnody as easy as merely substituting one set of words for another.