The Reformation: classical music’s punk moment

The great cultural and religious schism of the 16th century democratised music and participation, creating the template for modern classical music.

Luther certainly developed a practice in which music took on a more highly charged value, consolidating the drama and struggles of belief within the mind of the believer rather than in the multi-sensory panoply of traditional Catholic practice. It is perhaps no surprise that Bach once related the presence of God and his grace specifically to music – something that cannot be seen or touched, but which permeates the believer’s world and mind. Scripture and faith coalesce in the believer’s own mind through the practice of listening.


It began 500 years ago, with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, and has never really ended. Not only has the Reformation had a profound influence on the diversity of Christian practice today, but it also affected many other aspects of our culture, not least the story of western classical music.

At first sight, however, the Reformation does not seem a very promising idea for the development of music. For many of the significant reformers, such as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, anything beyond simple psalms and songs was viewed with suspicion since it obscured or – more insidiously – rivalled the purer music of scripture. The first reformer, Martin Luther, is often assumed to have shared such puritanical views, with his strong emphasis on scripture, faith and God’s freely given grace. Surely, all the paraphernalia of the Catholic church, including its complex and sumptuous music, was to be rejected outright?

In fact, Luther enthused about music as the greatest gift of God after religion itself, and – wherever possible – he preserved much of the glorious polyphony of Catholic practice. But he also inaugurated a sort of musical democratisation by which strong, simple melodies (the “chorales”) could be sung by the entire congregation.

Nevertheless, the repertory of music that is exclusively “Lutheran” is relatively small. The leading Lutheran composer of the 17th century, Heinrich Schütz, wrote music that was very much in the same idiom as Monteverdi and other Catholic composers active around 1600. The main difference lies in the use of the vernacular German text, set with a verve and skill that essentially launched German as a language for modern music.

The Lutheran tradition of course peaked in JS Bach, a composer who, like his most distinguished predecessors, capitalised on all the musical styles available to him – whether from Protestant or Catholic traditions. What makes his music Lutheran lies in the theological stance of the poetic textual commentary of his cantatas and Passions. The latter in particular dramatised the centre point of Luther’s theology: the freely given gift of Jesus’s sacrifice, by which salvation is achieved.

But, after Bach, there are only a few obvious flashes of musical Lutheranism (not least Mendelssohn and his “Reformation” symphony and a few significant church pieces by Brahms).

It would seem rather that the Catholic church has, literally, called the tunes in western music history. Virtually all notated repertories before the Reformation came from Catholic Europe and the church continued to produce many of the great glories of Renaissance music during the first century of reformation. Even William Byrd, arguably the greatest English composer of the age, wrote significant pieces for the Catholic liturgy.

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