Singing Praise — The proud past and bright future of Lutheran Music

September 10th, 2011 Post by

Found on Pastoral Meanderings

 

Singing Praise — The proud past and bright future of Lutheran music. By Mollie Ziegler Hemingway (first printed in Thrivent magazine but worth repeating here…)

“Next to the word of God,” Martin Luther wrote, “music deserves the highest praise.” It’s no surprise, then, that Lutherans always have been known as “the singing church.”

Of course, many church bodies love to sing. So what sets Lutherans apart?

The Lutheran church’s musical strength is in choral music. It began with the Lutheran Reformation, which emphasized the congregation as the place where faith is lived, and hymns are the means by which key doctrines are carried to the members. In fact, some of the Lutheran church’s great theologians, such as Paul Gerhardt, were hymn writers. And some of history’s greatest music talents, including Johann Sebastian Bach, were Lutheran church musicians who produced music for worship.

The choral tradition continues today. While Sunday services and styles differ, a typical Lutheran service begins with a hymn of invocation – a song of praise, prayer or reflection on the season of the church year. The hymn of the day builds upon the chosen Bible readings and sets the stage for the sermon. Most congregations sing additional hymns during Communion, and a final one at the end of the service that reminds them of what they learned. And that doesn’t count the prayers and other parts of the liturgy that can be sung – or the four-part harmonizing that’s been known to break out at church potlucks.

“Good Lutheran tunes are challenging and athletic,” says Lutheran pastor and poet Stephen Starke, who’s written more than 160 hymn texts. “They have a lot of life to them.” This Thrivent member’s work – which has appeared in hymnals, been used in choral settings and been featured on a national hymn festival CD – is just one example of how Lutheran hymn writing is thriving.

Of course, the challenge of the music is part of what makes it so fun to sing, particularly in four-part harmony. “The development of a distinct choral tradition from within our Lutheran colleges in the early 20th century created a style that complements the importance of congregational singing within the Lutheran church,” says Beth Burns, executive director of the Lutheran Music Program (see “Tomorrow’s Musicians”).

A strong rhythm provides Lutheran hymns with vigor and determination that supports the church’s theology, says the Rev. Dr. Daniel Reuning, a Thrivent member and the artistic director of the Bach Collegium, an ecumenical choral-instrumental ensemble in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Theological intensity is important for Lutherans to understand since our hymns deal with the reality of sin, suffering, the devil, the world and our flesh pretty seriously,” he says. Consider Martin Luther’s classic “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” In four short verses, it references the power and majesty of God, our focus on Christ, mankind’s inability to provide for salvation, the reality of evil, and references to each member of the Trinity.

What’s more, that hymn has been translated into dozens of other languages, including Nuer. That’s the language Sudanese Lutheran immigrants in the Twin Cities use to sing the hymn, accompanied by large drums familiar to their home culture. And a new French hymnal put out earlier this year by Lutheran Church-Canada is being used by French-speaking congregations in Quebec, the Caribbean and countries in West Africa. In fact, one of the included hymns was originally written in Swahili: “Mfurahini, Haleluya,” written by Bernard Kyamanywa while he was studying at a Lutheran seminary in Tanzania. In English, the Easter hymn is called “Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia.” It is noteworthy for the straightforward manner in which it tells of Jesus’ resurrection and a refrain that is pure Gospel: “Let us sing praise to Him with endless joy/Death’s fearful sting He has come to destroy/Our sin forgiving, alleluia!/Jesus is living, alleluia!”

“Greet the Rising Sun,” a morning prayer hymn by Zhao Zichen, uses the Chinese folk tune “Le P’ing” to simply express lofty thoughts: “Father, hear my prayer/Keep me safe today/Sanctify my thoughts/All I do and say/As I teach the young/And esteem the old/May your bounteous grace/By my life be told.”

And Doreen Potter’s Jamaican calypso melody is used to great effect in “All You Works of God, Bless the Lord,” which tells the apocryphal “Song of the Three Young Men.” Students at St. John’s Lutheran School in Orange, California, love to perform the song with an organ, two trumpets, an African drum and a shaker.

These hymns – and the music and instruments that go with them – show that Lutheran music in all its variations continues to have the strong confession of faith, universal feel and timeless sense that have been hallmarks of Lutheran music since Reformation times.






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  1. #4 Kitty
    September 10th, 2011 at 18:43 | #1

    It’s no surprise, then, that Lutherans always have been known as “the singing church.”

    I think it’s more accurate to say that “it’s no surprise that Lutherans have always referred to themselves as the singing church. I mean who else refers to us in this way?

  2. Our God Reigns
    September 11th, 2011 at 06:30 | #2

    I was raised Methodist. I thought WE were known as the singers. I had never heard of Lutherans when I was growing up, let alone them being the singing church. I love the hymns in our LCMS hymnals not for their melodies which are at times challenging for this trained singer, but for their doctrinal outpouring and clarity. I must say that as long as I am in an American congregation I would prefer to use the more traditional sounds. But if I am in another country in an LCMS congregation, I would gladly join in their sounds of praise.

  3. Larry Kleinschmidt
    September 11th, 2011 at 08:47 | #3

    Mollie writes, “The Lutheran church’s musical strength is in choral music.” I think she meant “chorale,” not “choral.”

  4. Larry Kleinschmidt
    September 11th, 2011 at 08:50 | #4

    #4 Kitty :

    It’s no surprise, then, that Lutherans always have been known as “the singing church.”

    I think it’s more accurate to say that “it’s no surprise that Lutherans have always referred to themselves as the singing church. I mean who else refers to us in this way?

    I Googled “the singing church” and got 597,000 results. Then I Googled it again, but this time only for those entries without the name “Lutheran” in them. I got 562,000 results. I don’t think Lutherans have been known as “the singing church” by anyone other than themselves since at least the 19th century, maybe longer.

  5. Diane
    September 11th, 2011 at 14:31 | #5

    Professor Carl Schalk writes, ‘It is a commonplace to observe that one of the chief contributions of the Lutheran Reformation was the restoration of congregational song to the people and its establishment as a vital ingredient in corporate worship. It was the Reformation, however, that was to open the floodgates of popular religious song and establish it as an indispensable part of Lutheran worship ever since.’ Quote taken from Lutheran Worship, History and Practice, page 246.

    Yes, we are known as ‘The Singing Church’ stemming from the fact that it was Martin Luther who returned singing by the congregation to the Church.

  6. The PPPadre
    September 11th, 2011 at 14:37 | #6

    While many denominations have grown in their singing over the past century or so, it was primarily the Lutherans at the time of the Reformation who produced a plethora of hymns to teach the faith to the laity. Prior to that, once great congregational singing had significantly waned. Thus Lutherans were known as “The Singing Church.” Obviously, hymn writers in other demoninaions have gained significant prominence since then (I’m thinking in particular of the Wesleys), thus diluting the distinctiveness of singing as “Lutheran.”

    [Music historians, please feel free to correct me if I am in error.]

  7. Mrs. Hume
    September 11th, 2011 at 15:32 | #7

    A quick plug for some very nice hymns by Pastor Chryst.

    https://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dwvsz95_0fmf65rcg&pli=1

  8. September 11th, 2011 at 17:07 | #8

    The PPPadre :
    While many denominations have grown in their singing over the past century or so, it was primarily the Lutherans at the time of the Reformation who produced a plethora of hymns to teach the faith to the laity. Prior to that, once great congregational singing had significantly waned. Thus Lutherans were known as “The Singing Church.” Obviously, hymn writers in other demoninaions have gained significant prominence since then (I’m thinking in particular of the Wesleys), thus diluting the distinctiveness of singing as “Lutheran.”
    [Music historians, please feel free to correct me if I am in error.]

    I think one distinction to make is that as Lutherans, the singing that goes on is “participatory”. This is true not just in thinking about the great hymns both older and newer, but the liturgy, which is so very important to Lutherans… or should be.

  9. Rahn Hasbargen
    September 11th, 2011 at 17:46 | #9

    I’m not really sure if Lutherans are any more of a “singing church” than any other denomination per se. HOWEVER, what I feel Lutherans should emphasize in our singing is WHAT we sing. I have a feeling that more Lutherans are emphasizing “7-11 songs” in worship in an era where the need and desire is so great for hymns that emphasize the pure confessional church.

    Mollie talked about the new French hymnal and the need it is filling in the Francophone world. This month’s Lutheran Witness has an article on the new hymnal being developed in Swahili for our Lutheran Church in Kenya. I personally talked with Rev. John Fehrmann of the Confessional Lutheran Educational Foundation, who told me about the new Spanish hymnal that his organization has developed for the Lutheran Church in Chile (and about how he is trying to find a US publisher for it). Rev. Fehrman also told me about the other hymnals his organizastion is creating for our Lutheran churches in places like the Phillipines. The rest of the world is CRYING OUT for solid confessional hymanals to use in worship, and these projects deserve our support.

    In light of how the rest of the Lutheran world is begging for solid Lutheran hymnals, how can Lutherans in the US back away from substanitive hymns in exchange for the number of “praise songs light” that I hear in the “alternative worhips” I occasionally attend? It breaks my heart……

  10. Rahn Hasbargen
    September 11th, 2011 at 18:02 | #10

    I guess my appeal for the International Lutheran Hyman Project on this site is not new, but just an update from the following:
    http://steadfastlutherans.org/?p=1965

  11. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 08:07 | #11

    Larry Kleinschmidt :Mollie writes, “The Lutheran church’s musical strength is in choral music.” I think she meant “chorale,” not “choral.”

    A chorale is a piece of choral music.

  12. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 08:09 | #12

    Good article on this very very important and challenging topic.

    Regarding whether we are the singing church (body) or not – the world doesn’t regard the Lutheran church at all, so why be surprised if it misses this fact?

    I will concur with some other recent observations and say the negativists are getting too much attention on this blog.

  13. Sue Wilson
    September 12th, 2011 at 08:22 | #13

    While our Lutheran hymns are indeed beautiful, many members do not consider the challeng of singing them “fun”, unless they are trained in voice or instrument.

    As to Lutheran music being more “participatory”, I have noted the opposite. In most churches participation by the congregation is limited to about half, unless the church membership is entirely composed of life long older Lutherans. If you doubt this, attend a pastors conference in your district and hear what it sounds like to have 100% of the congregants singing–it raises the roof and drowns out the organ.

    As to being known as the “singing church”, we sing good, theological hymns, but far fewer songs than some other denominations (Baptists for one).

    I love the traditional hymns of our faith, but let’s not get carried away patting ourselves on the back for our sometimes unsingable (sp?) hymn music—for those who are vocally challenged, my husband and several of his friends being among them.

    At the same time, I praise God for the inspiration He granted some of our greatest hymn writers and the history behing some of their best work. For instance, “All is Well” (title?), but is that hymn even Lutheran–I love it, but I’m not sure what denomination the writer was in.

  14. September 12th, 2011 at 11:31 | #14

    Additional Resources (not exhaustive)

    Thomas Day : _Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste_

    Joseph Herl: _Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation and Three Centuries of Conflict

    Christopher Boyd Brown: _Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation_

    Robin Leaver: _Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Interpretation_

    Carl Schalk: _God’s Song in a New Land: Lutheran Hymnals in America_

    Carl Schalk: _Source Documents in American Lutheran Hymnody_

    Leonard J. Seidel: _Face the Music: Contemporary Church Music on Trial_

  15. Mrs. Hume
    September 12th, 2011 at 12:15 | #15

    @Sue Wilson #13

    My son is 13 and likes to sing hymns and sing them loudly despite not being trained or even a good singer. He rolls his eyes at popular contemporary music. You won’t catch him singing nah nah na na na nah.

    Anyway, he likes to play hymns on the piano. It is the only way to get him to practice!

    He enjoys reading http://revivelutheranhymns.blogspot.com/

    I really think that the reason that some younger people like the contemporary stuff is because they are only exposed to that. I mean, if their parents play it on the radio and at home, and they hear it at VBS and youth events, well, of course they are going to be familiar and comfortable with it. If they hear hymns to much more than contemporary praise music, then they will be familiar with and comfortable with hymns.

    In my son’s case, I think it is more of a feeling that contemporary praise songs are too much like VBS kiddie songs and while he was comfortable with them when he was in pre K-1st grade, he is only comfortable with them now if he is in a group of little kids. Around adults, he feels kind of embarrassed singing what to him are little kid songs in style and substance. Of course he has been exposed to hymns by his father playing them all the time on the piano as well as singing them in school to start every morning from about second grade on.

    And for what it is worth, this isn’t limited to Lutherans. One of his friends is Baptist and his family left their contemporary style service church to go to a Baptist church that uses hymnals and doesn’t have projection screens and bands etc.

    So, really it is up to parents to train the children. Just 2¢

  16. Mrs. Hume
    September 12th, 2011 at 12:20 | #16

    “I love the traditional hymns of our faith, but let’s not get carried away patting ourselves on the back for our sometimes unsingable (sp?) hymn music—for those who are vocally challenged, my husband and several of his friends being among them.”

    I am a terrible singer and sing anyway. I just let the good singers sing louder and drown me out.

  17. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 12:43 | #17

    > The Lutheran church’s musical strength is in choral music.

    The MO synod is streaming Lutheran choral music at http://classic99.com/ along with other classical and sacred music.

  18. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 12:43 | #18

    @Rev. Joel A. Brondos #14

    Excellent! You’ve added to my book-buying list …

  19. Larry Kleinschmidt
    September 12th, 2011 at 15:41 | #19

    @mbw #11

    mbw :

    Larry Kleinschmidt :Mollie writes, “The Lutheran church’s musical strength is in choral music.” I think she meant “chorale,” not “choral.”

    A chorale is a piece of choral music.

    While a chorale certainly can be sung by a choir, it is not by definition a piece of choral music. Columbia Encyclopedia (just as one example): “chorale (k?r?l’, -räl’), any of the traditional hymns of the German Protestant Church. The form was developed after the Reformation to replace the plainsong of the earlier service and as a means of congregational participation in the liturgy. Early chorales were mainly translations of Latin hymns set to folksong melodies. The chorale is strophic, written in simple language, and has a simple melody, but its phrasing and metrical structure are less regular than those of the English hymn. J. S. Bach reworked nearly 400 existing chorales and composed 30 new ones.”

  20. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 16:23 | #20

    @Larry Kleinschmidt #19

    My point was that “choral music” is a common and correct phrase, that is, choral is typically an adjective (and used as such in the article), while chorale is typically a noun.

    Also, I don’t think Mollie actually wrote the article.

  21. Larry Kleinschmidt
    September 12th, 2011 at 17:41 | #21

    @mbw #20 Sure, “choral music” is a correct phrase. It’s just that it’s not the intended phrase in this context. And according to the first paragraph, Mollie did write the article.

  22. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 19:50 | #22

    @Larry Kleinschmidt #21

    Yes, I see she did write the article.

  23. MZH
    September 12th, 2011 at 20:59 | #23

    Yes I wrote it (a couple of years ago, fwiw). I did not edit it, however.

  24. mbw
    September 12th, 2011 at 21:37 | #24

    @MZH #23

    Mollie, it’s a really nice article. In the same day, at our church, we’ve had a Bach Cantata with full choir and orchestra, and LSB 466 (Christ has Arisen, Alleluia) complete with bongos, in the same service. It works!

  25. mbw
  26. Stan Slonkosky
    September 13th, 2011 at 01:43 | #26

    Sue Wilson :
    As to Lutheran music being more “participatory”, I have noted the opposite. In most churches participation by the congregation is limited to about half, unless the church membership is entirely composed of life long older Lutherans.

    You have apparently never been to a Higher Things conference.

  27. September 13th, 2011 at 03:58 | #27

    @Sue Wilson #13
    participation by the congregation is limited to about half

    Wow! I’ve never seen that in the three congregations I’ve been a member of and the 6 congregations that I’ve visited. Virtually full participation is the norm in my experience.

  28. September 13th, 2011 at 06:49 | #28

    Sue Wilson :
    While our Lutheran hymns are indeed beautiful, many members do not consider the challeng of singing them “fun”, unless they are trained in voice or instrument.
    As to Lutheran music being more “participatory”, I have noted the opposite. In most churches participation by the congregation is limited to about half, unless the church membership is entirely composed of life long older Lutherans. If you doubt this, attend a pastors conference in your district and hear what it sounds like to have 100% of the congregants singing–it raises the roof and drowns out the organ.

    Others have addressed the idea that Lutheran music is “participatory”. My clarification would be that a Lutheran congregation uses music in the liturgy and the hymns as part of our response to God in the service. I think anyone who uses the metric of how loud or how in tune a congregation sings in a Lutheran congregation misses the point of “participating in the worship service”.

    Again, as others have said, it is becoming apparent that in some circles, there is a great need to catechize our membership about what role music and liturgy fulfill in our Lutheran heritage and in our congregations, lest we lose that part of ourselves.

  29. Larry Kleinschmidt
    September 13th, 2011 at 13:17 | #29

    Norm Fisher :
    @Sue Wilson #13
    participation by the congregation is limited to about half
    Wow! I’ve never seen that in the three congregations I’ve been a member of and the 6 congregations that I’ve visited. Virtually full participation is the norm in my experience.

    Norm, your experience is far different than mine. My experience is more like that of Sue Wilson … relatively few people singing the hymns. It’s depressing.

  30. David Dahl
    September 19th, 2011 at 09:59 | #30

    I’m the choir director at two WELS churches, and also play organ in both. My experience is twofold: one congregation sings, one does not.

    My thoughts on why this is tend to return to one reason – the music used to accompany the congregation, ie, the organist’s use of the instrument. At my home congregation the people are used to the organ used in a leadership role – loud enough to be heard, not too loud to drown out, with appropriate tempi and phrasing. Service music is, likewise, used to assist the singer in singing. New hymns are taught by the organist playing melody only until the melody is learned. And, the liturgy is not “du jour”, that is, it follows what is known, with only occasional changes.

    The other congregation has not had leadership from the organ to the same extent. And, the liturgy is more changing which causes the congregation to spend more time figuring out what they’re doing instead of worshipping. I’m certain that this will change, however.

    I believe that, to instill good congregational singing, the following are needed:

    1. A pastor who leads by example. He doesn’t need a great voice, just one that sings.
    2. An unchanging liturgy. No, not just “page 15″, but liturgy that even children can follow, with few changes. And, when new liturgical songs are added, they must be taught.
    3. Organists who can play the organ. The ability to play a hymn in 4 part harmony, to set appropriate registrations, to play to tempo; these are necessary.

    The organ is not being taught enough to young folks. But, that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion…

  31. Andrea Frobel
    October 4th, 2011 at 15:32 | #31

    I am so thankful that we have all of our great hymns in the LSB. A pianist and myself (a guitarist) share the responsibility of playing the music for our church. She plays twice a month and I play the rest of the Sundays since we have been unable to find an organist. I would rather play from our hymnal EVERY single time I play than any other book. (I only wish that they had guitar accompaniment books for the liturgy, too–that has been quite a challenge to figure out alternate chords to some of the ones I can’t play.) In all my years of playing simple guitar chords for accompaniment I have ALWAYS experienced full participation, even from those visiting our church. God has blessed us with a congregation who eagerly participates in the singing of all hymns and liturgy. Even those who can’t sing do it with great enthusiasm and reverence. Our little, 70-member congregation sounds so much bigger than it is. As I have always told our congregation: God doesn’t care what you SOUND like, because if you are praising Him it’s all beautiful to His ears.

  32. Lon E. Haney
    January 27th, 2013 at 07:19 | #32

    Seems to me Martin Luther was just a taste off.
    No “one” and “nothing” is next to God besides ,Jesus Christ.
    Music is beneath God.

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