LUTHER AS A HYMN WRITER

Taken and adapted from, Anecdotes of Luther and the Reformation

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His opinion of his own poetical powers was the humblest and most modest…

He long sought to induce others to compose hymns, and only addressed himself to the task as a matter of necessity. Passionately fond of music, gifted with a strong, sweet voice, he mostly added tunes to his hymns, and in general revised, with Walther, all those which were to be sung in the churches of Protestant Germany. The life of Luther is full of anecdotes showing how sensitive he was to the influence of music, recurring to it whenever he was in sorrow or trouble, and on one occasion being restored by it to consciousness after a long and deadly faint. His prefaces to the various editions of his hymn-books, as well as that ‘ to all good hymn-books,’ and his poem in honor of music, show in what high esteem he held ‘ the noble art,’ which, indeed, he placed next to theology.

Luther’s hymns are all terse, manly, and yet childlike, full of the deep faith of a strong man’s soul, the form being always subservient, corresponding to the substance. Thus there is often a single unrhymed line at the end of each stanza to express in simple language the leading thought. Like all true compositions, the music of Luther singularly corresponds to his poetry. Of the latter it may be said that if the object of every good hymn is praise, and its characteristics that it is Scriptural in contents, popular in form, experimental in cast, then Luther’s hymns may be regarded as the very model, and Germany itself has never superseded or excelled them. Yet they are comparatively few in number—altogether only thirty-six; some translations from the Latin, some emendations of old German hymns, some metrical renderings of the ‘Belief,’ the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, etc.; only a small proportion being hymns proper, partly renderings of psalms, like ‘Ein feste Burg,’ and a few wholly original compositions, like the Christmas Hymns. Yet in the day when all secrets of a Christian life shall be laid open, how many of its deepest and strongest impulses during the last three centuries shall be traced up to the psalmody of him whose watchword in song and in word was the pure and simple truth of the Gospel!