The Purpose of Hymns during the Reformation: Part 2

By Monica Berndt

One hymn that helps illustrate how Luther used hymns to both spread his ideas and teach the common people is Vater Unser im Himmelreich. This directly translates in English to ‘Our Father in Heaven’ which is the German translation of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. Luther’s setting of this prayer was not the first time it had been translated into German, nor the first time it was set to music.1 However, Luther’s treatment of this text is slightly different from other settings because he uses it to reinforce the questions and ideas presented in his Small Catechism, a book Luther wrote for lay people explaining important doctrines of the church. Vater Unser im Himmelreich is the musical setting of these questions and answers for the Lord’s Prayer. It demonstrates the close connections between the doctrine Luther wanted people to know about, spread largely through the Small Catechism, and the hymns that he composed.*

Vater Unser im Himmelreich was composed sometime between 1538 and 1539. There are nine total verses to match the eight lines of the Lord’s Prayer, plus one extra verse for the Amen and its explanation. Robin Leaver remarks in his book, Luther’s Liturgical Music, that Vater Unser im Himmelreich had two usages. First, it could be used in the liturgy in place of the prose Prayer, or it could also be sung to aid in teaching either at church or at home.* This demonstrates how versatile some of Luther’s hymns could be, especially ones that had a catechetical purpose. Each verse is set in six lines each with eight syllables, which allows all verses to work effectively with the tune of the hymn.

The tune of a hymn plays just as important a role as the text, and this was something Luther understood well. For Vater Unser im Himmelreich Luther wanted a melody that would call to mind thoughtful communication with God and the reflective state that a Christian should be in during prayer.* The melody Luther chose to write is fairly simple which meant it could be easily learned or taught to someone else, and it is a solemn sounding melody that moves slowly and methodically. A German church attendee could sing this piece and not only would the text remind him of the honor and respect due to God through prayer, the tune itself would carry the expression of the Lord’s Prayer. The melody reinforces the text the same way most of our hymns still do today.

Source:

[1] Leaver, Robin A.. Luther's Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007

Monica Berndt is the music director at Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle, WA and studies music and history at the University of Washington. This is the first part of a paper written for her Medieval Music History course last spring. She can be reached at acinomtdnreb@gmail.com.

Created: October 1st, 2017