By Monica Berndt
The Purpose of Hymns for the Reformation: Part 4
Hymns worked well in the primarily oral culture of Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Europe. Because spoken word, not written word, was the primary way that people accessed information, hymns were not too revolutionary a technique for spreading information.1 The best kind of propaganda is the one that fits perfectly into the culture, and Luther’s hymns were able to do exactly that. There are seven characteristics of oral culture that help knowledge become cemented in the minds of people and hymns have all seven characteristics.1 They generally had familiar melodies, or simple, straightforward melodies, and these tunes made the text easier to remember, which in turn aided in teaching hymns to large congregations. Tunes were learned by rote and given titles that people could recognize, which allowed publishers to print the text for hymns with the name of the tune, without needing to set up type for musical notation.1 Common people did not need to purchase a complicated book of theology to learn the things they needed to know about Luther’s doctrines because they had relatively easy access to the new texts, and tunes that were already in their memory. Luther understood how easy it would be to spread their idea through this medium, so he created hymns that articulated his beliefs in a simple, understandable way, creating propaganda for the Lutheran Church.
Catholic clergy bemoaned the fact that hymns contained so much doctrine and bitterly remarked that Luther “destroyed more souls with his hymns than with all his writing and preaching.”2 This was because hymns were more pervasive than books or sermons could ever be. They could be sung both publicly in the church, and privately at home, at work, or in schools. An individual in Luther’s day could potentially sing the same hymn several different times a day and even use them to teach their children. While the spoken words of Scripture were still valued highly by Luther, “music added even to a Scriptural text a force beyond that of the words alone.”2 In a world where the Bible had not been translated into the vernacular until Luther’s time, hymns opened a door into not just church doctrine, but also to the words of Scripture. The everyday church goer now had access to Luther’s teachings through hymns and could decide for themselves whether to join Luther’s movement or to stay in the Catholic Church. Given the success and lasting effects of the Reformation, it seems that many people were drawn to a church that could talk to them in their own language and let them learn theology, instead of keeping them from it. This is why hymns were influential during the Reformation: they brought hundreds of people to the knowledge of salvation in Christ.
1 Oettinger, Rebecca Wagner. Music as Propaganda in the German Reformation. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001.
2 Brown, Christopher Boyd. Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.