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“Harmonious Monk”: The Story of Martin Luther and His Music

With the 500th anniversary of monk Martin Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church approaching on Oct. 31, the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Minor, the Department of Music, the Dresher Center for the Humanities and the Religious Studies Program invited Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, Associate Professor of Church History at Boston University, to speak at UMBC. His visit last Wednesday commemorated Luther’s life and legacy within the church through a musical lecture entitled “Harmonious Monk.”

Music was the central focus of Luther’s Reformation as he believed the Word of God was directly linked to music. The hymns he penned throughout his lifetime incorporated melodies from Gregorian chant (a style typical of clergyman), as well as technical stylings from other musical traditions, like those in Italy. Though he praised secular musical styles, he condemned their tendency towards lewdness.

Luther also developed a new form of chanting during which the Scriptures would be sung at different pitches to emphasize the dramatic nature of the text. For example, all of Jesus’s lines were sung in a low pitch, evangelists and disciples took the middle range and all other lines and characters were given high pitches. This differentiation helped to accentuate the many parts of the Bible stories and give some areas more weight.

Though controversial at the time, Luther’s belief that all Christians were priests and therefore had an obligation to preach shaped the structure of modern day church services. He asserted that lay participation was just as needed during Mass as priest and choir participation. He pushed for congregational singing, and by the turn of the 16th century, the congregation advocated for even more opportunities for lay singing.

Unusual to most musical concerts — and most lectures in general — Dr. Brown invited the audience to partake in the musical stylings of the Reformation by singing “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” with UMBC’s Camerata Choir to demonstrate how the Reformation made music more accessible to the laity — represented here by the audience.

Ally Kasman, a sophomore music technology and mathematics double major and member of Camerata Chamber Choir, said, “The audience participation really reinforced the movement of music through the church; at that point in the Reformation, music was not just for clergymen anymore — it was for everyone. It was really cool to hear the audience singing with us and bringing that musical movement to life.”

During the Reformation, Luther’s hymns became as much of a means of spiritual worship as they became a political statement. When Lutheran identity was threatened, the hymns helped to instill a sense of peace and ground believers — from clergymen to laity — to their faith, equipping them for the Lutheran church tradition and giving them agency within their faith community.

The next event in the Dresher Center’s Fall 2017 Forum cycle will be on Wednesday, Oct. 18 and is titled “The Changing Face of Modern War: Chemical Weapons and Civilian Bodies in the Aftermath of the First World War.” Dr. Susan R. Grayzel of Utah State University will be presenting this lecture in the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery. All lectures that are a part of the Humanities Forum are free and open to the public.