Music and the Reformation

Music of the Reformation Exhibit

As part of the Presbyterian Heritage Center’s Reformation500 series of exhibits, this new exhibit will focus on music in the church during the Reformation and how the Reformation changed it. The PHC has on display several 16th and early 17th century psalters and hymnals, such as the Genevan Psalter, Scottish Psalters, Ainsworth’s Psalter used by the Pilgrims and the Bay Psalm Book.

Luther is considered the father of hymns in the vernacular (common language of a place), as opposed to Latin used in the Catholic Church. He wrote the what became the anthem of the Reformation: Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) in 1529. Different Protestant denominations used music differently. Calvinist Reformed churches only sang Psalms because they were in the Bible and without any musical instruments. While other denominations sang hymns and some blended the “old religion” music with the new.

This story also shows Pre-Reformation vellum manuscripts (including an original 12th - 14th Century chorale leaf from the PHC Collection), as well as Reformation music audio files on kiosk and digital displays and rare printed musical volumes from the first 150 years of the Protestant Reformation (1517 - 1667).

Music and Selected Denominations

Lutheran — The foundation for music in the Lutheran tradition was the chorale, from the German word for “chant.” Chorales were one of the most influential aspects of the Reformation, as they led to worship being infused into life outside the church service as well, with Christians singing these songs at home and work. In fact, Lutheran evangelists were known to draw congregations away from Catholic services with their songs. The congregation was the primary vehicle of praise and were typically provided support by an organ or a choir.

Calvinist — Calvin desired for worship to focus on God alone, and so stripped Reformed churches and their services of anything which might serve as a worldly distraction. On the musical side of things, this included instruments and even complicated polyphony. Additionally, Calvin believed that there existed no better text for praising God than the very words God himself had inspired and spoken. As such, he insisted that Scripture verses, and especially the Psalms, serve as the sole source lyrics for music in the church. A difficulty arose in that in the vernacular form, Psalms are prosaic rather than poetic, making them more difficult to sing. As such, they were remade into metrical psalms; metric, rhymed, strophic, and vernacular translations, all set to new melodies. These metrical psalms were collected in psalters, the most important English psalter being the one created by Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins in 1562.

Church of England — Unlike the Calvinist and Lutheran traditions, the Church of England sprang from political rather than religious origins. As such, it and its music underwent a tumultuous history that was battered about by changing politics. As the monarchs changed, and with them the official Christian faith of England, the music was forced to change as well in a politico-religious tug-of-war. As such, the Church of England resembled its Catholic roots in some ways, but still employed different forms, from masses to services, some Latin, some English. It was the Church of England which developed the anthem, from Latin “antiphon.”