Renaissance Music IV: Martin Luther (1483-1546)

“Why should the devil have all the good tunes?” In my last entry, I made a casual reference to the great reformer Martin Luther. Luther finds his way into much of my thinking, having studied his religious texts across two years and four classes at Duke. Yet more than the percussive sounds for which he is most famous, Luther was an important composer and musician. In short, Luther took formal music out of the hands of the monks and other church choirs and gifted it to his congregation, using the popular secular songs of his day for inspiration (because they were more tuneful and easier for the congregation to remember). His great innovation was deceptively simple: a note for each syllable, progressing in a clear melodic line. Luther wrote in the strophic (AAA) form, sung in 4 parts. These chorales would echo down the centuries in the German School, as his theology animated new thinking in the German states.

Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God

If there is a musical parallel to Luther in our age, it surely must be the Nobel laureate, the voice of a generation, Mr. Bob Dylan. Dylan’s early songs display much of the same simple songcraft that has enabled Luther’s hymns to survive across the centuries. This brilliant protest song, an anthem of the 1960s, is also a model example of the strophic form, where the same music block repeats to support the entire song.

Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a Changin’:

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