Luther in Thuringia
Anno 2017 - 500 years of reformation
This project is co-financed by the European Union (EFRE) and the Free State of Thuringia (Thuringian Ministry of Economic Affairs, Science and Digital Society)
In 1523, you could not put a new song on YouTube or post it on Facebook for your friends. So new compositions still had to be publicised in some other way.
Martin Luther’s chorales and hymns were usually printed very quickly and distributed on handbills. Bound together, they soon produced small booklets. And in the Reformation churches, the congregations were now singing in German on Sundays – a sensation. The religious world had changed at high speed.
The first edition of Luther’s translation of the New Testament was published in September 1522. It cost 1.5 guilders, half a cabinetmaker’s pay, but all 3,000 copies were nevertheless sold in three months and a reprint was published before Christmas. At last people were able to read for themselves the book which influenced their life like no other. And Luther not only translated but – quite incidentally – also developed a German written language and endowed it with many impressive terms: Herzenslust, Denkzettel, Machtwort, Feuereifer – all Luther’s words.
The great Reformer can only have suspected and felt what has been proven today, namely that when a person sings, he becomes wiser, more peaceable and healthier. Singing is good for body and soul, music changes our life! And our musical history was changed a little by Martin Luther and the Reformation ....
How can Martin Luther be approached in Thuringia? It is time to look for clues. After all, Germany is gearing up to the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the theses to the church door in Wittenberg – which is, incidentally, perhaps no more than a very consistently maintained legend. Be this as it may, the 95 theses with which a Benedictine monk attacked the sale of indulgences spread through the Christian world surprisingly quickly.
Children and teenagers can experience for themselves the time that has passed since all this happened by attending, for example, a 16th century school lesson – offered by the Eisenach Luther House. Firstly, the girls will be amazed that they are given boys’ names – girls were not yet allowed to go to school. The dullest pupil is crowned with a donkey’s head at the end of the lesson. For 21st century children, this is an experience which they will not quickly forget. They seem happy when singing the religious songs – formerly an indispensable part of lessons. They ask whether Martin liked singing too when he was a schoolboy.
It seems that he did, since he initially earned his living as a choirboy in Eisenach when he was sent to the Latin School there by his parents at the age of 15. As an adult, Martin Luther also played the lute well and composed music, although he sometimes enlisted the assistance of expert friends. “From heaven above to earth I come”, “A mighty fortress is our God” and other hymns were written by Luther himself to create a basis of German hymns for church services. His works were published in 1523/24 in the so-called “Achtliederbuch” (Hymnal of Eight). As many as 36 hymns are proved to have been written.
The Erfurt Old Quarter on a sunny day in late summer – there is a queue outside the ice-cream parlour, a street musician is playing a violin among the crowds on the Merchants' Bridge and every seat is taken in the cafés along the River Gera. Martin Luther will have been out in the crowded streets in much the same way. Some lanes, like the cobbled Allerheiligengasse near St Michael’s Church, have hardly changed since his time.
Erfurt was Luther’s city, the Reformer’s spiritual home for decades – although the young Luther was only able to enjoy the city to a limited degree, since at the Burse, which is what the student halls of residence were called, he was under supervision. He had to get up at 5 a.m. and attend church frequently as well as the university. Lights-out was at 9 p.m. Each student was given 2 mugs of beer, more than three litres, to make him ready for bed. Was this the way to educate the young? Luther, who enjoyed food and drink throughout his life, had different ideas. No prizes for guessing: “Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners, she makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable” he wrote. He said that music created – as only faith could otherwise do – peace and a happy spirit. This is why he wanted music to be part of education, since he preferred making music to theoretical study. He thought the state’s rulers should support music.