500 years ago today, Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany, airing his grievances against the Roman Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant Reformation.
Changes within the church also brought changes in religious music-making, and with Luther came the rise of the chorale. These Protestant hymns showcased some of the biggest departures from music in the Catholic church: a focus on congregational singing, texts in German rather than Latin and melodies often borrowed from secular songs.
Martin Luther himself was a composer and emphasized music as he reformed the church liturgy. His surviving music served as the inspiration for many future classical composers, including J.S. Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude and Johannes Brahms, who were all devout Lutherans and composed music for the church.
To mark the five centuries since Luther’s famous protest, here are five of his compositions:
1. Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)
Perhaps the most well-known Lutheran hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” has been translated to over 200 languages, making it one of the most translated hymns in church history. Luther’s hymn also inspired a number of subsequent compositions, including J.S. Bach’s chorale cantata of the same name (BWV 80) and the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5, Op. 107.
2. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From Deep Affliction I Cry Out to You)
A German paraphrase of Psalm 130, Luther composed this hymn in hopes of making Psalms more accessible to congregations. It appeared in the first Lutheran hymnal in 1524, and is performed here by recorder quintet Seldom Sene.
3. Ein neues Lied wir heben an (A New Song We Raise)
Perhaps Luther’s oldest surviving composition, “A New Song We Raise” recounts the deaths of Hendrik Vos and Johannes van Esschen, who were found guilty of reformatory preaching and burned at the stake in Brussels in 1523, becoming the first martyrs of the Reformation.
4. Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come)
First published in 1535 and paired with a pre-existing secular melody (which scholars wonder if Luther himself may have written earlier), this hymn was reissued again in 1539 with a new melody by Luther. Regardless of the tune to which it's sung, Luther composed the Christmastime Nativity hymn specifically for children, including his son Hans.
5. Mit Fried und Frud ich fahr dahin (In Peace and Joy I Now Depart)
As a monk, Luther would have been familiar with the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon, a canticle often used in evening worship. When Luther adapted it to German, it became one of the most important songs for funerals and the dying. The text references the peace that comes with death and the anticipation of meeting Christ the Savior. After a number of years in poor health, Martin Luther died in 1546 at age 62.