Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Picture's Worth a 1,000 Words (Luther's Singing School in the House; And The Introduction of the German Hymn)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  Well, if that is so, then this woodcut (correction, engraving) by 19th century German artist Gustov König should be worth a few.  In this woodcut, Luther is depicted in his singing school at home teaching hymns to children.  The fact that the children are so young caught my attention.  Luther intended to use hymns as a pedagogical tool.  Hymns are supposed to teach true Christian doctrine to children and keep them until they are old and die.  Luther thought it was of the utmost importance that every Christian from children to pastors, learned music.  Martin Luther says of music, "by which, the Holy Spirit hints to us wonderful mysteries."  

One might notice that there is neither an organ or a piano in the woodcut, but something that looks strangely like an acoustic guitar (a lute).  This does demonstrate that there is not necessarily a rule as to what kind of instrument is used for hymns and spiritual songs, but that is not to say that it does not matter what kind of music is used for hymns and spiritual songs.  Luther said, "In music, every note and phrase should be regulated by the text."  Music must work together with the words.  The music ought to assist in purpose of the text.  Luther's purpose was to catechize or instruct, not simply children, but children through their lives as Christians.

Notice in this picture the intense study by those who are older, the intense expressions on their faces.  They are working hard.  They are taking this study seriously.  The children are then benefiting from the fruits of their labor.  They are learning the Gospel of Christ, justification by grace through faith propter Christum.  They learn the truths taught in the true apostolic Church, rooted in Holy Scripture.  This is not based on emotion or selfish contemplation.  That is not to say that it is emotionless.  Music adds to the emotion and even to the meaning.  It is essential.  It is a gift from God.  Catechetical instruction should not be void of musical instruction.  We should teach the children we catechize Lutheran hymns, to assist in their understanding and love of the catechism and the Gospel.  

I'll leave you with one of my favorite hymns from my childhood by Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig , which expresses this post in a single stanza. 

God's Word is our great heritage, 
And shall be ours forever. 
To spread its light from age to age; 
Shall be our chief endeavor. 
In life it guides our way, 
In death it is our stay. 
Lord grant while worlds endure, 
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations.  


Quinn Moerike said...

Fantastic post! Thank you. Very poignant and appropriate.

Paul McCain said...

Nice post, and forgive what may strike some as hopeless pedantry, but the image is not a woodcut, but rather, an engraving, no doubt, on a copper or other metal plate. That would have been the technique used in the 19th century. Just FYI.

Blessings in Christ,
Paul McCain
Concordia Publishing House

James Preus said...

Thanks Rev. McCain. I always appreciate helpful information.

Michael said...

Indeed, in the intimate setting depicted in the picture, a lute or guitar would work very well as an accompanying instrument. Paul Schultz demonstrated in a recent blog post here how well a hymn can be played on the guitar.

In larger spaces such as churches, many instruments can also work in various capacities, but the organ is still the only acoustic instrument that can support full-bodied singing by hundreds of people. Not that instrumental accompaniment is even necessary, but if it is desired, the organ is truly awesome.