Coloratura Christian

I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. (Psalm 34:4-5)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Luther stealing bar songs?

I was recently reading Leonard Payton's article, Congregational singing and the Ministry of the Word. I have to admit, it was one of the most interesting and thought provoking articles I've read on worship. Payton certainly has some valuable thoughts on worship issues that modern worship commentators seem to have largely neglected.

At one point he discusses the appropriateness of certain styles of music for worship. He does not feel that music from pop culture is appropriate, but advocates music from folk culture and high culture.

I had to laugh as he commented on the objection he often receives for his rejection of pop culture in the worship service. How often have we all heard that Luther stole his tunes from bar songs. Payton says:

As soon as I say this, someone will retort, "But Luther used songs from the bar." This is a regrettable misconception widely popularized in our time. Similarly, some will triumphantly respond with that famous Luther quotation: "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?" Anyone who has read Luther extensively knows that when Luther spoke of the Devil, he usually meant the papacy. In truth, when Luther asked, "Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?" he did not mean, "Why should the good tunes remain out there in the bar when we could use them in church?" Rather, he meant the Reformation church should not leave all the fine old hymns to the Roman Catholic Church. He was making a passionate plea for the use of traditional music!

As for Luther borrowing tunes from the bar, this is a misunderstanding of both music theory and music history. The "bar form" is a label for a musical/architectural form, not a description of musical activity occurring in a public place of alcoholic consumption. In Luther's time, there were academic societies called Meistersingers. They existed for the purpose of composing songs based usually on biblical texts, and the musical form they used was called a "bar form." The bar form is like a fixed recipe. It has as much to do with consuming alcoholic beverages in a pub lic place as does "bar oil" for a chain saw, attorneys "passing the bar," or Jewish boys and their "Bar Mitzvahs."

It is true that melodies from the inn could occasionally migrate into the church in Luther's time. However, it is equally true that melodies from the church could wend their ways into the inn. This is not the case in our time for the simple reason that the inn of Luther's time does not correspond to the bar of our time. The Reformation in England began in an inn. It was a place of spirited discussion and thought. It was a communal place in the best sense...Finally, musicological research since 1923 has leaned more and more in favor of Luther as the composer of his own melodies, though Luther certainly had no scruples with inns as ample historical evidence indicates. They were places to look for good beer, not good music.

It is hard to take seriously a Christian pop singer who sings "I Stand in Awe of You" with questionable Britney Spears-ish guttural sounds after every second word. Even if Luther did transcribe a popular tune or two into worship songs, I'm sure this was not the desired effect he had in mind.


  • At November 21, 2005, Anonymous elisha said…

    Hi Christel.

    These are some interesting things to think about. You know, in terms of determining appropriate music for worship, it really would be exceedingly simpler to have convictions leading you to 'no-instruments-exclusive-psalm-singing-only’ position. (Having grown up in that tradition, I speak of those holding such distinctives with nothing but love and respect.) It would make things so much simpler if one believed this. Psalms and voices only. Discussion closed. Clearly there would be no possibility for pop music associations, certainly no Britney Spearish guttural renditions, nor head banger rhythms... But, can we arrive there from clear Bible teaching? For that matter, how do we determine what type of music is appropriate at all? I would imagine that the elements many of us enjoy about the more contemporary style of worship would have been utterly horrifying to past generations. I guess I'm just wondering how we determine what is appropriate... by what and whose standards? For what is sublime to one can be dry and lifeless to another... What is refreshing and invigorating to some might seem restless and unpeaceful to another. Also, what constitutes 'pop culture' or associations to pop culture likewise seems a bit dangerous because it has that same potentially subjective nature. There must be some objectively biblical principles for music in worship. What are they?

    One other comment I've wanted to make... on your last post, the sketch of the pop star is quite strange... Why does she only have one eye?

  • At November 22, 2005, Blogger Christel said…

    Hi Elisha,

    Great comment. I think I'll post a response later today.

    As far as the sketch of the pop star...I don't know why she has only one eye. I don't even know why she has a mustache. Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe she's not even a she...


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