Half a millennium ago music formed an important part of the Catholic liturgy. Plainchant was always set to Latin text and could only be performed by appointed singers. Martin Luther (1483-1546) went to a Latin school in Eisenach (coincidentally the same that Johann Sebastian Bach attended 200 years later!) where music was an important part of the curriculum. He sang Gregorian chant in the school choir, but also went “busking for bread”, performing secular songs with friends. By all accounts he had a clear, but soft tenor voice.

Martin enrolled as a 17-year-old at the university of Erfurt. For his Master of Arts degree he was required to study the seven liberal arts that were indispensable before engaging in more ‘profound’ subjects. Music was taught in a mathematical manner, but Luther acquired a good understanding of the theory of harmonics, proportions between intervals and monochords. Confined to his room with illness he learnt to play the lute and later also the flute. He must have been very accomplished or he wouldn’t have been given the nickname “the musician”. The significance of music is mentioned on many occasions in Table Talk(1566), a posthumous compilation consisting of Luther’s conversations as recorded...

Access our paywalled content and archive of magazines, regular news and features for the limited offer of $3 per month. Support independent journalism.

Subscribe now or log in to continue reading.