Were hymn tunes borrowed from the world?

Is there such a thing as sacred music?

It is often said today that as far as worship is concerned, music is neutral.  But music can never be neutral.  It is bound to exhibit an influence on the emotions, and must therefore match and support the words of a hymn.  It should never be too powerful in melodic or rhythmic appeal, or in musical sophistication, because then it will divert the soul away from a sincere appreciation of the words.

Greek philosophy taught long ago that music had a deep effect upon the soul.  It was said to build character (with which we cannot agree), but it certainly has the power to eclipse genuine worship, and also (if it is ‘worldly’ music) to undermine a believer’s abhorrence of things ‘in the world’.

Augustine was anxious about the possibility of music being used in a way which would interfere with worship.  Wycliffe also is on record as being deeply concerned.  The Morning Star of the Reformation believed in singing, but he said that if he liked the tune more than the words, then he liked not the tune.  Calvin, certainly, was cautious about the misuse of music.

Music is not neutral in another sense.  It is bound to have associations.  If it is closely identified with the music of a sinful age, then the principles of biblical separation will be broken.  (Sometimes today’s so-called Christian music deliberately imitates disco music, because this seems to be what some Christians really want.)  There is a vast difference between ‘sacred’ and secular music.

It is fashionable nowadays to claim that all hymn music was once worldly music.  Many believers accept this claim.  But where does it come from?  Is it true:

The reality is that it is a groundless claim.  Those who repeat it have given too much respect to the source from which they heard it.  (And that source has mistakenly trusted his source, and so on.)  We would like to trace this ‘politically correct’ idea to its origin, but it seems impossible.  What matters is that it is totally incorrect.  It is a much retailed myth which has no foundation in history.

Luther and tavern songs

The jibe is heard that Luther, for example, used tavern songs and dance tunes for his hymns.  Church music, it is said, has always been influenced by the entertainment of the secular world, and what is happening today in new-style worship is no different.

If this jibe is true, then the separation texts of the Bible are undermined.  Those passages which say that we must have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness are all overthrown.  How can we have nothing to do with worldly music in worship if our ‘sacred’ music tradition depends on it?

Did Luther, as it is claimed, borrow from the secular world around him?  The charge is not true.  It is baseless.  Throughout church history great care has been taken with the use of music.

Luther loved music and wanted the people to sing.  He re-introduced congregational hymn singing in his day.  He wanted hymns to have fine tunes.  Before the Reformation, the Church of Rome had no congregational singing at all.  The people just listened.  They listened, for example, to such things as Gregorian chants, along with other items performed by those who carried out the components of the liturgy.

Luther was a great composer himself, and also an adapter of other works.  We read in Robert Harrell’s work, Martin Luther: His Music, His Message that Luther wrote thirty-seven chorales, fifteen of which he composed himself.  Thirteen were derived from Latin hymns or church music.  Four were taken from German religious folk songs.  Only one out of the thirty-seven came from a secular folk song.

This hardly justifies the idea that Luther helped himself wholesale to secular sources.  And in the case of the one drawn from a secular folk song, it is probable that the world had stolen that melody from the church, and Luther merely reclaimed it (totally adopting and sanitising it).

When Luther said, ‘Why should the devil have all the good tunes?’ he spoke in the context of Catholic chanting.  He was not interested in stealing from the world around him, but providing singable melodies so that congregations could begin to sing.  If a secular melody was used, it was very greatly changed.  And what else would we expect from the Reformer who wrote these words:

Luther’s rejection of non-sacred

‘Take special care to shun perverted minds who prostitute this lovely gift of nature and of art with their erotic rantings.  And be quite assured that none but the devil goads them on to defy their very nature … They purloin the gift of God and use it to worship the foe of God.’

Luther clearly believed that music was to be identified with its source and users.  It was the world of those days that stole freely from the church to obtain a melody for a bawdy bar song.

This writer remembers (and so will many readers) the time when pre-teens in both state and private schools had an obligatory weekly session called ‘folk singing’.  All the songs dated back to past centuries, and they were all sufficiently innocent to be sung by children.  They were easily recognisable as comprising a genre of their own.  It would clearly not be so objectionable to borrow an air from these.  But hymn tunes have never (before now) been drawn from, or fashioned by, the musical idiom promoting and characterising a godless society.

Luther boldly asserted that he had never used a bar song or a dance tune.  People charge him with a ‘crime’ of which he would have been appalled.  We repeat, it is a charge not substantiated by history.

A distinct style

In the course of the Reformation we gained the Genevan Psalter.  We still use many of its tunes today.  For several centuries now there has been in the churches of Jesus Christ a distinctly Christian idiom for music, easily distinguishable from secular music.  New-style worship is now sweeping this away.

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