The Whole Church Sings

Congregational Singing in Luther's Wittenberg

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Robin A. Leaver
Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     220 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The argument of The Whole Church Sings is aptly captured in its title. Some recent historians, such as Joseph Herl, have argued that singing by congregations (as opposed to choirs) was a secondary development in the Lutheran Reformation. Leaver shows, however, that “vernacular congregational song in Wittenberg was an active concern from 1523 onward” (162). He develops this argument through careful study of the single extant copy of a hymnal published in Wittenberg in 1526: Enchyridion geistlicher gesange und psalm fur die leyen (Handbook of Spiritual Song and Psalm for the Laity]. This hymnal has only been known since the late nineteenth century and has received little attention. It is a rare survival from early Protestant resources for congregational song. Such worship aids were quickly and cheaply printed. It is mainly later, more comprehensive collections that survive. As Leaver notes, “how many other Wittenberg broadsides, pamphlets, and small collections of hymns” have been lost “remains an enigmatic conundrum” (viii).

Leaver is honest about such enigmas throughout his careful book. In some sections, words such as “probably,” “possible,” “hints,” “suggests,” and “seems” abound. Between these cautions and ventures, however, he provides superb analysis of what is known about early Protestant song in Wittenberg and other cities such as Nuremberg. He places this carefully in the context of sixteenth-century German music. Detailed footnotes and five appendices enable scholars to follow his argument with care.

Eight chapters develop the author’s argument. The first is a preface to the others. It examines how song was central to celebrations of the Reformation from the late sixteenth century into the twentieth. This links Leaver’s work to that of earlier scholars, particularly Johann Christoph Olearius, a pioneering hymnologist who marked the bicentennial celebration of the Reformation in 1717 by studying the first publications of Lutheran hymns. Leaver’s presents this book, published three hundred years later as a renewal of this effort.

The rest of The Whole Church Sings proceeds chronologically. Beginning with an introduction to the various types of pre-Reformation vernacular songs, Leaver moves through the early years of the Reformation in Wittenberg to the publication of the Enchrydion in 1525 and finally to the more widely recognized Geistliche lieder of 1529. In the early part of this narrative, one of Leaver’s most significant contributions is to show that the well known and lengthy allegorical poem by Hans Sachs of Nuremberg, Die Wittenbergische Nachtgall (The Wittenberg Nightingale) had its origin in a shorter song by Sachs in the Meisterleid form. This provides documentation that Luther’s theology was being expressed in new songs as early as the first half of 1523. Furthermore, Leaver explores the possible influence of Sachs’s song and poem on Luther’s Eyn newes lied, written in commemoration of two Augustinian brothers martyred for the Protestant faith in Antwerp.

Leaver shows that in the winter of 1523–24, Luther was concerned to have biblical Psalms translated into German. Rather than simply using existing Latin hymn and psalm tunes, he wanted tunes adapted to the character of the German language. Leaver illustrates this point through the comparison of Luther’s translations and tunes with those of the Anabaptist Thomas Müntzer. Also, in keeping with the folk song tradition, Luther and his colleagues embraced the singing of multiple texts to the same tune to further encourage congregational singing.

The core of Leaver’s historiographic argument comes in chapter 6 where he challenges the conclusion of Joseph Herl in Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism (Oxford University Press, 2004) that prior to the publication in Wittenberg of Geistliche lieder in 1529, most singing in Wittenberg churches was done by the choir. Leaver points instead to the Enchyridion of 1526 and hypothesizes that this was at least the third edition of a Wittenberg hymnal. A well-known set of part books for choir, the Chorgesangbuch of 1524, he suggests was originally accompanied by a hymnal for the laity similar to the 1526 Enchrydion. He demonstrates this through similar tables of contents and suggestions in the 1526 book. Thus, he concludes that by 1524, congregation and choir each sang in worship from their own books in alternation with one another.

In the later chapters, Leaver looks at Luther’s liturgical reforms, particularly the abolition of daily masses on most days and his reforms of the daily prayer services. The services of vespers and matins emerge from this study as the “primary context within which the early vernacular hymnody was taught, learned, and promoted” (143). Singing at mass was secondary, but important. In both contexts, preachers appear to have taken a primary role in leading congregational singing, introducing the first line of the hymn, just as Catholic priests intoned the first line of the Gloria and Credo.

Leaver’s prose is accessible, his argument compelling, and his discussions succinct and to the point. The general reader can easily follow his basic argument. What emerges from his pages is a picture of a reform movement finding its way toward more vernacular song, building on the secular and sacred song traditions of the time, and seeking to have Psalms and traditional hymnody come alive in the life of the people. The book will be most useful to scholars of the Reformation and those who continue the Lutheran tradition of liturgical song.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David R. Bains is Armstrong professor of religion at Samford University.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin A. Leaver is professor emeritus at Westminster Choir College and visiting professor at Yale University and Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His previous books include Luther's Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications.


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