- Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict
Joseph Herl, assistant professor of music at Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska, has done a masterful job of assembling and analyzing sources that relate to choral and congregational singing in Lutheran churches of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (with some coverage of the nineteenth century). Many of us have longed for the kind of information this study supplies. (I wish, for example, it had been available before I finished the book I just completed on hymn tunes.)
After a preface that explains the topic and dates it from 1523 to about 1780, Worship Wars is divided into nine chapters and a conclusion. It begins with Luther and the liturgy in Wittenberg, then backs up to Catholic liturgical practices before the Reformation which are traced through the sixteenth century as a backdrop for Luther's changes. Luther is pictured as a conservative liturgical reformer who picked up on the congregational singing he inherited and was therefore "not so much an innovator as a popularizer of" it (p. 35). Lutheran church orders are analyzed for the prescriptions they give about choral and congregational singing, but they are not left to stand alone. They are wisely contextualized in the next chapter by reports of ecclesiastical visitations in order to try to understand what actually happened. Hymnals and their rise are surveyed, debates about choral versus congregational music are summarized, and the organ's role is explained. Along with this comes the performance practice of hymn singing throughout these centuries. Appendices provide further supporting detail with sources of German hymns, translations of selected writings, tables about choral versus congregational singing in the Mass, and comparative liturgical tabulations which indicate how the Mass was treated by Lutherans in various localities. Copious notes to the chapters come at the end of the book followed by a substantial bibliography and then an index. Conclusions summarize each chapter, and an overall conclusion summarizes the whole book.
Herl has searched out both the primary and secondary sources, read them with discrimination, brought together a wide array of relevant detail, and analyzed it very carefully. He has made a welcome addition to the literature, partially by giving so many sources, but also by pulling them together in a well-researched manner with clarity and context. [End Page 389]
In the process some important matters arise. Though not central points, they are nonetheless critical to the study and help our understanding of hymn singing and music in the Lutheran church more generally as well. One is the relationship between Lutheran and Reformed practice, and between Lutheran and Catholic practice. This study, without explicitly trying to demonstrate it, makes clear that Lutherans have provided bridges on both fronts. Though sometimes embattled, the influences that have ridden across the bridges are not insignificant and often have moved quietly under the battlements. A second is the development of music's role for arousing emotions in the eighteenth century. Herl helpfully distinguishes this perspective from that of the sixteenth century when, as he explains, the obvious point of music was to convey a liturgical text or substitute for one (see, for example, p. 123). Without understanding this shift, our current circumstances are incomprehensible. A third is the role of the organ in the development of hymn singing, a fourth its tempo, and a fifth the move from rhythmic to isometric structures.
As a whole the book pits choral services against congregational ones and argues that, though it took "about two hundred and fifty years" (p. 175), "the congregational conception of the service won out" (p. 178). Protestant rhetoric about Luther making a radical break with the past by suddenly introducing hymn singing is shown to be false. Continuity with the Catholic practice Luther inherited becomes far more evident, as does Luther's support—but less vigorous support than is generally assumed—for the congregation's singing. As the book proceeds it becomes clear that the complexity of the...