National Lutheran News

New CD-ROM library celebrates Lutheran musical heritage

Carl Schalk and Carlos Messerli headed up the project, funded by Thrivent Financial.

During November, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans shipped every Lutheran congregation in the United States a six-CD ROM set demonstrating great Lutheran music created during the past 500 years.

Commissioned to create the collection were two high-profile Lutheran musicologists, Dr. Carlos Messerli, founder of Lutheran Summer Music Academy & Festival (former Lutheran Summer Music Program), and Dr. Carl Schalk, noted Lutheran musician/composer.

During a December visit in Minneapolis, the pair explained the rationale for Celebrating the Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church in a conversation with the editor of Metro Lutheran.

According to Messerli, the most significant Lutheran contribution to the musical heritage of the Christian Church was the use of congregational song to support the liturgy. “Most Christians sing at worship,” he said, “but when Lutherans do it, they’re doing it liturgically.”

Said Schalk, “Martin Luther’s effort was to get people singing the liturgy, and not to leave it to worship experts.”

Asked why Christians stopped singing at worship in the centuries before Luther, Schalk said, “The church prohibited it because some groups were using music to spread ‘other gospels.’” While the church’s concern was legitimate, he said, the result was tragic. The congregations literally lost their voices.

Schalk said that the genius of Lutheran music was to marry two traditions that no other faith stream achieved. “In the middle ages, there was a tradition of art music, but no common participation in music by ordinary worshipers. In the radical form of the Reformation, the Calvinists got rid of the artistry but restored congregational participation in music.

“It was the Lutherans, however, who gave music back to the people and raised it to an artistic level that soared by the time of J.S. Bach. And the vehicle for that simple/complex mix was the Lutheran chorale, solid hymns with highly complex musical development.”

Messerli admitted that the Lutheran chorales can seem daunting, heavy and ponderous. “But,” he said, “the music leader makes the difference. For example, I worship in a congregation [in Illinois] where chorales are done interestingly and with imagination. They’re a powerful musical form, a unique Lutheran contribution, and arguably the greatest hymn style ever created. If they’re done right, how can they fail?”

Said Schalk, “If you think young people can’t get excited about chorales, listen to the teenagers singing on these CD recordings. They were participating in the Lutheran Summer Music Festival at Augs-burg College a couple years ago. These were kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And they got absolutely excited about this great Lutheran music.”

But is there a future for traditional Lutheran music when so many congregations are offering “traditional, blended and contemporary” worship alternatives? Messerli thinks there is.

“Praise music as we hear it being performed in so many Lutheran congregations right now is probably a fad. This sort of thing always goes through cycles.”

Said Schalk, “Fifty years ago there were three popular worship songs that everybody thought they had to use at worship. One of them was, ‘They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.’ You can’t find anybody singing that any more. And yet, the great Lutheran hymns continue to be durable.”

The Thrivent-sponsored resource was created for free distribution to Lutheran congregations, one to a parish. The set is not available for purchase. Readers of Metro Lutheran wishing to become acquainted with “Celebrating the Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church” should contact their church organist.