We know mainly of Martin Luther as the monk who, in 1517, tacked up his 95 Theses to the front door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg and touched off the Protestant Reformation, an event that would change the course of European history and world religion forever. Lesser known is Luther's contribution to music, which on a strictly personal level was rather limited, but in its extended forms was gigantic. New faiths require new music, and Luther certainly was not interested in adopting the Latin, chant-based heritage of the Roman church to carry over into his German-language services. Extensively trained in music and a strong devotee to the music of Josquin, it wasn't until 1523 that Luther began to turn his attention to devising music appropriate for use in the first protestant churches. Luther's dictum seems to have been "keep it simple, stupid" -- composing or adapting gracious, folk-like melodies set to German texts derived from biblical passages. These, and similar hymns by others under Luther's watch, began appearing in a growing number of publications that were appearing at a feverish pitch by the time Luther died in 1546. The legacy of this enormous bulk of hymn melodies continued to inform North German protestant composers for centuries afterward, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach.
In their Music of the Reformation, the German period performance vocal group Himlische Cantorey has discovered that, in addition to the early, monophonic hymns that bear the name of Luther or his direct assistants, there are a number of contemporary polyphonic arrangements styled like motets in the manner of the Josquin. Luther's own pieces are performed in unison, but elaborations by composers closely associated with Luther, Johann Walter, and Caspar Othmayr are heard in the balance. These are all deeply moving and beautiful settings and Himlische Cantorey does its best in keeping the treatments simple -- there is no more than a lute and small organ accompaniment in use for the whole disc. It is fascinating to hear how close early Lutheran sacred music is to the popular music of this era, having shaken loose the shackles of chant and its modal rhythm. One exception is Luther's setting of "Durch Adam's Fall," which despite his preference for avoiding the influence of the Roman church, still carries a faint echo of the sound of chant.
Himlische Cantorey's Music of the Reformation represents the modest hut on which the Bachs, Schütz, and the Lutheran organ school built their massive edifices. Enthusiasts of middle-Renaissance music will find the bare bones approach to polyphony of Walter and Othmayr refreshing, and listeners coming to Music of the Reformation for added insight to the early beginnings of Protestantism will find far more in this than mere historical value.