By Andreas Loewe
It was the German reformer Martin Luther who famously said that “music was next to theology.” Why did Luther claim that music was “next” to theology, and what did he mean? In the past, scholars have explained that music had a unique capacity to touch the human heart in a way that the spoken word, or other sounds may not do. That it had a capacity to move us at a profound emotional and intellectual level. That it had the capacity to combine words, melody and harmony, giving it an added quality by enabling us to sing.
Singing certainly makes music a versatile instrument to convey meaning in ways that touches people. As a keen singer, lute player, and amateur composer, Luther did indeed make good use of the ability of music to write stirring hymns that set out the principal beliefs of his reformation. But that still only makes music a vehicle to convey theological thought, much in the same way it can be used to convey any other sets of words. Indeed, the Master Singers’ chart-topping recordings from the mid-1960s of the UK Highway Code or the Weather Forecast, to Anglican Chant are outstanding examples of setting theologically meaningless texts to music.
It’s clearly not the fact that music is an instrument to convey words that caused Luther to claim that music was “next” to theology. Rather, it was Martin Luther’s belief that music stood at the pinnacle of the Seven Liberal Arts that led to his famous statement. At the time at which Luther himself was a student, the Seven Liberal Arts were the basis of all philosophical learning.
The Seven fell into two distinctive parts. The Trivial (or three-fold) Arts taught the mechanics of language and thought through Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic. The Quadrivial (or four-fold) Arts taught the mechanics of mathematics and physics, through the study of Arithmetic, Geometry, Astrology, and Music. Together, they formed the university undergraduate curriculum for much of the Renaissance and Early Modern periods.
Music held a central position between the Trivial and Quadrivial arts. In fact it was to be found in all seven arts, since it combined elements of speech, grammar, and logic, with arithmetic and geometry. Through the soundless “music of the spheres,” that so fascinated medieval music theorists, it even had a place in astrology. Music, then, was the lynch-pin of philosophical learning; the bridge between the mechanics of language and the mechanics of the universe. For Luther, it undoubtedly stood at the pinnacle of all Liberal Arts.
Once undergraduates had mastered the Seven Liberal Arts, they were able to proceed to a vocational degree at one of the higher faculties: medicine, law, or theology. Among the three higher degrees, it was theology—the science of God—that ranked highest. Taken together, all the arts and higher sciences formed an awe-inspiring reflection of the human attempt to make sense of the universe and its creation: a mountain-range of learning. The fact that for Luther music stood at the peak of the Liberal Arts means that it was, indeed, “next” to theology; if theology was the Everest in that mountain range of the arts and sciences, then music was K2, the second-highest peak.
The fact that Luther himself was an accomplished musician makes it attractive to think of Luther as a practitioner. That is probably why most reflections on Luther and music centre on his use of music, his vision of singing as a central tool for community building, education and religious reform, rather than on his music theory. But his encomium on music as ‘next’ to theology makes sense only when viewed from the point of view of Luther the philosopher and theorist of music; the renaissance man who recognized music as the second-highest peak in the range of learning, yet who also happened to inspire and enthuse generations of music makers by his own love, esteem, and practise of this noble science.
The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe is Dean of Melbourne and a Fellow and Lecturer in music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of music, the University of Melbourne. He has published widely on church and music history, and is author of “‘Musica est optimum': Martin Luther’s Theory of Music,” published in Music & Letters. His latest book, a theological commentary on Bach’s St. John Passion, will be published in spring 2014.