History of the sacred song on the European continent

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This article describes the history of spiritual song and hymn on the European continent .

Early Christianity

The sources of Christian music are the Jewish tradition of psalm singing and the music of Hellenistic late antiquity . The Christian communities sang from the beginning. Paul mentions psalms, hymns and spiritual songs ( Eph 5,19  EU ; Col 3,16  EU ), but only in connection with the domestic behavior of Christians, not with reference to music for worship.

Among the earliest surviving Christian songs include those described in the New Testament traditional canticles as the Benedictus , the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis .

Christ songs are hymns to Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ . By literary criticism , it is possible based on stylistic criteria, Christ songs and liturgical Good in the NT ( New Testament work out). Some songs are quoted and mentioned in letters and texts, e.g. B. the song of Christ Phil 2,6-11  EU . It is to be assumed that such texts are "coined forms" and "formulations" which the author quotes in order to remind the reader of what is known and to justify and confirm its content as "general beliefs", To draw conclusions or to take them into the praise of the church.


  • Often formulations like "we know ..." introduce such passages
  • The people change in context. While the text itself is formulated as a salutation or speaks by the author in "I-style", suddenly the "ER" is written in order to continue the original language after quoting.
  • In some places there is also explicit reference to a received tradition (what we have "received")
  • So one has also tried z. B. to work out an original catechism .

Old church

Probably the earliest evidence of the ancient church for worship hymns outside of the New Testament Bible canon can be found in Ignatius ' letters, here his letter to the Ephesians (7, 2 and 19, 2f).

In the fourth century, leading church fathers gave congregational singing a great value: in the east there were reforms of the liturgy under Basil of Caesarea . In the west, liturgical and musical reforms and the introduction of Ambrosian chant took place under Bishop Ambrose of Milan . Ambrosius introduced antiphons and newly composed hymns . The Te Deum also came into being at this time.

In the context of the rapid expansion of Christianity, the individual archbishoprics and monasteries gained relative independence from Rome. In addition to the Ambrosian, various other liturgies such as the Roman rite , the Mozarabic rite , the Gallican rite , the Celtic rite (see also: Celtic church chant ), the Byzantine rite , the East and West Syrian rite and the Coptic rite developed . Many of these liturgies developed their own singing traditions, some of which are still alive today.

middle Ages

Gregorian chant

At the end of the 6th century , Pope Gregory I reformed the Roman liturgy. Presumably within the framework of these reforms, an order, collection and standardization of the melodies and texts used in the liturgy began, which continued for several hundred years. The songs that were compiled became binding for the Roman Church as Gregorian chant and largely replaced local chant styles.

In the style of the Gregorian chant numerous new compositions emerged increasingly melismatic compositions by Messe texts from the Ordinary and the Proper Mass of antiphons for liturgical use and of pieces for the Officium .

Trope and sequence

In Carolingian times , various types of additions and modifications were made to the officially sanctioned chorales, which are known as trope : texting existing melisms, inserting or appending new melisms or texted melodies.

The history of the sequence begins around 850 with the text of the Alleluja closing melism ( classical sequence ) . Up to the 12th century the rhyme sequence independent of the alleluia was formed with rhymed and rhythmically adjusted verses. It leads to the large-scale staircase sequences of the 13th century (important authors Thomas von Celano and Thomas von Aquin ). Rhyme sequences have the structure of polyphonic, metrically ordered and rhymed hymns. They became very popular in the late Middle Ages, around 5000 rhyming sequences are known.

Folk hymns

With all the musical richness of Gregorian chant , parish participation in the chanting service was at best tolerated. Church songs in the vernacular, d. H. Hymns in the narrower sense, had their place at high festivals, processions or spiritual games .

The first evidence of vernacular church hymns comes from the 9th century . There were exceptions at the high festivals and the associated mystery plays. As an extension of Kyrieleis , the Bittrufs the community in response to the prayers of the priest, emerged on a modest scale trope -like Vorstrophen to Kyrie ( iron ) and macro- under the Christmas Christmas games or mixed language Umdichtungen Latin hymns and sequences, such as the well-known today In dulci jubilo (Now sing and be happy) and the Quempas like ( whom the shepherds praised very much ). Musically, these hymns move between Gregorian chant and folk song (triad melody, triple beat), so that in some cases , as for example with Es geht ein Schiff, laden , one also speaks of sacred folk songs .

In addition to the vernacular songs based on church sources, the first counterfactures were created , i. H. Transfers of secular songs into the spiritual realm. Most of the time, the melody was adopted and the text revised or rewritten.

Pre-Reformation and Reformation Era


In the pre-Reformation period , folk-language hymns began to be compiled in hymn books . One of the first hymn books was published by the Bohemian Brothers in 1501 . In addition to translations of Latin songs and counterfactures of Czech folk songs, it also contained newly composed songs.

Martin Luther and his environment

Among the reformers , especially Martin Luther attached great importance to the vernacular hymn. He aimed at different effects of singing hymns together in popular language:

  • As a missionary effect, the hymn promoted the spread of biblical content and Reformation ideas.
  • In catechetical terms , songs could have an educational effect and deal with special theological topics such as the creed or sacraments .
  • Formulated as a hymn which, supported by a memorable melody, could easily be memorized, content was easier to memorize .
  • Singing together represented togetherness and formed community .
  • German songs enabled the largely passive congregation to take an active part in the service.
  • The psychological effect of music described Luther as saying medicine against evil and balm against annoyance .

Luther composed over 30 hymns, including church year hymns such as From heaven high, there I come here , catechism songs such as These are the sacred ten commandments and psalm songs such as A strong castle is our God , as well as table hymns instead of prayers , songs for domestic use ( morning blessings and Evening blessings ) and liturgical songs. Many of these songs are we songs and strengthen the early Reformation community. - See also: List of Luther's hymns

Luther partly adopted Gregorian chanting and gave them new German texts. With new melodies, singing was always in the foreground; often the melodies move in familiar formulas - artistic originality of the melody was of little importance. New melodies were mostly created in collaboration with Johann Walter . But Luther also asked other employees to help them create new hymns.

The songs of Luther and those around him were printed on leaflets . They spread widely and quickly became popular. They formed a pillar of the Reformation orders of worship : In the Evangelical Lutheran church service, the hymn is an active participation of the community and also has the character of a response to the sermon.

Various congregational hymns were also published in Luther's environment. Since then, the history of the hymn has been closely linked to the history of hymn books .

The Reformed Church

The heads of the Reformed Church , Ulrich Zwingli and Johannes Calvin , rejected all traditions that they did not see as being based on the Bible. Unlike Luther , they were initially dismissive of church music. In the liturgy the word took precedence.

Although he was very musical himself, Zwingli rejected music in church services for a long time. In the Reformed parishes of Zurich there were no chants in his time; instrumental music was also excluded.

Johannes Calvin , who took over the leadership of the Reformed Church after Zwingli's death, had become acquainted with congregational singing in the form of psalm songs in Strasbourg . He allowed church singing again under strict musical and textual conditions:

  • Only psalm texts were allowed to be sung. Post-poetry had to be based closely on the biblical templates.
  • The singing had to be unanimous.
  • The melodies could not exceed the range of an octave.
  • Melisms were not allowed.
  • Only two basic values ​​were allowed for the rhythm (one beat and two beats, quarter note and half note in today's notation). Rhythmic calming at the end of the line was desired.
  • Every line of verse had to be followed by a respite.

In these framework conditions, a series of psalm songs was created, with simple melodies that usually avoid jumps (example: get up in your power, oh God ). The central hymn book of the Reformed Church became the Geneva Psalter , the final (French) edition of which appeared in 1562 . After Calvin's death, four-part music was allowed, and with the simple four-part choral movements by Claude Goudimel , the Geneva Psalter was widely used in the Reformed churches. During the Württemberg Reformation, Sigmund Hemmel set the entire psalter to music for four voices in German psalm poems by various authors for the first time around 1560. The translation by Ambrosius Lobwasser soon became the authoritative hymn book of the Reformed congregations in Germany for over two hundred years.

Thomas Müntzer and the Anabaptists

Even Thomas Munzer , who had introduced a reformatory German-language liturgy before Luther, wrote new hymns. Müntzer relied primarily on well-known Gregorian melodies, which he translated into German. Some of his songs, such as God, holy creator of all stars, can be found today in Catholic and Protestant hymn books.

New hymns were created in the context of the Reformation Anabaptist movement . Particularly noteworthy is the Anabaptist hymn book Ausbund , first printed in 1564 , which was used by the southern German Mennonites until the 19th century and to some extent still today by the Amish in North America. The core of the hymn book was made up of 51 songs, which were written between 1535 and 1540 by Baptists who are no longer known today in the dungeon of Passau Castle. They were mostly sung to popular melodies. Also popular was Das schön Gesangbüchlein from 1565, which contained 122 songs. Well-known Anabaptist song writers included Felix Manz , one of the co-founders of the first Anabaptist community in 1525, as well as Michael Sattler , Hans Hut , Leonhard Schiemer and Georg Blaurock .

Time of Lutheran Orthodoxy and the Counter Reformation

The time after Luther's death ( 1546 ) was marked by a refinement and dogmatization of theology, which was also reflected in the hymn texts. In addition to the regulation of figural music , the Council of Trento (1545–1563) also gave specifications for Gregorian chant. Thus only four of the sequences of the late Middle Ages were allowed in the official Roman mass liturgy .

However, the importance of the vernacular hymn was also recognized by the Counter Reformation . Catholic hymn books such as those by Nikolaus Beuttner (Graz 1602) - a collection of primarily pre-Reformation religious folk songs and pilgrimage calls - and David Gregor Corner (Nuremberg 1625) are early examples of the work of Catholic, Jesuit- educated scholars in regions shaped by the Reformation and the use of the Hymn as an instrument of recatholization .

Time of the Thirty Years' War and pre-pietism in the German-speaking area

The 17th century brought a new revival and a new level of German poetry, which also included the hymn. Martin Opitz drew up laws for German-language poetry in his German Poetry in 1624 , which were also the yardstick for hymn poetry for the next hundred years:

  • strict observance of the meter , taking into account the natural word accent ,
  • Prohibition of impure rhymes ,
  • Prohibition of word abbreviations and contractions,
  • Exclusion of foreign words.

Thematically, the hymn in the Thirty Years' War opened up the juxtaposition of transience and eternity. Numerous passion , death, cross and death songs were written that are still in use today. In contrast to earlier songs, the focus is not on retelling biblical content or conveying teaching statements, but on the subjective consideration, for example, of Passion events or human life in general. The we perspective of the Reformation shifts to a first person perspective. Some poets are influenced by edification literature or contemporary mystics .

The outstanding hymn poet of the time is Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676), who is also known as the most important Protestant hymn poet of all. His songs, for the most part devotional songs , are still sung in church services of various denominations and have been translated into numerous languages.

In addition to Paul Gerhardt, there are Johann Heermann (1585–1647), Martin Rinckart (1586–1649, Now all thanks to God ), Johann Rist (1607–1667), Paul Fleming (1609–1640) and Georg Neumark (1621–1681, Wer nur the good Lord lets rule ) important hymn poets of this time.

In the musical field, with the transition to the baroque, the church modes increasingly take a back seat. The church song begins to require a chordal accompaniment and becomes a figured bass song. In this way new, freer melodic twists are possible within the framework of the major-minor tonality, the elements of which are explained in the harmonization as leads, alternating notes, leading tones, etc. The range and vocal demands of the songs grow, the demarcation between the church song and the (sacred) solo song becomes blurred. There is a rich production of new song melodies.


From around 1670 Pietism became the dominant trend in German-language hymn literature.

Pietism began as an internal church reform movement, which wanted to break up the rationalization of theology, which was perceived as paralyzed ( from head to heart ) and opposed it with a practice of faith based on personal conversion and emotional piety. Philipp Jacob Spener, with his program font Pia desideria , published in 1675 , is considered the "father" of Pietism . After official rejection, pietism quickly found its place in private edifying circles, in whose hours the pietistic hymn was of central importance.

The new songs were mostly emphatically subjective considerations, characterized by linguistic images, in which the description of personal feelings was in the foreground before clear theological statements. Expressions of love of the believing soul to their bridegroom or the little lamb Jesus Christ, exaggerated expressions of feeling underlined by interjections such as Oh or Oh and the rejection of the world as a valley of tears were common contents. In addition, militant missionary songs were created that called for a new, conscious conversion. On the whole, the literary quality sank, the same well-worn formulas come up again and again.

The most productive poet of Pietistic hymns was Nikolaus Ludwig Graf von Zinzendorf ( heart and heart, united together ); he wrote about 3000 songs. The Reformed Joachim Neander ( Praise the Lord ) and the Reformed mystic Gerhard Tersteegen ( I pray to the power of love ) wrote numerous hymns that are still popular today. The most important hymn book of Pietism was Freylinghausen's hymn book , published in Halle in 1704 , which contained around 1500 songs in two volumes.

Pietism was of great importance for hymn poetry until the end of the 18th century .

Musically, many valuable hymn melodies ( Jesus is coming, reason for eternal joy ) were composed in the high and late baroque periods , which were perceived as solo hymns . The three-four time gained in importance. At the same time, stereotypical, undemanding melodies were created as music for use ( Jesus, go ahead ). The word-tone relation of the hymn lost in importance; Melodies were increasingly used multiple times for different texts or texts were assigned to other melodies.

With the extensive implementation of the accented graduation , the rhythmic smoothing and standardization of earlier melodies up to isorhythmic versions (uniform note length within the chorale lines) was connected.

Enlightenment and Rationalism

From around 1730 the Enlightenment , which understood critical reason as the supreme principle and rejected any belief in revelation and miracles , became decisive for theology and practice of the official churches in German-speaking countries. The rationalism presented Biblical teachings often behind the rational interpretations back, and in the Protestant Enlightenment theology , reason finally was regarded as the highest judge in matters of faith. Central contents, such as the Lutheran doctrine of justification , were questioned. The liturgy, as it was hardly accessible to reason, was significantly restricted, especially in the Protestant churches, which was accompanied by a decline in church music.

The place of the liturgy was filled by the sermon, and according to the educational concerns of the Enlightenment, it was primarily understood as a guide to a virtuous life. Basic values ​​such as tolerance, freedom of conscience and love of neighbor were central contents. God was represented as a loving Father and initial Creator, whose world now moves according to its own laws, Christ was reduced to a role as a wise teacher of virtues.

The hymn in the service should lead to such sermons or underline their content. Many existing songs were no longer acceptable due to their lyrical content and were revised according to rationalistic standards of value, in some cases profoundly changed. In addition, numerous new poems emerged, mostly of a very instructive character, the content of which corresponded to the sermons. Before the textual content, the poetic content became secondary - the songs only contained a few pictures and appear very sober. Today (2004) only a few of these rationalist hymn texts are sung, including the poems of the Enlightenment theologian Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–1769).

The musical design of the hymns also lost much of its importance. The number of common melodies, to which new and old texts were sung, decreased rapidly. These melodies were mostly isorhythmic and were sung by the congregation in increasingly long tones. The songs were interrupted at the end of the chorale line by organ interludes.

The creation of new hymn melodies was no longer seen as artistically demanding; the newly created melodies have no rhythmic diversity and they often lack melodic momentum. Sometimes new melodies are musically close to classical music, for example with Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812, our souls still have a lot to learn ).

A number of new hymn books appeared in rationalism , for example Cramer's hymn book . Due to the small number of melodies used, hymn books were now generally published without sheet music.

Matthias Jorissen's New Rhyming of the Psalms , published in 1798 , replaced Lobwasser's rhymes in the German-speaking Reformed churches .

Between the poles of Pietism and Rationalism

Some German-speaking hymn poets of the 18th and early 19th centuries created their texts between the poles of pietism and mysticism on the one hand and rationalism on the other. These include Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803, who are Christ's disciples , Lord, you want to prepare us ) and Matthias Claudius , whose popular poetry expresses simple faith in the Bible and a deeply founded trust in God.

19th century


The development of the hymn text in the 19th century was marked by counter-movements against rationalism . The determining currents include various awakening movements , awakening theology and romanticism . Neo-Lutheranism and confessionalism also influenced the hymn texts of the 19th century.

German revival movement

Song texts from the 19th century that are still in use today come to a large extent from Protestant theologians or clergymen from various German revival movements . These include the contributions by Friedrich August Tholuck (1799–1877) ( That was all my days , melody by Johann Georg Christian Störl ) and Karl Johann Philipp Spitta (1801–1859) ( With you, Jesus, I want to stay ; he knows it Lord his own , melody by Johann Michael Haydn ; O how happy we are at the hour ). The pastor's wife Marie Schmalenbach (1835–1924) ( Brich in, sweet glow , melody by Karl Kuhlo ) can be classified in this environment.

Christian Gottlob Barth (1799–1862) ( Rise up, you people of the Lord ) and Albert Knapp (1798–1864) ( To love you, that is life , non-human advice , melody ) have learned from the area of Württemberg pietism and the revival there by Andreas Sulger ) composed hymn texts .

A Reformed theology and song writer was Friedrich Adolf Krummacher (1767-1845) ( A Herd and a Shepherd ).

Occasional works and other poets

Some outstanding German writers and publicists of the 19th century wrote individual sacred texts that represent only a small excerpt from a much larger work. The songs by Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769–1860) ( Come here, you are invited , The God who made iron grow ) and Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866) ( Your King comes in low covers , melody by Johann Gottfriedschicht ) are Examples.

Also Eleonore Princess of Reuss (1835-1903) ( See, I will extend full of desire , tune of Karl Kuhlo , The year is quietly end ) many hymn texts has composed.

Song melodies

New texts from the 19th century were often sung on chorale melodies that were already known in the parishes, for example on Wachet auf Rufuns den us .

For example, new song melodies from the 19th century come from

Translations and the influence from the Anglo-American area

In addition to the new creation of sacred songs, songs from the English and Anglo-American countries were increasingly translated into other languages from the 19th century onwards . This applied above all to songs from the American revival movement, from Baptist or Methodist circles, the so-called gospel songs .

Hymn translators have often written their own song texts. For their part, translated song texts inspired German-speaking authors to create stylistically similar creations. Stays abroad by German-speaking Baptists contributed to the spread of the gospel songs in Europe.

Important translators of hymns into German were:

Lyricists from the Baptist or Methodist tradition who are clearly influenced by Anglo-American texts are, for example, Philipp Bickel (1829–1914) ( Shake hands, the hour slips away , melody by Fritz Liebig ) and Hans Jakob Breiter (1845–1893) ( Daheim , Oh what a beautiful word , A message full of mercy ).

Restitution of Gregorian chant

See restitution of Gregorian chant

20th and 21st centuries

Hymns were also written in the following years. Jochen Klepper and Dietrich Bonhoeffer contributed their experiences from the intellectual resistance against fascism.

At the turn of the millennium, new spiritual songs in the style of praise and worship are gaining in popularity.

There are efforts in the direction of a common songbook for all Christian denominations.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Gloria van Donge: Hymnology in the New Testament. Diss. (Mach.) О. O. (presumably Queensland, Australia) 1988 (Subject: RE303; Lecturer: Dr. Michael Lattke); Excerpts from Ralph Brucker: 'Christ hymns' or 'epideictic passages'? Studies on the change of style in the New Testament and its environment. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-525-53859-6 , p. 12.
  2. Cf. for example Martin Hengel: The Christ song in the earliest service. In: W. Baier (Ed.): Wisdom of God - Wisdom of the World. Festschrift for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the occasion of his 60th birthday. Volume 1, St. Ottilien 1987, pp. 357-404.
  3. Critical to this is Klaus Berger: History of Forms of the New Testament. Quelle & Meyer, 1984, ISBN 3-494-01128-1 , pp. 344-346.
  4. ^ Criticism by Ralph Brucker: 'Christ hymns' or 'epideictic passages'? Studies on the change of style in the New Testament and its environment. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-525-53859-6 .
  5. Reinhard Deichgräber: Divine Hymn and Christ Hymn in early Christianity. (= StUNT 5), Göttingen 1967, pp. 21-23.
  6. In the appendix: Historical explanations and lists - overview of the history of Protestant church music ; in Karl Gerok and Hans-Arnold Metzger (eds.): New chorale book for the evangelical church hymn book - with the accompanying clauses of the Württemberg chorale book , licensed edition of the Bärenreitervelage Kassel and Basel, Bärenreiter edition 440, Bärenreiter, Kassel 1956, printed 1973, p. 271
  7. In the appendix: Historical explanations and lists - overview of the history of Protestant church music ; in Karl Gerok and Hans-Arnold Metzger (eds.): New chorale book for the Protestant church hymn book - with the accompanying clauses of the Württemberg chorale book , licensed edition of the Bärenreitervelag Kassel and Basel, Bärenreiter edition 440, Bärenreiter, Kassel 1956, printed 1973, p. 272


See also