Music of the Lutherans

In 1980, Canada's fifth-largest Christian denomination, numbering approximately 716,000 persons, of whom 302,736 were members of congregations.
In 1980, Canada's fifth-largest Christian denomination, numbering approximately 716,000 persons, of whom 302,736 were members of congregations.


Lutherans. In 1980, Canada's fifth-largest Christian denomination, numbering approximately 716,000 persons, of whom 302,736 were members of congregations. Lutheran congregations appeared in Canada during the mid-18th century, when German immigrants and United Empire Loyalists of German origin settled in Upper Canada and Nova Scotia. Later, successive waves of Lutherans from continental Europe and Scandinavia spread across the country, taking with them a wide variety of hymn repertoires and service orders. Nationalistic, linguistic, and, to a certain extent, theological barriers worked against the formation of a united Lutheran Church of Canada.

By 1980 there had emerged no distinctively Canadian Lutheran hymnal. Well into the 20th century, congregations in the new land either used the hymnbooks of the old country or imported those published by the US synods (New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) upon which they depended for pastors and mission support. Musical uniformity among congregations could not be afforded by the hymnbooks brought from Germany, as the contents of these collections were diversified by regional practice and tradition; in Germany an authorized body of Stammlieder was agreed upon only in the Evangelische Kirchengesangbuch of 1949.

An example of separatism practised through music is that of the German-speaking Lutherans from the lower Volga who settled in western Canada in the 19th century:

Their church hymns, though sung according to tunes which originally were the same as ours, now strongly deviated from them. But their hymns really lived among them; for their Volga hymnal was used in daily devotions, in their prayer meetings, side by side with gospel hymns, and in their Sunday services either with a preacher or lay reader. And this hymnal was said to contain some really precious hymns. All these things combined to make this book very dear to these people so that they would not easily part from it.

To hear these Volga Lutherans sing was quite an experience. One would hear the first, second, third, fourth and still some more voices sing, each weaving itself into the other with fairly good harmony and with gusto. The women sang their soprano and alto, the men grunted their bass and other men with a high tenor voice supported the soprano, not tenderly but with power. They sang without an organ, and if there was an organ it was played by ear to match the singing. (Wiegner, p 7-8)

North American pressures for cultural assimilation accelerated a movement for English-language liturgies and hymns. This helped in the unification of the various synodical groups. However, Lutherans from the Baltic states and some German-speaking congregations retained services and hymns in their mother tongues. Lutherans of Scandinavian origin preserved into this century a core of their own traditional texts in translation while adopting hymns of other denominations.

Beginning in the 18th century, however, Lutheran synods of the USA, particularly those under the influence of the patriarch Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, issued a sequence of both German and English hymnals which displayed strong unionist tendencies and included selections of hymns of Anglican and Wesleyan origin. These culminated in the Common Service Book (music edition, Philadelphia 1917).

Its successor, the Service Book and Hymnal (Minneapolis 1958), was adopted by some two-thirds of North American Lutherans. The decidedly ecumenical repertoire of this book included 14 plainsong melodies, 37 Scandinavian chorales, and British tunes that outnumbered German chorales two to one (283 voices 145). The three settings of the service were, respectively: 'Anglican Chant,' a chorale plainsong mixture devised primarily from the Swedish Mässbok, and an adaptation by Ernest White of the Gregorian Missa orbis factor. Matins and Vespers were in 'Anglican Chant'.

In 1980 Canadian churches belonging to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod continued to use The Lutheran Hymnal (St Louis 1941). This book represented a tradition closer to the confessional movement within Lutheranism. In it the original rhythmic versions of the German chorales made up half the collection. The choice of texts reflected the theological preference of the Missouri Synod with its stress on doctrine as a factor in hymnody: 'the doctrinal repristination spreading as much by singing as by preaching' (DeLaney, p 113).

Effective 1 Jan 1986, The Lutheran Church in America (Canada Section) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada (formerly Canadian congregations of the American Lutheran Church) united in one body. The service book adopted was the Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis 1978), prepared by an Inter-Lutheran Commission of Worship representing the LCA, ALC, ELCC, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The service settings, expanded to include Matins, Vespers and Compline, Litany and Canticles, are the work of American Lutheran composers in a mixture of neo-plainsong and contemporary hymn styles. The 547 hymns offer a fresh and functional representation of new texts and tunes together with a Lutheran-biased selection of ecumenical repertoire. The Canadian branch of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which did not join in the 1986 merger, uses a special Canadian edition of the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship.

All hymnals maintain the Lutheran practice, dating from the 16th century, of collecting into one volume the hymns, the psalter, and the liturgical orders with propers and lections. What does unite the Lutheran churches in North America is the singular contribution of Reformation Lutheranism to congregational worship: the emphasis upon the role of congregational singing in the corporate worship response and especially upon the crucial place the hymn assumes both in the service and in the home, the hymnal as 'the people's prayer book' (Reed, p 186). Congregations sustain a healthy tradition of volunteer choirs and concern themselves with the acquisition of good quality pipe organs. The major influence of Lutheran musical life in Canada has been its contribution to the development of choralism in the community: in the founding of local choral societies and through participation in Sängerfesten.

The Lutheran musical climate has fostered the incipient musicianship of two of Canada's most distinguished choir conductors, A.S. Vogt and Elmer Iseler. The latter's interest in choral music developed at Waterloo College (Wilfrid Laurier University) under the guidance of Ulrich Leupold, who was in charge of the church music courses at the college's Waterloo Lutheran Seminary and was the foremost church musician in Canadian Lutheranism. Leupold's influence - pastoral, theological, and musical - was felt in the parishes through his encouragement of amateur music making and proper standards of service performance. He served on many Lutheran and ecumenical councils and was chairman in 1965 of the committee on music of the Lutheran Church of America Commission on Worship.

The spirit of lively musical Gemeinschaft (community) in Canadian Lutheranism has not encouraged significant composition of church music or the cultivation of professionalism in parish musical leadership. The exception lies in those individual congregations (eg, Latvian and Estonian) whose concert choirs serve a nationalistic as well as an ecclesiastical function and whose small but qualitatively substantial repertoire of anthems and cantatas developed after World War II.

By 1980 no Lutheran educational institution in Canada was devoted significantly to musical training. The choir-school movement was non-existent. The English-language congregations depended for service material upon the US Lutheran publishing houses, and, after the death of Leupold, there were no Canadian musicians on the inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship responsible for the preparation of a series of new liturgical settings, orders, and hymnals.


Eylands, Valdimar J. Lutherans in Canada (Winnipeg 1945)

Wiegner, Paul E. The Origin and Development of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan District of The Lutheran Church (St Louis, Mo [1957])

Reed, Luther D. The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia [1959])

Cronmiller, Carl Raymond. A History of the Lutheran Church in Canada, vol 1 (Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Canada 1961)

Nyholm, Paul C. The Americanization of the Danish Lutheran Churches in America (Minneapolis 1963)

Schalk, Carl. The Roots of Hymnody in the Lutheran Church (St Louis, Mo, 1965)

Ryden, Ernest R. 'Hymnbooks (Lutheran),' The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, vol 2, ed Julius Bodensieck (Minneapolis 1965)

DeLaney, E. Theo. 'What makes it Lutheran,' The Musical Heritage of the Church, vol 7, ed Theodore Hoelty-Nickel (St Louis, Mo, 1970)