The Reformation and Danish Society: Music and Song

Hymns that the congregation could sing in their own language were important from the early years of the Reformation. Many of Luther’s hymns soon became known in Denmark, and were translated into Danish. Making a hymnbook for the Lutheran church in Denmark was a high priority after the Reformation. Hans Thomisen’s hymnbook was published in 1569, both with musical scores for churches and in a smaller, cheaper edition for laypeople.

Music and song at church services also built on medieval traditions. In city churches there was still a choir of grammar school boys, and hymns were still sung in Latin. But the most important musical instrument now was the congregation singing Danish hymns – led by the pastor and parish clerk in the countryside. Old, familiar melodies were often used, and the words of hymns could be learned by heart whether people could read or not. Singing hymns was therefore a central medium in the spread of Protestant religiosity.

Numerous editions of the hymnbook were published, and it was probably the most widespread religious book alongside Luther’s Small Catechism. It contained up to a thousand hymns, gospel texts, prayers, etc. and functioned as a religious handbook for laypeople. A hymnbook was an important confirmation gift, was used during worship and gatherings in people’s homes, and many people had it close at hand on their deathbeds. For the revivalist movements of the 1800s, singing hymns together was a crucial rallying point. Hymn singing could take place without a pastor or sermon, and there are many examples of people in need and peril finding comfort in singing hymns. The popular folk-high school songbook of hymns together with Danish songs and ballads brought the tradition of singing hymns into new social and cultural contexts.

The Lutheran hymn tradition developed continuously. Luther’s hymns were reworked and new hymns were written by Danish figures like Hans Christensen Stehn in the 1500s, Thomas Kingo in the 1600s, H.A. Brorson in the 1700s, and N.F.S. Grundtvig and B.S. Ingemann in the 1800s. All of them made original contributions that bear testimony to the interpretation of Lutheran Christianity in Denmark during different periods. And new hymns are still written in Denmark today. The setting of hymns to music was from the beginning often an amalgamation. Medieval ballads were used, but new compositions were also made. In addition to actual hymns, large-scale musical works were also composed, including Easter and Christmas oratorios to be played in Lutheran Protestant churches. Composers like Heinrich Schütz, Dietrich Buxtehude, G. Ph. Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach represented the heights of Lutheran musical culture and classical music in general. In the 1800s and early 1900s a number of Danish composers like C.E.F. Weyse, Thomas Laub and Carl Nielsen contributed with new hymn compositions.

The organ came to play a prominent role in church music after the Reformation, so composing chorales (scores for hymns) became an important task. Dieterich Buxtehude, who worked in Elsinore for a period, was one of Lutheran organ music’s most original composers. Today Lutheran music by composers like Bach is played and appreciated worldwide, also in non-religious contexts. Music and hymns are still one of the ways most people have to access religion. In Denmark it can cause heated debates when new hymns are introduced and old ones are removed from Danish hymnbooks or the folk high-school songbook.