Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Luther and the History of Music Theory

Martin Luther’s views on music in Christian worship certainly have their place in classes on western music history. But he doesn’t really make any contribution to the theory of music. My title merely refers to a similarity that just occurred to me this morning between my reading of Luther and my recent experience teaching a class in the history of music theory. The history of western music theory covers 2500 years and, including as it does such figures as Augustine and Isaac Newton, touches upon not only music proper but also the histories of theology, astronomy, mathematics, rhetoric, and more. It’s a lot to assimilate in one semester, and I understand my students’ view of the assigned source readings as just one more tedious layer in an already complexly multitiered class. But, as I told them repeatedly, I’d rather have them read the sources and skip the textbook and ignore me entirely than to miss out on reading Boethius, Guido, or J. J. Fux themselves. In addition to learning the content of the authors’ teaching about music theory, reading the sources shows students the flavor, the biases, the language, the vanity or humility, and the desire for clarity or desire for obscurity that I can’t put across in a lecture. It’s like the difference between being told about a roller coaster and riding one.

I always come away from reading a source with more nuanced understanding and even more knowledge of the basics than I have after just reading about a historical author. I suppose none of the major content in the Luther reader I just finished this morning surprised me. But without reading Luther himself, I would never have known his style. I would never have experienced his care for his readers. I would never have grasped just how much the controversy over indulgences served only as a launching point. Reading about Luther, I know that he countered the theory of transubstantiation with a view of consubstantiation. Hearing it from Luther himself, I find his argument for the view, his open-mindedness toward people who see it differently (as long as they approach the Lord’s Table in faith), and his total avoidance of the highfalutin word “consubstantiation.” Reading about Luther, I am informed by a historian. Reading Luther himself, I am encouraged by a pastor.

As for those students of mine, I added two questions about source readings to their take-home final. So I know they’ll read at least two of the authors I tried to get them to experience.

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