Christ lag in Todesbanden: Tracing Early Lutheran Congregational Song

Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Lorraine Brugh


Arts and Sciences


Music/ Church Music

ORCID Identifier(s)


Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 5-4-2017


While popular perception holds that Martin Luther radically reformed church music, this research shows that Luther was relatively conservative in his reforms. Instead, his impact was to begin a tradition of congregational song and vernacular hymnody, along with a decentralization of worship decisions, which continued to be developed in the following centuries. This paper describes how Martin Luther drew on existing church music resources to create congregational music by focusing on Luther’s hymn 'Christ lag in Todesbanden' (Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands), and its use in the 1520s and beyond. The progression of this hymn can be traced during Luther’s lifetime from a chant-like treatment, which Luther inherited, to his metrical adaptation, which is easier for congregational singing. This new version was first published in Luther and Johann Walther’s 1524 hymnal Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn. Examining a facsimile of the original German part books from 1525 exposes intentional melodic differences in 'Christ lag in Todesbanden,' indicating that Luther did not want to decree details of worship, as the image of radical reformer would suggest, instead leaving such decisions to local leaders. The paper concludes with a look at a hymnal from 1586, which was the first to place the melody in the highest voice to make it easier for congregations to sing together with the leadership of a choir singing in parts. This is just one example of how Luther’s principles continued to shape Protestant church music beyond Luther’s lifetime.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

Hannah Koby is a junior church music major and German minor. In 2016, she spent a semester of her sophomore year studying in Germany at the Hochschule für Kirchenmusik (Church Music Conservatory) in Rottenburg am Neckar. Along with a church music and liturgical theology class at Valparaiso, the semester abroad sparked Hannah's interest in bilingual church music and liturgical theology research. After graduation, she plans to continue studying sacred music at the graduate level.

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