Martin Luther gave music high praise, calling it a gift of God and acknowledging its ability to beautifully serve God’s Word. Luther himself possessed musical talent and training, having learned music theory and church modes while a choirboy. He sang door-to-door for his supper as a student in Eisenach, wrote many beloved hymn tunes, played the lute and sang with his household, and corresponded with other musicians of his day. He even tried his hand at composing a motet, that is, a polyphonic work which embellishes a fixed melody, or cantus firmus. His motet, Non moriar, sed vivam, uses the text of Psalm 118:17: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and declare the works of the Lord.” This piece, though brief, is lovely to hear, and it gains an even greater beauty and significance when considered in light of Luther’s situation before he wrote it.
In 1530, while Melanchthon, Jonas, and Spalatin were in Augsburg presenting the Augsburg Confession, Luther was two-day’s ride away at Coburg, unable to be present himself since he was still under an Imperial Ban—as good as dead. Living there for six months in suspense and anxiety over the proceedings in Augsburg, Luther comforted himself with God’s Word and stayed busy, writing a treatise on Psalm 118. He even inscribed Psalm 118:17 on the wall of his study along with the notes for its chant melody. In a letter to the musician Ludwig Senfl written from Coburg, Luther states, “I hope the end of my life is at hand. The world hates and scorns me and I in turn am disgusted with the world and despise it. May the Good Shepherd take my soul.” Luther asked Senfl in this letter to compose for him a setting of Psalm 4:8, a text about falling asleep in God’s keeping, but instead Senfl sent back a setting of Non moriar, sed vivam, Luther’s beloved verse. The attitude of the correspondence started with Luther’s longing for death, but, thanks to Senfl’s reminder, it ended with Luther clinging all the more stalwartly to the promise that “I shall not die, but I shall live, and declare the works of the Lord.”
Fifteen years after his stay in Coburg, Luther’s own four-part setting of Non moriar was published. Looking at the piece from a purely compositional perspective, the tenors hold the melody, or cantus firmus—a decorated reworking of the original plain chant based on the eighth psalm tone—while the altos sing sometimes above and sometimes below this melody. The soprano and bass parts work together to further embellish the cantus firmus, often moving in parallel thirds with each other. Rarely do the four voices align; each one has a unique melody with its own placement for the syllables of the text. While not as elaborate as Senfl’s version, Luther’s motet displays well his understanding of the text. When the word for “die” is sung, the voices which surround the melody symbolically descend, contrasting all the more with the flurry of ascending notes Luther uses when the word for “live” occurs.
Only a year after his motet was published, Luther did indeed die. He met with the death that he had long been expecting, but he also could look death in the face and truly say, “I shall not die, but I shall live,” because of the work of Christ.
Carl F. Shalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise, 1988.
Luther’s Works, Vol. 53.