First some basic biographical information, taken from bach-cantatas.com:
Born: 1496 – Kahla (Cola), Thuringia, Germany
Died: before April 24, 1570 – Torgau, Germany
Johann Walter was a German composer, one of the earliest of the composers in the Lutheran Church. As Martin Luther’s friend and his musical adviser, Walter helped Luther to construct a new liturgy and composed tunes for many Lutheran hymns. He also pioneered the “dramatic” musical setting of the Passion in German.
In 1524 Johann Walter was called to Wittenberg by Martin Luther to assist him in framing the German Mass. The result of this was his Geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn for four voices (1524), the earliest Protestant hymn book. Luther wrote a preface to this collection of 43 polyphonic works by Walter. Planned for young people in Lutheran schools, the collection went through many editions, the last one of which (1551) contained 47 Latin and 74 German pieces. In 1525 Luther consulted Walter about a projected sacred service in German, a service that was published as the Deutsche Messe (1526).
Wikipedia offers a few more interesting details:
Walter was born in Kahla, in present-day Thuringia in 1496. According to a document filed with his will, he was born with the surname of Blanckenmüller, but adopted out of poverty by a citizen of Kahla, and given an education at Kahla and Rochlitz under his new name, Johann Walter. He began his career as a composer and bass cantor in the chapel of Frederick the Wise at the age of 21. It was a position he would hold until Frederick’s death in 1525 [8 years]. By this time, he was the director of the chapel and had become an outspoken musical spokesman for Lutherans. Walter edited the first Protestant hymnal, Geystliches gesangk buchleyn, published in 1524, with a foreword by Martin Luther himself and for the German-language Deutsche Messe produced in 1527.
I find his humble beginnings to be of interest, “adopted out of poverty.” Apparently, his original parents were too poor to take care of him, so they adopted him out to a wealthier couple. It seems almost an inconsequential detail, but we see God’s providence at work here, much in the same way as the upbringing of Moses. Without this opportunity, he may not have received the education necessary to his future work as Luther’s musical “right-hand man”.
I have selected two of his polyphonic arrangements of standard Lutheran hymns: