MEG MATTHEWS CELEBRATES THE REFORMATION IN MUSIC
The egg was hatched 500 years ago, and the trigger for the Reformation occurred on 31 October 1517 when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church, All Saints Wittenberg. It was a list of questions and propositions for debate. Luther penned this document attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling ‘indulgences’ to absolve sin. His 95 theses, propounded two central beliefs: that the Bible was the central religious authority; and that humans may reach salvation only by faith and not by deeds.
Martin Luther nailed them at a moment in history ripe for religious reformation. As a result, the Christian Church was ultimately and irrevocably divided, and the Protestantism which emerged was shaped, especially in German states, by Luther’s ideas. Fortunately for us, music played a significant part in his reforms. A Sunday Special programme Ein Feste Burg will focus on the musical outcomes of Luther’s priorities.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a fine theologian but he was also a keen musician and music lover. Two of his favourite composers (both Catholics) were Josquin Desprez (c1440-1521) and Ludwig Senfl (1486-1542) whose music he so much enjoyed singing. For Luther, music making, and in particular singing, became central to worship. To quote Carl F. Schalk in his little book Luther on Music: “No one spoke as clearly and forthrightly as Luther about the union of word and music to the end that God might be praised”. He then quotes Luther as saying: “Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join, to move the listener’s soul. So Luther advocated that the musical forms of his day, Gregorian chant and polyphony, should be taught and sung in the churches, together with congregational hymns. The long term result was a flourishing tradition of church music possessing richness, simplicity and depth … choral music, organ music and congregational music.”
It is these traditions which we will explore in our Sunday Special program, Ein feste Burg, beginning with the hymn so much identified with Martin Luther. It is a congregational hymn for which he wrote both words and music, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott or, in English, A mighty fortress is our God. Down through the centuries, this Lutheran hymn has been clothed with many varied vestments in arrangements for choirs, congregations, organ and orchestra. For example, it is a significant theme in the finale of Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony subtitled The Reformation and is a Leitmotif in Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots.
An emphasis on hymnody and hymn books is something for which Luther is particularly valued. At a time when Catholics relied more on professionally trained choirs to lead the music of the liturgy, Luther came to believe in the importance of congregations of lay people participating actively by singing the liturgy. As he said ‘we all pray and sing and give thanks together’. To this end he wrote or re-arranged existing melodies to create chorales (Lutheran hymn tunes) and encouraged other musicians to do likewise.
Apart from Ein feste Burg, another chorale by Luther still popular today is Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, a multi versed Advent hymn which will be heard in more than one version in this Sunday Special. Luther also encouraged monks and nuns to leave their abbeys and one such nun became his wife, Katharina, with whom he had five children. He was also a great advocate of singing psalms and hymns in the home, singing in what he called ‘my small, stupid tenor voice’.
Johann Walter (1496-1570) was a fellow Augustinian monk and composer who became a musical advisor to Luther. In his hymnal, entitled Glory and Praise of the Laudable Art of Music he developed a theology of music based on Luther’s ideas and it was Luther who wrote a poetic introduction to Walter’s collection of hymns.
Three mainstream composers in the next two centuries, also renowned for their secular music, gave Lutheran music an injection of excellence: Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and music by these three will be included in our program. Many of Bach’s relatives, two of his sons and a number of his pupils continued to consolidate this library of musical excellence which was accumulating (and continues to grow) in the Lutheran church.
On Sunday 29 October, two special programs will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Reformation. Listen to Musica Sacra at 9.00am and, at 3.00pm in Sunday Special, to Ein feste Burg, a celebration of the Reformation in Music.
This article appeared in the October issue of Fine Music Magazine. Click here to read the current issue online now.