Luther 500: some musical aspects

Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Today, Friday 10th November is Martin Luther’s 534th birthday and last week marked the 500th anniversary of the day he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, precipitating what David Starkey in his BBC programme of 21 October described as ‘seismic changes’ across Europe. The rapid promulgation of his ideas was made possible by the recent invention of the printing press which today – again according to Starkey – could be likened to a Twitter Storm. The Reformation had arrived. So how did this act of what Hans Keller would have called truth-seeking affect our musical lives?

This is not the place to embark on a potted history of the way church music developed in 16th and 17th centuries as the approach to religious worship evolved in Protestant or Lutheran services. In short, a simpler, less polyphonic approach was adopted as were settings of texts in the vernacular of the countries concerned. The broad intention being that the congregation, most of whom would not have understood Latin, could engage more readily with the substance and purpose of the service. For an excellent account of developments in England, read Peter le Huray’s Music and the Reformation in England 1549 – 1660 [M499.c.95.28]. (It was my great good fortune to have ‘PG’ as he was always known, as my supervisor in my second year, so perhaps I may be allowed this bias).

Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg’. An early printing

In Germany, Luther himself contributed to this accessibility through his translation of the bible into German. More importantly for our musical investigations, he was also a prolific composer of hymns with some 35 to his name, many of which have become a familiar element of church services. And this is where our quest begins in earnest – with J. S. Bach who used several of these hymns as the basis for some of his many, many exquisite chorale preludes. For example: Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV625), Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (BWV599) both from the Orgelbüchlein [MR472.d.95.9], and, probably best known of all, Ein feste Burg is unser Gott (BWV720). Bach’s compositions for organ are an extraordinary body of work, unrivalled by anyone before or since, demonstrating not only his complete mastery of the instrument, but his endless, utterly unique creativity. As Peter Williams writes in the preface to Vol. 2 of his Organ music of J. S. Bach (1980) [M614.b.95.31]: “Each generation must look anew at this incomparable body of music.”

In fact, it is Ein feste Burg which seems to have inspired works from several composers (amongst which we must not forget Bach’s cantata BWV80 [M210.b.95.158] as well as the chorale prelude). Staying with Bach’s generation, Telemann composed a motet in 1730  and Buxtehude his own chorale prelude (BuxWV184) [M200.a.118.16a – b], and Johann Philipp Kreiger [in M200.a.2.28] and Johann Nicolas Hanff [in M350.a.95.201] both produced their own settings for chorus.

Leaping forward a century or two, we find that Otto Nicolai (of ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ fame) composed his Kirchliche Fest-Ouvertüre on the hymn, which, in turn was arranged for organ by – you’ve guessed it – Liszt [M350.a.95.208].

But for me, the ne plus ultra must be Mendelssohn’s incomparable ‘Reformation’ Symphony no. 5 in D minor, Op.107. [M200.a.92.107] whose finale takes Luther’s hymn as its starting point. As the excellent introduction in this volume of the complete edition explains, its birth was protracted, beset by accidents and illness and pressure of other commitments, but by the spring of 1830 the finale was in sight, although it was not until 1832 that it received its first performance. Extraordinarily, the work wasn’t actually published until 1868 (but then, the same is true of many of Schubert’s symphonies) which is why, although it was written before the ‘Scottish’ and the ‘Italian’ it is number five in the canon.

There are, I am sure, many other examples which I happily invite you, dear reader, to share with us here at MusicB3. What, I wonder, would Luther have thought?

SW

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