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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Quincentenary of Protestant movement bears a rich, enduring legacy of ‘the good, the true, the beautiful’

by Peter Benyola

“Luther im Kreise seiner Familie musizierend”: Martin Luther with his wife, Katharina von Bora, together enjoying music with their children, with Philipp Melanchthon in the background, by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg (1866). Historian Scott H. Hendrix says the Luther home was full of music, for Luther loved to sing in harmony with his family and guests (Martin Luther: A Very Short Introduction, 78). image: Musée de Leipzig

Like the ritornello in a classic Baroque piece, the Reformation was a return to the main theme of the gospel’s great concerto: “The just shall live by faith.” Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 reverberated through the nave of not only one Late Gothic-style cathedral, not just through a town in Germany, not just throughout Europe, but eventually the whole world. If the legendary sound of that mallet against the church door can be likened to the first note in an orchestral movement, then it crescendoed into a swelling symphony by Bach, Handel, Pachelbel, Mendelssohn, Praetorius, Mulder, Lippencott and a galaxy of other brilliant Christian composers spanning many genres. Their gift to posterity has been to score the drama of God’s gospel of salvation gloriously recovered and remembered across generations.

Is this too optimistic a view of the Reformation’s impact on world history? However we each may consider all factors and appraise the movement now with 500 years of retrospect, the Reformers and their progeny of composers left an indelible imprint on the development of the musical landscape and humanities in the Western world — albeit a mark that is often forgotten. For instance, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was probably the most prolific and virtuosic composer of the Baroque period and whose influences we’ll look at most closely here, persists in popularity that is very much in the mainstream of secular culture. Yet, no one can tiptoe around the fact that Bach’s vocal compositions are filled with language redolent with Scripture as well as Christological formulations of his era.

In fact, much of the impetus of Bach’s output was in response to the rationalistic and humanistic ideas that attended the Enlightenment (1650-1800) that was the intellectual climate in which he found himself writing music for the worship of God. Western civilization long ago embraced as a central precept, the Greek philosopher Plato’s triad of the unity between the celestial essences, “goodness, truth and beauty.” Looking backward, we as surveyors of this vast musical landscape should acknowledge the inescapable role which the Christian faith has had in its evolution.

Art at its best spotlights God’s glory. Five centuries after the watershed moment in 1517 that sparked the Reformation in Germany, it’s apropos to ask: What does music, old and new, owe to the Reformation?

As I’ve discussed before, the Reformation still shows its relevance, sometimes in overt ways, and perhaps, sometimes less obvious ways. Carrying on what Luther started, John Calvin at the request of Bucer in 1543 wrote an open letter to Charles V, entitled Supplex exhortatio ad Caesarem, in which he stated the need for the Reformation, listing as the prime reason, the reformation of worship. Though that return to more faithful practice of worship has lived on in the church, it has lived on not only in the church. Many religious as well as secular people admire the polyphonic genius of Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel — they’re remembered in one breath with other music greats from history such as Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bizet, Berlioz, Strauss and so on. But many from the same secular cohort attempt to divorce Christian composers’ spiritual inspiration from their musical product.

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager space probe into outer space, which included the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph record containing a broad sample of Earth’s common sounds, languages and music. The very first musical piece to be played was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major, first movement, “allegro moderato,” performed by the Munich Bach Orchestra and conducted by Karl Richter. And with good reason: It’s a gorgeous, uplifting and intricate specimen of contrapuntal ingenuity. Four and half billion years from now, when many scientists postulate the Sun will exhaust its fuel and swell to engulf the earth, that musical expression will still be out there, on a spacecraft propelled only by inertia far beyond our solar system. That is, if it isn’t intercepted first. If intelligent extraterrestrial life ever does find it, presented at the forefront will be this masterpiece — which just happened to be rendered by a devout Christian. Isn’t it more than a little significant that Western civilization obviously is proud enough of Bach among its many achievements, to make such a profound statement? If another civilization ever were to listen to it, wouldn’t they think what a wonderful world ours must be?

Looking back on an upbringing that included going to American public school and university, good schools, I can attest to the genericizing of historical Christian music by secular culture that denies its own heritage. As an adult, I enjoy studying, listening to and singing the gospel, especially as recapitulated by the Reformation. I also enjoy studying, listening to and singing Baroque music. So the synergy between God-honoring theology and music, which manifests worship, can be profoundly edifying to the mind, the body and the spirit.

Dr. John V. Sinclair conducts the Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra at the Knowles Memorial Chapel at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, on Oct. 30, 2013.

In 2017, some music lovers — those who are Christian or those who are at least fair to the facts — acknowledge that Bach’s magnificent fusion of music and theology can’t be separated without stripping the music of aspects that are essential. Any Lutheran or traditional Reformed church is almost certainly planning to celebrate the Reformation with vocal and instrumental works.

One of the hundreds of events to commemorate the quincentennial is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation concert by the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, conducted by Dr. John Sinclair on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Bach Cantatas No. 79, 80 and 19, two cantatas composed for the Feast of Reformation and one for the Feast of St. Michael, exemplify the sacred fabric of Bach’s music. At the beginning of the Romantic period, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), also from Germany, revived interest in Bach’s work. The posthumous fame that Bach has may be owed largely to Mendelssohn, who came from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity, and who further developed Bach’s music. Three hundred years after the Reformation, in honor of the tercentennial of the Augsburg Confession, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D Major, “Reformation,” was composed to commemorate the rich music produced by the Protestant movement.

Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses was his innocuously motivated attempt to invite public discussion of facets of Christianity that he saw were deeply in need of reform, but that event instigated great conflict in the following years. Besides the controversy that took place in the intellectual and doctrinal arena, the consequences of the movement bore out in politics and common life, plunging Germany and much of Europe into about a hundred years of religious wars.

Nevertheless, many hold that truth is worth fighting for; and art in God’s world necessitates and even thrives on beauty that is born of tension. After all, there would be no “Et resurrexit” without there first being the “Crucifixus” [Bach’s Mass in B Minor]; nor can there be a “Hallelujah” chorus without its correlating truth, the “Thou Shalt Break Them” aria [Handel’s Messiah]. Luther and the Reformation he helped precipitate were an essential element in European culture’s transformation from late medieval to early modern form. The Protestant Reformation can’t be reduced to Martin Luther, of course, as it had been brewing for years and was taking place in several different parts of Europe with various heroes and instigators — but the movement certainly would have looked very different without Luther’s central role therein, and as the inchoate catalyst for much of what has endured in music.

This same era also gave rise to the Baroque period of art and music that began in 1600 in Rome, which led into the Classical, Romantic and Impressionist periods. Baroque was an exciting time of great musical innovation for the West, which introduced the element of tonality and other standards. German Protestants certainly don’t have a trademark on Baroque music nor did it even originate with them — other important Baroque composers were of Italian descent and culture; Vivaldi, Monteverdi, Corelli, Frescobaldi, Cavalli and Scarlatti all were Roman Catholic — but Protestant composers were influential on Baroque and other styles that followed.

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