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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Luther as a predecessor for many musicians

Music flourished in German Protestant churches after the passing of Martin Luther. For the next 200 years, Lutheran composers such as Johann Walter (1496-1570), Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), Louis Senfl (c. 1486-1542/43), Georg Rhau (1488-1548), Georg Böhm (1661-1733), Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Dietrich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707) put musical flesh and blood on Luther’s belief that music was a gift of God. Like Luther, they believed that church music should proclaim the gospel and praise the Creator, be skillfully composed and skillfully performed, and incorporate congregational participation. Their music featured texts from Luther’s German translation of the Bible, the liturgy and popular hymns. The lives and achievements of these seven men in particular show that they were not merely “predecessors of the great J.S. Bach” but outstanding Christian musicians in their own right.

Bach wasn’t the first to try his hand at telling the story of Christ’s suffering and death in musical form. Such settings of the Gospel accounts were common from the Middle Ages onward. Jennifer Woodruff Tait, a church historian observed, “Yet Bach’s settings of the Passion story endured because of their ability to place the listener at the foot of the cross — and some of the hymns he used became famous in the process.”

Bach’s Passions present both the onward march of the biblical narrative toward the cross and devotional commentary on that narrative. A soloist representing the Gospel writer, such as Matthew or John, narrates the biblical text, while whole the choir sings the part of the crowd. Other solos and chorally sung hymns, usually in the first person, apply the Scripture story to the life of the individual believer. To drive this application home, Bach used hymns familiar to churchgoers of his day — including two 17th-century texts still sung today, Paul Gerhardt’s “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and Johann Heermann’s “Ah, Holy Jesus.”

Luther built a strong tradition of congregational hymn singing characterized, in his hands, by hymns such as “Wir glauben all an einen Gott” (“We all believe in one God”); and “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), termed by the music historian William Budd Bodine as “that triumphant war-cry of the Reformation.” But violent theological controversy in the 16th century between two strands of Protestantism — the Lutherans and the Reformed — the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and periodic outbreaks of the plague prompted later German hymn writers to focus more deeply on the inner spiritual life of the believer. Both Heermann and Gerhardt played roles in this transformation.

“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” is the inscription above the portal at the Georgenkirche church in Eisenach, where Martin Luther preached and Bach was baptized and served as organist. photo: Neptuul

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