500 years of Reformation influence on music

Far beyond musical mechanics

Luther contributed new German texts to 16 out of the 24 hymns printed for the first time in 1524. One of the most stirring of them, previously mentioned, “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,” has music and words by Luther, voicing in an irresistible way the conviction and solidity he had found in God’s protection during his own private struggles with Satan.

John Eliot Gardiner, one of the world’s leading conductors especially of Baroque music, observes that singing Luther’s chorales and psalms in the vernacular, both in church and at home, became the hallmark of Lutheran Protestants such as the Bach family, united in fervent companionship. [Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner, pg. 29] According to the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), the chorales retained the moral effectiveness he called it a “treasury of life” that German folk-poetry and folksong had once possessed but by his day had lost.

Herder deplored what he saw as the separation of words and music the moment the poet begins to write “slowly; in order to be read, art may be the winner, but there is a loss of magic, of ‘miraculous power.'” [Herder’s Sammtliche Werke, Bernard Suphan (ed.) (1877-1913), Vol. 8, pp. 412, 390] He spoke of “linguistic petrification,” and of how, in Isaiah Berlin’s words,

“writing is incapable of that living process of constant adaptation and change, of the constant expression of the unanalysable and unsuitable flow of actual experience, which language, if it is to communicate fully, must possess. Language alone makes experience possible, but it also freezes it.” [Three Critics of the Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin, pg. 194]

Bach’s texted music possesses exactly this “living process” and the constant and essential expression of the “flow of actual experience,” which, according to Herder, language on its own lacks and petrifies.

Tischreden, translated Table Talk, is a compilation of quotes and notes by Luther’s students and associates. image: copy of Tischreden in 1568, edited by John Aurifaber

Luther’s close collaborator, protégé and friend, Philipp Melanchthon in 1522 warned, “If theology is not the beginning, the middle and the end of life, we ceased being men we return to the animal state.” Everything therefore had to be directed towards “the practice of God-fearing” (die Übung dear Gottesfurcht) and memorizing the official articles of the Lutheran church, the so-called Formula of Concord. These had to be recited again and again until they were perfectly remembered. Luther continually emphasized the need for the physical and the spiritual to be joined together.

In Tischreden, translated as the aforementioned Table Talk, the anthology of Luther’s life of which Bach later had at least one copy Luther said, “Music is a conspicuous gift of God and next [ in importance] to theology. I would not want to give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine, skillful people.”

For many people, the hallmark of Bach’s music lies in the lucidity of its structure and the mathematical satisfaction of its proportions. These contribute to the fascination it holds for professional composers and performers; but they might also account for its proven attraction to mathematicians and scientists. Nevertheless, that secular and appealing clarity originated in a fundamentally religious outlook. As we have seen, a high proportion of Bach’s music, unlike that of his peers, was addressed to a church congregation, rather than a lay audience. Religion was central not just to his upbringing and his education but to the locus of his employment and to his general outlook on life. For him it went beyond dogma, having a practical as well as a spiritual application, and was underpinned by reason.

The mechanics of Bach’s faith the structured and systematic way he applied his religion to his working practices is something that anyone searching to understand him either as a man or as a composer needs to address. The dedication of his art to God’s glory was not confined to signing off his church cantatas with the acronym S[oli] D[eo] G[loria]; the motto applied with equal force to his concertos, partitas and instrumental suites.

There’s a close synergy between Luther and Bach, though their lives were separated by almost two centuries. The bond between them was established at birth by geography and by the coincidence of their schooling. Martin Luther was born in Eisleben in Thuringia, a province famed for its musicians, most notably Bach. Luther loved the old Latin hymns and later revised many for use in reformed worship. Although he exposed corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, he never threw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater by losing his regard for the church’s musical traditions. Long before Luther began to reform the mass, the German church already had started to develop its own musical tradition that was developed by Burgundian composers such as Ockeghem, Isaac, Obrecht and Josquin.

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church history, music, Reformation, worship