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500 years of Reformation influence on music

‘The notes make the words live’

The connection between Luther and Bach was reinforced by the thoroughgoing and conscientious ways that Luther’s hymns and theology impregnanted Bach’s school lessons: they really were the principal means by which he took in and processed knowledge of the world around him. By the time Bach reached his early twenties, Luther’s teaching had pervaded his training in music, and now formed the impetus by which he modeled his first music for use in church.

Three remarkable cantatas, all composed in quick succession during Bach’s year in Mulhouse, provide an early snapshot of his musical intelligence and its mathematical application at work, showing us how he had already begun to deal with the faith he was required to expound and support. Giving close scrutiny to each of them will show us that Bach, by inheriting Luther’s late-medieval concept of the course of live being a daily battle between God and Satan, assented to the basic tenets of Luther’s eschatology: the need to make “a good fist of life” and to face death courageously, even joyfully, with hope and faith.

In each of these early works Bach comes up with a fresh and compelling exposition. Each one propounds a highly original musical solution to biblical exegesis. Within the mechanics of faith, music is there first and foremost to praise God and reflect the wonders of the universe.

The specific task of music, as defined by Luther, is to give expression and add eloquence to biblical texts: Die Noten machen den Text lebendig [“The notes make the words live,” Weimarer Ausgabe, Luther, No. 2545b]. John Eliot Gardiner reiterates Praetorius’ point that two of God’s most powerful gifts to humanity, words and music, must be forged into “one invisible and indivisible force,” the text appealing primarily to the intellect — but also to the passions; while music is addressed primarily to the passions — but also to the intellect. [Michael Praetorius, preface to Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica of 1619]

Luther maintained that without music, man is little more than a stone; but, with music, he can drive the Devil away: “It has often revived me and relieved me from heavy burdens,” he admitted. This belief was to give fundamental justification to Bach’s vocation and craft as a musician, lending credibility to his professional status and comfort to his artistic goals, while his emphasis on a “vocal” delivery of Scripture would later help to provide his raison d’etre as a composer of church music.

Evidence that Luther’s ideals were still working well in the Protestant heartlands more than a century and a half later can be found in Bach’s clear familiarity with the chorales, which were to play a central role in his church cantatas. Luther’s magisterial hymn, “Christ lag in Todesbanden” [“Christ Jesus Lay In Death’s Strong Bands”], written for Easter, brings the events of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection dramatically to life, depicting both the physical and spiritual ordeal Christ needed to undergo to bring about man’s release from the burden of sin. Christ is evoked simultaneously as the conquerer of death and as the sacrificial Paschal Lamb.

The way Luther unfolds this gripping story has something of the tribal saga about it, full of graphic imagery and incident. If, as seems likely, Bach first heard this hymn in the Easter season, he could have found no clearer formulation of the way in which Luther’s faith sprang from early Christian roots: from the Old Testament portrayal of Christ as the Easter Lamb; and the appropriation by the early church, of pagan rites, in which the essence and embodiment of life was connected to light — the sun, and food — bread, or the Word.

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