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500 years of Reformation influence on music

Bach receives inspiration from Luther in this acrylic on canvas by Carol Ezell-Gilson (2012), for a stained glass pane at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina. image: ezellgilson.com

Luther’s inspiration for Bach

Bach obviously wasn’t a theologian by profession. He never even went to university. But as a composer for the Lutheran church in the 18th century, he had more than a little theological knowledge. Bach’s theological knowledge was rooted in what he learned when he was young. He grew up in the Thuringia area of Germany, in the heart of “Luther country.”

“Martin Luther was born at Eisleben, in the northern part of Thuringia, in 1483, and died there in 1546. He went to the Lateinschule in Eisenach — the same that Bach was to attend two centuries later — and to the University of Erfurt, and it was at the Wartburg Castle, overlooking Eisenach, that he found refuge after being excommunicated and outlawed by the Diet of Worms. The spiritual presence of [Luther] remained strong throughout Thuringia.” (Bach, Malcolm Boyd, pg. 2)

Steeped in a Lutheran environment, Bach was 8 when he first registered in the Latin school in Eisenach. He advanced rapidly in a curriculum that was heavily oriented toward religious instruction. “In Quinta he studied the Catechism, Psalms, and Bible, history, writing, and reading, particularly the Gospels and Epistles in German and Latin … In Quarta Sebastian studied the German Catechism and Psalter, Latin declensions, conjugations, and vocabulary.” [Bach: A Biography, Charles Sanford Terry, pg. 21]

Two years later, after both his parents died, he went to Ohrdruf to live in the home of his older brother, Johann Christoph. For five years he attended the Klosterschule, a school with a fine reputation, ‘Where the progressive educational reforms of Comenius … had been adopted, and which attracted pupils from as far away as Kassel and Jena.” [Boyd, pg. 8] Here, too, theology was at the heart of the curriculum, and again his progress was rapid.

“It would appear that, coming to Ohrdruf from Eisenach, probably in February 1695, he worked his way out of Quarta in half a year. He was barely ten when he entered the class, the average age of whose pupils was twelve. Its curriculum comprised ‘Teutsche Materien’ (Catechism, Gospels, Psalms), Comenius’s Vestibulum, Reyher’s minor Dialogues, essays (exercitia styli), and Greek rudiments. Promoted on the examinations held in August 1695, Sebastian passed up to Tertiary and faced the unamiable Arnold, who taught more intensively the subjects already studied in Quarta, substituting Reyher’s larger Dialogues for Comenius. Again Sebastian’s precocity is evident: the youngest Tertian, he was in July 1696 first among the seven ‘novitii’. In July 1697 he climbed to the top of his class and was promoted to Secunda. Here, besides studying Cicero’s letters in Johannesburg Rivius’s edition, he was introduced to that stout champion of Lutheran orthodoxy, Leonard Hutter’s (1563-1616) Compendium locorum theologicorum (1610), hard fare for a young mind.” [Terry, pp. 27-28]

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