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500 years of Reformation influence on music

An undeniable focus on God’s glory

A well-regulated church music was not Bach’s entire vocation. His larger calling was to write vocal and instrumental music to the glory of God, as well as the edification of his neighbor. The historian Jaroslav Pelikan commented, this “bespeaks the conviction of Luther and the Reformers that the performance of any God-pleasing vocation was the service of God, even if it did not lead to the performance of chorales. The Bach of the Peasant Cantata, the partitas, and the concertos was not ‘too secular.’ These were, rather, the expression of a unitary … world view, in which all beauty … was sacred because God was one, both Creator and Redeemer.” [Bach Among the Theologians, Jaroslav Pelikan, pg. 139]

In Bach’s later works, he strove to establish monuments upholding the high view of music passed down to him by his ancestors’ music as a “refreshment of spirit” for others, an instrument for proclaiming the gospel, and a way of giving glory to God. In the society around him, that view was rapidly diminishing to a lower view of music spawned by the Enlightenment, which defined it as “the art of pleasing … an innocent luxury … a gratification of the sense of hearing,” as Charles Burney said, or an art that “merely plays with sensations,” as Immanuel Kant said.

“Bach could not subscribe to such a view,” said Calvin R. Stapert, professor emeritus of music at Calvin College. “The B Minor Mass was his last and greatest tribute to the venerable art of music and to the highest purposes for which that art could be used.” [“To The Glory of God Alone,” Christian History, Stapert]

A panoramic shot of Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, where Luther hid from the pope, overlooks the town where Bach was born. photo: Christoph Herdt

Bach was a Lutheran by upbringing and by personal persuasion, a Lutheran by profession, and a Lutheran in his musical perspective and practice. Before he took up his post as cantor in Leipzig, he went through two theological examinations, which he passed by endorsing the Formula of Concord, a statement of faith from 1577 that encapsulated the high points of Martin Luther’s theology. The inventory of Bach’s books made after his death included two sets of Luther’s Works — one in German, one in Latin — and several volumes of his miscellaneous writings, along with various major works by Lutheran theologians.

Bach squarely stood in the Lutheran tradition, not just in carrying on the spirit of Luther’s theology, but also in conscientiously building upon what Luther had accomplished as a writer of hymnody and a promoter of church music. The crop that Bach harvested was a seed planted by Luther himself.

The dawn of the theological Reformation in Germany was also the dawn of Protestant church music, and the principal agent for both was Martin Luther. Luther’s importance for the music tradition that climaxed with Bach came from three things: his theology of music, his musical practice and his own activity as a hymn writer.

Luther often expressed his conviction that under God, music was of supreme importance. In comments he made during meals, which eager followers transcribed as the compendium that became his Table Talk, Luther occasionally described music as “the greatest gift of God which has often induced and inspired me to preach.” In his view, God gave music to humanity as a way to illustrate the glory of divine gifts and promises for men and women.

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