Nov 1, 2010 – The Galaxy – Reformation Day!

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach. The Protestant...

Martin Luther (Image via Wikipedia)

Today’s show celebrates Reformation Day, the October 31st anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the doors of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany.

The occasion has significant importance on multiple levels:

  • Luther’s act gave rise to a whole new level of theological thought, and enabled the eventual evolution of free thought.  This eventually allowed for the Age of Enlightenment.
  • Combined with the advent of the printing press, this led to an era where knowledge, both religious and otherwise, was shared more equitably among society, rather than being limited to certain elite groups.
  • Luther published his own translation of the Bible (New Testament in 1522, Old Testament in 1534).  The Luther Bible served as a direct influence on the Tyndale Bible, which in turn was the direct predecessor to the King James Bible
  • The relatively swift growth of alternative Christian groups (John Calvin, for instance, published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536), and the doctrinal disputes between various groups and subgroups, eventually led to the migration of the Pilgrims to America.  One can only imagine how much different American history would have been had it not been for the settlement of various religious groups in the American colonies (i.e. William Penn, the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson).  None of these things would have been possible without the evolution of free thought brought on by the Reformation.
  • Even if one disregards how the chain of events initiated on Oct. 31, 1517 led to the Pilgrims setting off for the Americas, one can easily trace the development of the uniquely American notions of Freedom of Religion and Separation of Church and State to Luther’s struggles against the Catholic Church.  Ironically, that same Freedom of Religion allowed the Catholic Church to gain a foothold in the United States.

Not only was Luther a theologian of such significance that a major religious revolution was built around him, but he was also a prolific songwriter whose work is considered to have opened an era where folk music merged with high art.  This brought high art to a point where it was more easily accessed and understood by the masses, and his songs also serve as a milestone in the development of the Lied.  So, within the context of our show, it is entirely appropriate for us to celebrate Martin Luther, as his act of posting the 95 Theses was a major turning point in both world and musical history.

Now, we actually began the show with an effort to show the contrast of styles between pre-Reformation and post-Reformation music.  As a point of illustration, we heard a 1497 Ave Maria by Josquin Desprez.  Of course, it is easy to get me to play the work of Desprez, as he is one of the key figures in the development of Renaissance music.  As such, he is an excellent example of the best in pre-Reformation music.

We then move on to some music by Dietrich Buxtehude.  Fried- und Freundenreiche Hinfhart, based on the Lutheran hymn Mit Fried’ und Freud’ ich fahr’ dahin (“With Peace and Joy I Now Depart”), was written in 1674 upon the occasion of his father’s death.  It consists of 4 instrumental movements written in open scoring (meaning that there is no specification for a particular instrument; the performance we heard tonight was done on a pipe organ), with a 5th section, the “Klag-Lied”, consisting of a song of mourning for soprano with pipe organ accompaniment, placed in the middle.

We then moved on to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, who wrote many settings of Luther’s songs, both in instrumental and in vocal form.  Our first Bach selection was Christ Lag in Todesbonden, a 1707 cantata setting, written for Easter, which is believed to be among Bach’s earlier works (he was only 22 years old at the time of this writing), and is believed to be related to Bach’s move from Arnstadt to Mühlhausen.

We then heard a rather imposing set of partitas that Bach set to the Lutheran hymn O Gott, du Frommer Gott.  This is also believed to be one of Bach’s earlier works, written around 1700 (although they may have been revised at a later date).  The hymn has 8 verses, and Bach essentially wrote a separate variation for each of the 8 verses, each succeeding variation reaching farther and farther away from the original.  As such, the piece has little actual liturgical use, although it certainly would have been appropriate for before and after the service.  The piece also has some pedagogical interest in that it does not have any pedal parts (unusual for a pipe organ piece).

We then finished off the evening with Bach’s setting of Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, possibly Luther’s most frequently heard song (at least in modern times).  The version that we hear here is actually a reworking of a 1715 cantata, Alles, was von Gott Geboren, rearranged for the 1735 Feast of the Reformation.  The song itself is believed to have actual historical importance, as it is believed to have possibly been sung by Luther and his companions as they entered Worms for the Diet of Worms on April 15, 1521.  It is also said to have been similarly used as they entered Augsburg for the Diet of 1530, at which the Augsburg Confession was presented.  As the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had ordered reformers to renounce heresy and submit to the Catholic church or risk military action, the song may have been used as a rallying cry.  The earliest known hymnal in which the song appears in 1530, and some theories have the song written between 1527 and 1529, as Luther’s songs usually appeared in print shortly after they were written.  The song was first translated into English in 1539.

Here is the actual playlist, both in its original location, and copied and pasted below;

Composer Performer Title Genre Label Notes
Josquin Desprez
Hilliard Ensemble
Ave Maria
Classical, Rennaisance, liturgical music, motet
EMI, 1994
Dietrich Buxtehude
Emma Kirkby (soprano), Lars Ulrik Mortensen, pipe organ
Gem Himmel zu dem Vater Mein, BuxVW 32
Classical, Baroque era
Naxos, 1997
Fried- un Freudenreiche Hinfahrt, BuxVW 76
Johann Sebastian Bach

The Hilliard Ensemble,

Münchener Kammerorchester, Christoph Poppen, cond.

Classical, Baroque era, liturgical for choir and orchestra
ECM, 2003
Gustav Leonhardt, pipe organ
O Gott, du Frommer Gott, BWV 767
Classical, Baroque era, pipe organ music
Columbia/Sony Classical, 1975

Elly Ameling (sop), Janet Baker (contralto), Theo Altmeyer (tenor), Hans Sotin (bass), South German Madrigal Choir and Instrumentalists,

Wolfgang Gönnenwein, cond.

Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, BWV 80
ClaClassical, Baroque era, liturgical for choir and orchestra
EMI Classics, 1967
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2 comments on “Nov 1, 2010 – The Galaxy – Reformation Day!

  1. I thought you’d surely play “Martin Luther: Live at Budokan!” lol

  2. dougflummer says:

    Such a recording would have required some really interesting recording technology.

    Interestingly enough, my ties to this subject are more than just musical. I actually lived in the above-named Augsburg for two years while I was in the Army during the ’80s. If I remember correctly, I saw at least one, maybe more, of the churches that would be associated with Luther and this Augsburg Diet. It was truly a life-changing experience.

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