The Galaxy – In Celebration of Reformation Day

English: Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther...

Postage stamp depicting Martin Luther, the initiator of the Protestant Reformation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

October 31 is well known for the common celebration of Halloween.  However, there is an event of great historical importance that also occurred on October 31 that I’ve always found to be of great interest.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote (or at least dated) a letter to Albrecht, then Archbishop of Mainz, in which he included his infamous 95 Theses (a dissertation with the title “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”).  He also is said to have posted the dissertation to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany; this fact is disputed, as there is no eyewitness account of the event, but the posting of such things was standard practice for those wanting to post questions for dispute and debate.  This act was an act of extraordinary courage on Luther’s part, as he easily could have been charged with heresy, and he eventually was excommunicated.  But this simple act had widespread implications – it was the opening salvo of what became the Protestant Reformation.

Not only was Luther a theologian of considerable significance, but he was also a prolific songwriter.  Many of his hymns were used as the basis for musical works, both vocal and instrumental, by a number of composers, and a number of his hymns remain familiar with modern church-goers.  It seems only appropriate that we celebrate this notable occasion with a few of his compositions.

Johann Pachelbel

Johann Pachelbel

When hunting down renditions of Luther’s many hymns, it is easy to start with Johann Sebastian Bach.  However, I do like variety, so I started tonight’s show with a hymn, Christ Tag in Todesbonden, in a setting by Johann Pachelbel, not Bach (although Bach used the same hymn as the basis for one of his early cantatas – Bach’s work may have in fact been modeled on Pachelbel’s).  Pachelbel is believed to have written the work sometime during his Thuringian period (from 1677 to 1690), a timeframe wherein he had contact with the Bach family, and he scored the work for 4 voices and a small instrumental ensemble.  Tonight’s recording is a 2004 recording by La Capella Ducale and the Musica Fiata, under the leadership of Roland Wilson.


A song-book copy of Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott, possibly dating from 1533 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At some point it was inevitable that we were going to have to hear some Bach, given the numerous settings that Bach made of Luther’s hymns.  Luther’s best known song is most likely Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott (trans: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God).  Paraphrasing Psalms 46, Luther wrote the song at some point between 1527 and 1529, although some theories have it existing as early as 1521.  While there are a number of theories surrounding its origin, it served as a rallying cry for Protestants for many years, thus resulting in its wide usage by many composers as a basis for their music.  Bach wrote his chorale cantata for the song, BWV 80, between 1727 and 1729 for a Reformation Day observance.  He based it on an earlier cantata that he wrote in Weimar around 1715-16 that is now lost (BWV 80a), expanding it to achieve the current form.  Tonight’s recording is a 1967 recording by the South German Madrigal Choir and Instrumentalists, with the Consortium Musicum, under the direction of Wolfgang Gönnenwein.  The soloists were Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Theo Altmeyer and Hans Sotin.

One of the more interesting things that Bach did with these songs were to use them as the basis for keyboard works.  Bach was a noted performer on the various keyboard instruments, with his fame as an organist spreading far and wide.  He liked to use the original song as a seed for larger works that gloriously elaborated on the original.  Happily, the excellent organist Kevin Bowyer has recorded the complete Bach organ catalog that allows us easy access to these compositions.

Title page of Clavier-Übung III

Bach actually wrote several settings of the hymn Jesus Christus, Unser Heiland (trans: Jesus Christ, Our Savior).  They are found in the Claiver-Ubung III (BWV 688 and 689), a collection of organ works organized according to musical and theological terms that Bach published in 1739, and in the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes (BWV 665 and 666), a collection of pieces that Bach assembled between 1747 and his death in 1750.  The Clavier-Übung III pieces take the form of a trio and fugue, while the two chorale preludes (a more compact musical form) apply different counter-subjects to the cantus firmus.

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist

Autograph page of BWV 651, Komm, heiliger Geist, from the Leipziger Handschrift P 271 (Staatsbibliothek, Berlin)

Also found in the Great Eighteen set of chorale preludes is Komm, Heiliger Geist (Come, Holy Ghost), BWV 651 and 652.  Unlike the more relatively straight-forward settings of Unser Heiland, Bach turned these preludes into a fantasia (the title page of which is shown at right), and then a sarabande (a dance form that was frequently used in music).  We then returned to the Clavier-Übung for Christe, aller Welt Trost (in which Bach inverted the original song’s melody), BWV 670 and 673, before concluding our Bach set with Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 670 and 673, where Bach turns the song into a 2-part invention for two hands.

We close out the show with another composer with Bach connections, Dietrich Buxtehude.  Buxtehude’s Gen Himmel zu dem Vater mein (BuxWV 32) uses the final two verses of Luther’s Nun freut euch lieben Christen g’mein, turning it into a sort of chorale concerto for a solo voice with a small ensemble.  Our recording is a 1997 recording with soprano Emma Kirkby singing with John Holloway and Manfredo Kraemer on violin, Jaap ter Linden on viola da gamba, and Lars Ulrick Mortensen providing bosso continuo on organ.


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