This week marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This protest against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church led to the social, cultural, and philosophical revolution we now call the Reformation – which in turn led to many changes in the abilities of governments and religions to control the personal lives of individuals in Western Civilization, among other things.
There have been many acknowledgments in the media marking this anniversary, including remarks by many dismissing or discrediting Luther due to the dark side of his character, and especially for his antisemitism. I’ve no interest in debating any of this – it’s clear from the record that Martin Luther was bigoted and intolerant and behaved in ways that were hurtful to a lot of people.
But, his 95 Theses and the acts and events that followed broke the back of the Catholic Church’s uncontested power over Western Europe, which nobody before him had been able to do. Martin was in the right place at the right time, and had the intellect, energy, and political savvy to marshal enough forces against Rome to make it happen.
What I thought about this week, however, was Martin Luther the musician, and about the other Lutheran who probably fulfilled Martin’s vision for the role of music in religion more than any other has done before or since: our friend Sebastian.
Because yes, in addition to his famous (or infamous) historical role, his founding of the church denomination that bears his name, his role as father of protestantism, his work as teacher, writer, theologian, monk, thorn in the side of many…. in addition to all this, Martin Luther was also a musician and composer.
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Martin Luther was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony. A year later his family moved to nearby Mansfield, where the boy grew up. Martin’s father wished for him to become a lawyer and eventually sent him away to school in Magdeburg in 1497, and a year later to Eisenach, where his mother was from. Martin attended the St. George’s Latin School in Eisenach from 1498 – 1501. Like most Latin schools of that time and places, the curriculum focused on the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and also included music – Luther was a choirboy. At the Latin schools and in his future education at the University of Erfurt, he received musical training comprehensive enough that as an adult he was not only able to sing, but also to transcribe and harmonize folk melodies and write his own, and to play the lute – Luther actually means lute player in archaic English and today we called craftsmen who build string instruments luthiers.
Eventually of course, Martin went on to be a successful and famous monk, theologian, professor, and administrator, and before he became a revolutionary he rubbed shoulders with famous musicians of the day including Ludwig Senfl and Josquin.
When Martin reformed the liturgy for what became the Lutheran church, he increased the emphasis on community singing to the extent that vocal music education became a given for all worshippers. By the 17th century, Lutheran churches throughout the German-speaking lands had practically been transformed into de facto concert halls in which the faithful imbibed the gospel in turns through the dual modes of rhetoric (sermons) and both the participatory and passive experience of sacred music. Martin himself wrote at least 36 German hymns and led the effort to compile and publish hymnals for the dissemination of the new liturgy. The development of a rich and profound Lutheran liturgical music culture led by musicians such as Heinrich Schütz (1585 – 1672), Dietrich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707), and our friend Sebastian (1685 – 1750) laid the groundwork for the achievements of German musicians in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for the enduring influence of their legacy today.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, Cantata BWV 80. The Monteverdi Choir & The English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner with soloists Joanne Lunn, William Towers, James Glichrist, Peter Harvey ~ this beloved cantata is based on one of Martin’s most famous hymns.
I was a choirboy too, although I was not raised Lutheran. I believe my siblings and I were the first generation on my father’s side of the family not to be for hundreds of years – maybe since the 16th century. Nonetheless, many of the hymns Martin wrote later in his career were part of my music education from the earliest days of my childhood, as they remain standards in hymnals of many other protestant denominations as well. As is the case with those of us who imbibed our first lessons in music at church, I feel a kinship with Martin and Sebastian for a shared childhood experience of singing in the choir.
For Sebastian was a choirboy too, and what is more, he was born in Eisenach and he attended the same school Martin had attended nearly 200 years earlier. Sebastian was a student at St. George’s Latin School from 1692 – 1695, although classes were no longer held in the same building where Martin had attended school.
I have often wondered at the profound impact this must have made on young Sebastian – growing up in the same town and attending the same school as Martin, whose accomplishments by the end of the 17th century shaped and informed so many aspects of German cultural, social, and spiritual life. Both of Sebastian’s parents died within 8 months of each other in 1694, and he left Eisenach shortly thereafter to live with his brother in Ohrdruf. Losing both parents and becoming an orphan, growing up in the hothouse environment of the Latin school, the same school Martin had attended! undoubtedly contributed to Sebastian’s lifelong piety. I imagine Sebastian must have regarded Martin’s spirit as a kind of ghost or angel, watching over his life, guiding his purpose and the course of his career. When he assumed the post as music director in Leipzig in 1723, he clearly articulated that the position would allow him to pursue what had always been his aim: to develop and compose “a well-regulated church music to the glory of God.”
Which of course he did, for the remaining 27 years of his life.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christ lag in Todesbanden, Cantata BWV 4. Ensemble Orlando Fribourg, choir and orchestra, Laurent Gendre, conductor with soloists Lucy De Butts, Valerio Contaldo, Lisandro Abadie. This is another of Sebastian’s most well-known and deeply touching cantatas based on one of Martin’s hymns.
So I thought about Martin and Sebastian this week, these two men whose lives are inextricably bound together for us, the musicians who came after.
My favorite chorale by Sebastian sets a prayer that Martin wrote in 1524:
Du heilige Brunst, süßer Trost,
nun hilft uns fröhlich und getrost
in deinem Dienst beständig bleiben,
die Trübsal uns nicht abtreiben.
O Herr, durch dein Kraft uns bereit
und stärk des Fleisches Blödigkeit,
daß wir hier ritterlich ringen,
durch Tod und Leben zu dir dringen.
(Thou heavenly fire, sweet consolation, help us now, so that joyfully and confidently we may faithfully serve thee, and not be deflected by sadness. Oh Lord, prepare us through thy power and strengthen the reluctant flesh, so that we shall fight valiantly and pass through death and life to Thee. Hallelujah!)
This chorale is the third and final section of the magnificently uplifting motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226. The motet describes and addresses the Christian Holy Spirit and Sebastian compiled the text himself from the book of Romans and Martin’s prayer.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226. Vocalconsort Berlin directed by Daniel Reuss. Section 2 begins at 3:32 and the chorale at 6:02.
Sebastian makes creative and remarkably strategic placement of the text in Section 2 of this motet so that the many sibilant consonants in this passage create an effect like whispering over or through the voices of the choir, as if one can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit here. And the chorale that follows on the text of a prayer by Martin must have held deep meaning for Sebastian. Although I am not a Christian, this chorale moves me in the most mysterious and inexplicable way.
I taught this chorale to many of my student ensembles, and when I directed the last choral performance of my teaching career at Nashville School of the Arts in December 2014, our combined choirs sang this as the benediction.
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Our Friend Sebastian:
Martin & Sebastian