November 2017

Reformation 500 – music inspired by Martin Luther

st margaret’s church, westminster abbey

Scheidt                 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Schütz                  Komm heiliger Geist
Schütz                  Verley uns frieden
Mendelssohn     Mitten wir im Leben sind
Brahms                Two motets, Op 74
Bach                     Cantata 4: Christ lag in Todesbanden

(with orchestra)

The Reformation was a schism from the Catholic church, initiated 500 years ago by Martin Luther’s publication of the Ninety-Five Theses and lasting until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648 (although some would say it continues to this day). Luther refered to himself as a monk – he was a member of an Augustinian community that was not cloistered in the strictest sense – and was also a professor of theology and a composer. He advocated use of the vernacular during services, and his 1522 translation of the New Testament was a bestseller in his day. His hymns influenced the development of singing in the Protestant church.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, based on Veni redemptor gentium, became the main hymn (Hauptlied) for Advent. The polychoral setting by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), a pupil of Sweelinck, is for SATB double-choir, accompanied here by strings (choir 1) and brass (choir 2).

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) chose Luther’s translation of the 11th century antiphon Veni sancte spiritus for his sprightly motet Komm, Heiliger Geist. It is written for SATTBB soloists, triple 14-part choir, violins and continuo. His two part setting of the double chorale Verleih uns Frieden – Gib unsern Fürsten, based on the medieval antiphon Da pacem, Domine was first published in his Geistliche Chormusik of 1648, the year of the Peace of Westphalia that brought the Thirty Years’ war to a close. The setting is subtle and the tune for the most part buried in the complicated 5-part texture, but the colour and vivid word-painting bring a vibrant sophistication to the piece.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was a German composer and conductor who was widely recognised as a musical prodigy. Essentially conservative in taste, he was responsible for the revival in interest of Bach’s works and was well-received through Europe. He wrote many smaller-scale sacred works for unaccompanied choir and for choir with organ. The grave yet opulent Mitten wir im Leben sind (a Lutheran translation of ‘Media vita’), with its interwoven cantus firmus, suggests the spirit of Palestrina; the clarity and breath of choral textures anticipate Bruckner.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) published Two Motets Op 74 in 1878 with a dedication to the Bach scholar, Philipp Spitta, acknowledging the importance of Bach’s influence on the compositions. Warum ist das Licht gegeben? was composed during the summer of 1877. After a severe and chromatic fugal opening section in D minor, relenting only when the text mentions the respite brought about by death, there follows a canonic setting of ‘Lasset uns’ in six parts (divided sopranos and basses), in a warm F major tonality. The third section, ‘Siehe, wir’, is in two parts, the first beginning with a lush and serene harmonic movement that reveals the direct influence of Palestrina, and the second beginning at the words ‘Die Geduld Hiob’, which develops into a repeat of the music for ‘Lasset uns’. The motet concludes with a four-part chorale setting to Luther’s words ‘Mit Fried und Freud’. More than showing the kind of Christological redemption inherent in Bach’s motets, this piece suggests that the patience and endurance of the suffering human heart will be rewarded by the mercy of God.  O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, for SATB and dating from 1863-4, is in strict chorale variation form. After the opening chorale, the second verse ‘O Gott ein Tau’ places the chorale melody in the soprano whilst the supporting parts sing a three-part canon based on a rhythmically diminished version of the same theme. ‘O Erd schlag aus’, the third verse, introduces a rhythmic variant in the form of a triplet, whilst verse 4, ‘Hie leiden wir’, is a canon by inversion, whereby the overlapping part has the same melody, but with all the intervals turned upside down. Verse 5, ‘Da woollen wir’ continues this trend with a double canon in inversion, with A/T and S/B pairings. The final ‘Amen’ demonstrates the ‘stretto’ effect, whereby the various overlapping entries appear ever closer to one another, creating a superb final peroration.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. He composed music for the principal Lutheran churches of Liepzig. Christ lag in Todes Banden, is based on the Latin hymn ‘Victimae Paschali Laudes’ and is about the struggle between life and death. Bach’s chorale cantata was written in 1707. After an opening sinfonia, the variations are arranged symmetrically: chorus–duet–solo–chorus–solo–duet–chorus, with the focus on the central fourth stanza. All movements are in E minor. The final stanza recalls the tradition of baking and eating Easter Bread, with the ‘old leaven’ alluding to the exodus, concluding ‘Christ would … alone nourish the soul.’ Gardiner calls Bach’s setting of Luther’s hymn ‘a bold, innovative piece of musical drama’, and observes ‘his total identification with the spirit and letter of Luther’s fiery, dramatic hymn’.