Ein feste Burg: Life, Death & Faith in Lutheran Germany
Komm heiliger Geist Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
Libera me, Domine Balthasar Resinarius (ca. 1486-1544)
O wie selig ist der Tod Johann Walther (1684-1748)
Ich reu und klag Leonhard Lechner (ca. 1553-1606)
Veni, veni sancte Praetorius
Si pietas Lechner
Selig sind die Toten Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)
Komm heiliger Geist Johannes Eccard (1553-1611)
Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (Schwaben. Francken.) Praetorius
Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (Marck.) Praetorius
Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (Alte Melodey.) Praetorius
Die Musik ist ein schöne Kunst Lechner
Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt Schütz
Komm, heiliger Geist (organ solo) Matthias Weckman (1621-1674)
Komm, heiliger Geist Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein (organ solo) Weckmann
Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr Schein
Ein feste Burg Walther
Ein feste Burg Walther
Ein feste Burg Schütz
Ein feste Burg Melchior Franck (ca. 1580-1639)
Ein feste Burg Stephan Mahu (1480-90-after 1541)
Ein feste Burg Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
Shannon Canavin & Allison Mondel, soprano
Thea Lobo & Aaron Russo, alto
Jason McStoots & Eric Rice, tenor
Brian Church & Richard Giarusso, bass
Friday, October 29, 2004 at 8pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street, Boston
Sunday, October 31, 2004 at 3 PM
West Parish, 129 Reservation Road, Andover
Notes on the Program
Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. . . . For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate . . . what more effective means than music could you find?
— Martin Luther, preface to Symphoniae jucundae, 1538
On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted ninety-five complaints against Roman Catholicism on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Through this simple act of protest, which was aimed at an arriving papal emissary, Luther had hoped to begin stemming what he saw as the corrupt practice of selling priestly pardons for sins. Instead, his reforms coalesced into a new Christian faith, one for which a new liturgical and musical tradition also evolved. As the above quotation demonstrates, Luther believed music to be the most “effective means” of awakening and reinforcing people’s faith, and this conviction had a profound effect on early Lutheran music. Our concert surveys this repertoire, exploring musical manifestations of two essential Lutheran beliefs: first, that salvation from death occurs only through faith in the forgiveness of sin brought about by Christ’s crucifixion; second, that the Bible is the only norm of doctrine and thus the only true standard by which church teachings are to be judged. These beliefs are expressed in the sacred music on our program, which falls into three broad categories: works for Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit is implored to “fill the hearts of the faithful”; works on the subject of death, in which faith is often invoked as the means to salvation; and various settings of Luther’s own Ein feste Burg, a hymn that expresses the steadfastness of faith grounded in scripture. Nearly all of this music is a remarkable amalgam of tradition and innovation. Tunes Luther adapted from Gregorian chant or composed outright are employed in the context of florid polyphony, and emotionally charged dissonances worthy of the operatic stage occur in settings of Biblical texts about death and renewal. The music is indeed effective and stirring, serving as a remarkable testament to Lutheran faith in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
From the earliest years of the new church, Lutheran musical ideals emphasized active congregational singing and the use of vernacular language. The liturgy was not the main target of Luther’s initial protests, but he subjected it to increasing scrutiny as scripture alone replaced Patristic teachings as the basis for Lutheran faith. Soon German was employed together with the traditional Latin, and a new genre of song known as the chorale became a vehicle for the transmission and retention of doctrinal texts. It is these works, which are simple melodies with multiple verses of text intended for congregational singing, that form the cornerstone of Lutheran liturgical music.
Yet Luther did not abandon entirely the traditional music of the Roman Church, a tradition in which he happened to be exceptionally well trained. He translated many of its texts and adapted its melodies. Komm heiliger Geist, Herre Gott is Luther’s free adaptation of the plainsong Veni, Sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium, a chant sung at Pentecost. Our program begins with a simple, four-voice rendering of Luther’s adaptation by Michael Praetorius (1571 – 1621), who served as a court organist and Kapellmeister in the Lutheran strongholds of Wolfenbüttel and Dresden. The chorale melody is heard in the soprano, with the other three parts providing primarily chordal accompaniment with light embellishment. (The five-voice settings of Komm, heiliger Geist by Johannes Eccard and Johann Hermann Schein, which are heard later in the program, are more complex, reflecting a compositional approach suited more to professional choirs than to congregations.) Veni, veni Sancte Spiritus is a freely composed setting of the original Latin text for three voices of equal range, originally boys, and an adult male singer. The melodies of the three four-voice settings of Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist originate in different regions of Germany; Praetorius, an incredibly prolific composer as well as an active collector and pedagogue, took pains to set as many of these regional melodies as he could. All of these works appeared in the composer’s massive Musae Sioniae, a nine-volume collection published between 1605 and 1611 dedicated to polyphonic settings of chorales.
The earliest publications of Lutheran music emerged from the press of Georg Rhau (1488-1548), a composer and music theorist who was briefly the Kantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, a position held by J.S. Bach two hundred years later. Rhau’s Lutheran sympathies cost him that post, however, as Leipzig was not yet in Lutheran hands. In 1520, he returned to his native Wittenberg to take up a relative’s printing business, combining it with his interests in music and the new church.
Rhau commissioned the Bohemian-born Balthasar Resinarius (1485-1544), a Lutheran Bishop, to compose a cycle of Latin-texted liturgical pieces for the entire church year. The works are settings of responsories, chants with a repeated section and a verse (a passage setting a brief phrase of scripture) that were traditionally sung in Catholic services of the Divine Office following scripture readings. Resinarius had received his musical training at the court of Emperor Maximilian I under Heinrich Isaac (c. 1450-1517), who excelled in such liturgical settings, and the younger composer’s four-voice Libera me, Domine, a responsory for the office of the dead, reflects both Isaac’s influence and the immediate needs of the Lutheran church. It employs thoroughgoing imitation (in which one voice repeats, recognizably if not exactly, a melodic figure previously heard in another voice), but also emphasizes the significance and meaning of the text of the repeated section. After the section’s initial imitative passage, in which the voices employ a rising figure, the top voice presents a series of long notes, and the inexorable rise and rhythmic drive of the bottom three voices against these creates a restless quality clearly intended to correspond to the movement of heaven and earth described in the text.
Among the composers Rhau championed was Johann Walther (1496-1570), a choirmaster and composer for the Elector of Saxony at Torgau who became the principal composer of the Lutheran chorale. Rhau issued a new and enlarged edition of Walther’s Geystlichiches gesangk Büchleyn, the most heavily used of Lutheran hymnbooks, in 1544. While this publication contains modest chorale settings for congregational and devotional singing, surviving manuscripts contain motets by Walther in thoroughly imitative style; O wie selig ist der Tod is one such work. Each phrase of text receives a new segment of melody that is heard in imitation several times, and Walther’s occasional use of implied dissonant cross relations (in which the voice parts simultaneously differ on whether a pitch is natural, sharp, or flat) betrays the influence of Franco-Flemish composers of the period.
Some Lutheran composers engaged in secular composition and were quite worldly in their approaches. Leonhard Lechner (c. 1553-1606), for example, was a prolific composer of the villanella, an Italian genre associated with rustic texts and characters that he assimilated and adapted for German use. Ich reu und klag retains the three-voice disposition and vocal ranges of its Italian models, but makes use of a subtle rhythmic play and form that Lechner probably associated with its German poem, a decidedly highbrow work in which sets of two rhyming four-syllable lines are alternated with rhyming seven-syllable lines. Lechner spent the first portion of his adult career (until 1583) in Nuremberg, and it was there that he composed Si pietas, si sancta fides, a funeral motet, though for whom is not immediately clear. The piece, which is scored for five low voices, contrasts imitative and homophonic textures to great rhetorical effect and employs expressive touches of chromaticism. Although Lechner’s compositional voice can be clearly heard, so too can the influence of Orlande de Lassus (ca. 1530 – 1594), whom Lechner served as a choirboy and cited throughout his life as his teacher.] Die Musik ist ein schöne Kunst is a bright, energetic work intended for the amateur singing societies Lechner served in Nuremberg.
Like Lechner, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was familiar with Italian models. He spent nearly four years (1609-1612) in Venice in an apprenticeship with Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612), adopting aspects of the elder composer’s forward-looking approach to dissonance treatment, speech rhythm, and polychoral textures. In 1614 he became the Kapellmeister at the court of the Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony in Dresden, a post he held for more than forty years. His six-voice Selig sind die Toten is characterized by and abundant suspended dissonances (in which one voice momentarily holds a note belonging to a chord that the other voices have left behind), particularly in long note values at the text “von ihrer Arbeit,” where they may serve to symbolize the struggle of labor. The idea of resting is conveyed by long notes at the text “Sie ruhen” (“they rest”) and the phrase “und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach” (“and their works do follow them”) is contrasted with the rest of piece by means of its forward movement in short note values and imitative counterpoint, suggesting the “following” mentioned in the text. Schütz’s seven-voice Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt is particularly noteworthy for its textural contrasts—separate choirs of high and low voices alternate and collaborate throughout the work—and its alternation between triple and duple meter. Though the work (along with Selig sind die Toten) was published in the composer’s Geistlicher Chormusik of 1648, both of these features ultimately descend from his studies with Gabrieli over three decades earlier.
Schütz’s close friend, Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630), also employed chromatic melody and suspended dissonances for expressive purposes. Indeed, his five-voice Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr, published in 1623, could well have come from Schütz’s pen; it shares many characteristics with Selig sind die Toten. The opening, for example, expresses the length of the seventy-year lifespan mentioned in the text with slow melodic lines in a contrary motion, employing many suspended dissonances along the way. The closing section depicts the idea of flying with a lilting motion and then rapid, downward runs. Like Rhau before him, Schein held the post of Thomaskantor at Leipzig and died there at age 44, having received a deathbed visit from Schütz.
The final segment of our concert presents sixteenth- and seventeenth-century settings of Luther’s Ein feste Burg, a German adaptation of Psalm 46 that quickly became an anthem of Lutheran belief for annual commemorations of the Reformation on October 31. The melody’s insistent three-note beginning is an apt expression of the analogy of the “secure fortress” that Luther employed for his new faith. We begin with Johann Walther’s modest but hauntingly beautiful two-voice setting of the tune, which presents the melody in the soprano. A version for four low voices by Walther is next, with the melody in the second tenor. Schütz’s rendering of the tune places it in the soprano in a high register. Next comes a setting in an imitative motet style by Melchior Franck (c. 1580-1639) in which all four voices take up the tune in imitation. A five-voice work by Stephan Mahu (c. 1480-after 1541) combines the imitative approach of Frank’s work with the idea of presenting the tune in a single voice; the tenor sings the tune while the other voices use motives from it as points of imitation. We conclude with an eight-voice setting of the tune by Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654), who published the work in a volume of double-choir motets just after he was made Kapellmeister for the administrator of Halle, a position that afforded him the opportunity to interact with both Schütz and Praetorius, among other musicians. Each of these settings demonstrates the composer’s particular skill at adapting and developing Luther’s tune to create a new polyphonic composition.
Like religious faith itself, throughout history sacred polyphony has invited listeners to consider old texts and tunes anew, often presenting them in a new, up-to-date polyphonic context. It is particularly remarkable that Luther created chorales that, despite their newness, very quickly became “traditional” in the eyes of his contemporaries. His emphasis on congregational singing created a music-oriented laity that, perhaps even more than their Catholic contemporaries, could appreciate composers’ skillful manipulations of chorale tunes and settings of Biblical texts. It is our hope that, nearly five hundred years after Luther’s initial protest, our own performance can elicit similar appreciation of this extraordinary musical legacy.
© 2004 Eric Rice