MARTIN LUTHER, theologian, reformer, musician

Martin Luther  by Lucas Cranach

MARTIN LUTHER – a brief introduction followed by details of a significant new biography

Throughout history there are certain dates when it can be truly said they “changed the world forever”.  The outbreak of WW1 on 4 August 1914 is one (till 1918), the centenaries of which we are marking until 2018; 31 October 1517 and Luther’s Reformation is another, the 500th anniversary of which we are marking this year.

The October date is when Martin Luther made his famous stand against certain practices applied by the Catholic Church, a momentous event which, like WW1 and also the various challenges we are facing today, had far reaching consequences, with its influence spread across the world, theologically, socially and politically   Revisiting Luther’s time and advocacies will help to put them into perspective, understand them better, even answer questions that have remained unanswered for centuries perhaps. Whatever the conclusions, whatever he did and believed, however controversial  (…and he was!) Martin Luther was a towering figure…..and his undoubted influence on Bach’s life and music is reflected in the composer’s repertory. 

For us in the London Bach Society, Luther’s 500th is an opportunity to re-assess the influence his theology and beliefs held for Bach (1685-1750), a modest and deferential 18th century church and town musician who served the Lutheran church all his life, received limited recognition for his trouble, but whose own story, his extraordinary work and musical influence, has since assumed proportions he could never have imagined or contemplated.

31 October 1517

On that day Luther posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg 95 theses, which he undertook to defend in public debate. These related to the preaching of indulgences (perhaps special absolution or forgiveness is a better description in today’s parlance) that were granted by the Pope to those who contributed for example towards the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Rome,.Dominican Friars travelled around the country for the purpose. Luther’s persistent opposition to these led to his excommunication from the Catholic church in 1520 amidst articles and writings between Protestant and Catholic factions before and afterwards containing bitter, even vicious, personal attacks and criticism. However, the energy generated ultimately led to the foundation of the Protestant church that bears the Reformer’s name, the Lutheran Church, whose sphere and influence has, since then, spread to Britain, across Europe and into the USA.

The life and work of Martin Luther, born at Eisleben on 10 November 1483, bears consideration particularly during times of significant reforms across the board today. His deeply held beliefs and determination to get to the heart of the matter in the religious life influenced both theological and musical thinking first in 16th century Southern Germany and then beyond.

Regarded as the founder of Protestant German church music, Luther was also a fine singer, lutenist and flautist who “gathered his family together nightly after supper to sing motets’  (pictured below).  He not only gave his name to his church but to chorales and a German-texted Mass published in 1526 (Deutsche Messe und Ordnung Gottesdienst). Surprisingly, given the circumstances of his excommunication from the Catholic church, a shortened version of the five-sectioned Latin Ordinary passed muster with the Reformer. This comprised just two movements (Kyrie & Gloria) for which Bach later provided no less than five settings – BWV 232-BWV 236. Luther also established the congregational singing of hymns, a practice that became hugely popular enabling ordinary people to give thanks and praise to God, drawing them closely into Worship, the ‘inclusiveness’ we strive to achieve still today. This was  also taught in schools and promoted around the countryside by travelling scholars.  

Fast forward to today’s more secular society, choral singing is being actively encouraged now in response to renewed belief in its cathartic qualities, its enablement for people to participate and for them to get involved.  Singing Days studying/learning/performing the great religious works informally are an attractive and popular proposition for festivals and community events. Lutheran influence perhaps? Not directly, but it is in there somewhere surely.

Bach and Luther

Luther’s theology provided the inspiration not only for Bach’s church compositions but also his way of life. While scholars over the years have tried to contest Bach’s personal religious beliefs and commitment to Lutheran theology, on examination of his music the only conclusion that can be reasonably drawn is that he was a true servant, the words Soli Deo Gloria (to the greater Glory of God) inscribed on the title page of his church works in particular. Isn’t that enough?

The distinguished Bach scholar Alfred Dürr writing about Bach’s Reformation cantata BWV 80 ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (A safe stronghold is our God), which includes Luther’s famous hymn, refers to the ‘hearing and keeping of God’s word’ as ‘the crux of Luther’s Reformation’. Indeed, the composer’s portfolio of works ably reflects one of Luther’s advocacies that ‘Music is a beautiful and gracious  gift from God to be encouraged both in church and in the home’.

Look at the provision Bach made for his family: the two ‘notebooks’ for his wife Anna Magdalena, plus the ‘notebook’ and Organ Trio Sonatas, BWV 525-530, composed for/with his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann in mind in order to enhance his education and instruction for example. Set these alongside the vast treasury of church works (organ works, cantatas, passions, oratorios, Masses) he composed to provide a ‘well-regulated church music’, a stock of sufficient and appropriate music for each Sunday in the church year, save Advent and Lent when little music was required. Although even for these periods of reflection and meditation in anticipation of Christmas and Good Friday respectively there are works provided for each, to wit Cantatas BWV 61, BWV 62, BWV 36 (Advent I), BWV 132 ( Advent IV). and Cantata BWV 54 (Oculi/Lent 3).

The Reformation reached Leipzig in 1539. Two hundred years later Bach published his Clavierübung III to mark this anniversary. What drove him to do this? Mere professional and family duty, deep-rooted belief or a combination of the two as a reflection of Luther’s preaching?  Bach’s Library of Lutheran writing testifies to his study of it.

Contemporary thinking about how Bach should be sung and played has tended to be pre-occupied with the ‘single-voice, single-instrument’ hypothesis which has yet to be satisfactorily substantiated or proved.  Such pre-occupations can divert attention from other perceptibly more important matters relating to our knowledge and understanding of Bach, his life, times, and above all his music and the inspiration behind it. This is the London Bach Society’s focus for 2017. We might even bring in some music by Heinrich Schütz, the 17th century Dresden Kapellmeister who was not only Bach’s greatest pre-cursor but also required to honour the annual Reformationsfest on 31 October with appropriate music.

We think we know Bach, his music, life and times well. To enable it to continue to stimulate, inspire and inform in the future means delving even more deeply and immersing ourselves in the whole story…. one which actually began on 10 November 1483.  

 Family music making


A Significant New Biography of Martin Luther

MARTIN LUTHER, Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper. Hardcover
Published by Random House
576 Pages | 6-1/4 x 9-1/4 | ISBN 9780812996197

“A smart, accessible, authoritative biography of one of the most dynamic figures in European history . . . Here he stands: never more vocal, more controversial, more compelling.”—Hilary Mantel

Lyndal Roper is the first woman to hold the prestigious Regius Chair in Modern History at Oxford University. She is one of the most respected scholars of early modern history on both sides of the Atlantic. She is the winner of the Gerda Henkel Prize (2016), and her previous books include Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany; Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Religion, and Sexuality in Early Modern EuropeThe Witch in the Western Imagination; and The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg.

Notes: A visit to Luther’s house in Eisenach and to the school where both he and Bach were pupils is fascinating. The magnificent Wartburg Castle (below) also towers over the former East-West German border-town, the place where Luther made his own translation of the Bible during a term of imprisonment there. It is well worth the climb!

The Wartburg Castle high above Eisenach where Luther translated the Bible.

The Wartburg Castle, UNESCO World Heritage site high above Bach’s birthplace, Eisenach in Eastern Germany.



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