500 years of Reformation

Date: October 18, 2017 Author: festbach Categories: News


500 Years of Reformation acknowledged in the Montreal Bach Festival 2017 !


A recent heading in Le Figaro reads: Luthermania takes hold of Germany! The best-selling Playmobil figure of all time – with a million sold and still counting – is that of the great Reformer, a quill in one hand and German Bible in the other. Barack Obama takes part in an open-air discussion on the Reformation with Angela Merkel (the daughter of a pastor) at the Congress of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the Brandenburg Gate in the background.  Museums, opera houses, concert halls and theatres have all dedicated an important part of their programming to this memorable anniversary.


And it all begins with the indulgences.  On the 31st of October 1517, an Augustinian monk nails to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church a bill containing 95 theses.  In it he contests the sale of indulgences to German believers, which Pope Julius II and the banker Jakob Fugger had concocted in order to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Thus called out, the church authorities, having no wish to discuss the matter further with this rebellious friar, promptly excommunicate him and threaten his life.  But the discontent among members of the clergy and faithful alike is already so great that Martin Luther’s Reformation spreads like wildfire.


Martin Luther believes that the Roman Catholic Church has lost its way, that it has grown apart from its followers.  He resolves to return to the spring of Christian faith: Sola scriptura, by Scripture alone, is Protestantism’s first pillar. Only the Bible, not the tradition of the Church, has the power to transmit God’s message of salvation.  He sets out to translate the Biblical texts in a learned but popular German, thus rendering the holy book accessible to all. “By translating the Bible… he created the German language,” declared Heinrich Heine, the great German poet.


Qui bene cantat, bis orat
He who sings well prays twice
attributed to Saint Augustine


At the same time Luther is passionate about music.  He goes to school and sings in the choir of St. George’s Church in Eisenach, where two hundred years later a certain Johann Sebastian Bach will be baptised.  He plays the luth and even composes.  The best way to involve his flock in the religious service, he feels, is to have them sing.  Luther therefore starts to write simple hymns, text and music, after all, “why should the Devil alone have all the good tunes.”  These singing congregations quickly become an attribute of the Lutherans – and the Reformation’s best weapon.  Its most famous hymn is the martial Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is our God) which Heine calls “the Marseillaise of the Reformation”.  Luther’s hymns become Bach’s chorales whose melodies, played on the organ, are but a reminder of the texts which all churchgoers know by heart.


Martin Luther’s influence remains as strong as ever two hundred years after his death.  Johann Sebastian Bach is a passionate Lutheran and like Luther, believes in the redemptive grace of music.  “God’s mercy is always present when devout music is played,” he writes in the margin of his Lutherbibel.  Bach signs numerous works with Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone), the fifth pillar of Lutheranism. And it is in many ways Bach who conveys the Reformer’s thoughts in the most touching way.  He sets 42 verses drawn from 20 of Luther’s hymns, and all of Bach’s sacred works attest to his profound knowledge of the Bible, to his special attachment to Lutheran tradition and to the spirit of the Reformation.


The Reformation is one of the foundations of European musical culture.  Without Martin Luther’s musical intelligence there would have been no Heinrich Schütz, Johann Hermann Schein, or Johann Sebastian Bach as we now know them.  Their music – motets, masses and cantatas, passions and oratorios –is the sublime conclusion of a synthesis between spiritual and musical values which, with Johann Sebastian Bach, reached its peak.

© Louise Duchesneau