One of America's top choral conductors, William Weinert visits New England Conservatory to lead the NEC Chamber Singers in concert on March 13. Weinert's program focuses on the musical legacy of one of Western religion's best-known dissidents, Martin Luther. In addition to "speaking truth to power" within the church establishment, Luther wrote chorales for his worship services that have survived to this day, through hymnals, and through the adaptations of some of the greatest composers of succeeding eras. In this note, Weinert describes this musical heritage.
The Reformative Spirit:
The Chorales of Martin Luther
J. S. Bach’s Ein feste Burg is unser Gott (BWV 80), based on Martin Luther’s best-known chorale, evolved over a period of nearly thirty years. It began its life in Weimar in 1715 or 1716 as a short cantata, which referred to Luther’s chorale only as an instrumental cantus firmus (Alles was von Gott geboren, BWV 80a). He developed it into a work for Reformation Day in 1723, and centered it around both text and tune of the chorale. He further revised the work, probably in the 1730s, adding the extended fugal first movement. Yet another revision was undertaken by Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann, when he added three trumpets and timpani to the first movement, providing the version which has become best known in subsequent centuries, and which is heard tonight.
The work is structured in the arch form common to many of Bach’s chorale cantatas. The first movement is one of Bach’s most intricate chorale structures, with an extended fugue in the choral voices based on motives from the chorale, further enhanced by a canonic treatment of the basic melody between the highest voices (trumpet and oboes) and the lowest (double bass and continuo). The chorale melody reappears in the unison voices in movement five, embedded in an elaborate instrumental texture, and again in the final movement in simple hymn style. The intervening duets and arias set texts of Salomo Franck, which develop the chorale’s theme of Christ’s valiant and victorious struggle against the Devil.
Johannes Brahms was an avid student, collector, and editor of the music of the past, and his motets are his most significant tribute to the sacred works of the renaissance and baroque eras. Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? (1877) is his longest and most carefully developed motet. Here he weaves together a mixture of biblical and chorale texts, very much in the manner of Bach’s motets and cantatas. The initial extended movement establishes four pillars through chordal repetitions of the initial word, Warum, and connects these with intricate polyphonic structures, wandering through the desolate pessimism of Job’s text. The more uplifting second and third movements found their origin in an abandoned a cappella canonic mass which Brahms wrote in 1856. The brief final chorale sets a funeral poem and melody attributed to Martin Luther, in the style of J. S. Bach.
The craftsmanship, invention, and versatility of Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) are matched only by his astounding longevity. Schütz dominated German music of the seventeenth century, and the revival of interest in his music two hundred years later was stimulated significantly by performances led by Johannes Brahms. One of his many masterworks, Das is mir Lieb was published in 1623 as part of an unusual collection of music. The Jena court official Burckhard Grossman commissioned sixteen prominent composers to write complete settings of Psalm 116, in thanksgiving for his recovery from a significant misfortune in 1616. (The exact nature of this illness or injury has remained a mystery.) Several of these composers, such as Johann Hermann Schein, Michael Praetorius, and Melchior Franck, are still celebrated today, but the complexity and invention of Schütz’s exploration of this Psalm puts the other fifteen contributions to this collection in the shade. This work probes the depths of suffering and celebrates the exhilaration of redemption in music of kaleidoscopic color and variety.