Music Director’s Message: Nov 11

Music Director’s Message, November 11, 2017

In the musical world, we don’t often celebrate 500th anniversaries. Our earliest repertory comes from the baroque era, which began in the late 1600s. Tonight’s program reaches back another century, to October 31 of 1517, when an Augustinian priest named Martin Luther posted a document in Latin titled “Disputations on the Efficacy of Indulgences”. Known today as the “99 Theses”, it was intended to open serious intellectual debate within the Catholic church, and sparked an escalating series of disputes leading to Luther’s excommunication in 1521 and the formation of “Protestant” denominations. So, what does this have to do with music?

A lot, as it turns out. Luther may be most famous for his role in starting the Reformation, but perhaps his greatest achievement was translating the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into vernacular German. Latin, the language of the Catholic Church’s Bible, was understood by only the clergy and a highly-educated minority. Luther’s Bible made it possible for all German-speaking people to understand scripture, and literacy rose dramatically. This fervor inspired composers to write motets, cantatas, hymns, passions, and oratorios based on German-language scripture, leading to the great masterpieces of the German baroque that are the foundation of Western music.

Felix Mendelssohn’s commemoration of the Reformation celebrates a different year and different event. In 1530 followers of Luther published the Augsburg Confession, which laid out the doctrinal foundations of the Lutheran faith. For its 300th anniversary in 1830, Mendelssohn wrote his “Reformation” Symphony, featuring Luther’s hymn “A Might Fortress Is Our God” in the finale (Mendelssohn’s entire family converted from Judaism to Lutheranism when he was seven).

Johannes Brahms was also a baptized and confirmed Lutheran, but as an adult he cared little for organized religion or questions of theology. A German Requiem, to Words of Holy Scripture is pointedly neither Catholic nor Protestant; it rejects both the language and the intent of the Latin Requiem rite, which prays for the souls of the dead, and avoids scripture that asserts salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. Drawing from his well-worn copy of Luther’s German Bible, he carefully selected passages that promised comfort and hope to those who mourn.

With the Bible, Brahms embraced a paradox; although he rejected it as “the inspired word of God” and the source of religious faith, he firmly believed that knowing the Bible was essential for understanding the world. By giving the people a Bible in their own language, Luther started a chain of events that inspired the glorious world of German music. That’s worth celebrating!


Steven Larsen