Tag Archives: Theology

Luther and Bach

Martin Luther’s influence on J.S. Bach was profound; Bach’s library contained two expensive collected editions of Luther’s writings, which exerted demonstrable impact on his works—not least on the third Clavierübung.

Scholars have long puzzled over the dramatic changes that Bach introduced at the work’s engraving stage. These changes largely involved the addition rather than the removal of material, and the only explanation for wishing to enlarge the collection—a decision that caused enormous problems with the scheduled production and publication dates—must be the way in which Bach viewed his success in having fulfilled the overall objective: providing musical items reflecting Luther’s catechism.

It is easy for such a scheme to follow the letter of the law through settings of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Sacraments, but not so easy for it to capture the spirit. Luther’s doctrine stands apart by virtue of its clear insistence that the law must embody a human experience “from the heart”.  All such experience, whether painful or pleasurable, requires this essential attribute. Through their clear spiritual resonances, the new movements provided a fitting frame for a collection of music inspired by Luther’s teachings.

This according to “J.S. Bach’s prelude and fugue in E flat (BWV 552, 1/2): An inspiration of the heart?” by Roger Wibberley (Music theory online IV/5 [September 1998]).

Today is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five theses, now considered the start of the Reformation. Below, Hans-André Stamm performs the celebrated prelude and fugue.

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Concio et cantio

In the preface to his collection Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica (1619) Michael Praetorius engaged in a play on words, juxtaposing the similar-sounding Latin terms concio and cantio. But the passage is not a mere display of cleverness—it is a theological assertion that musicologists have described as a manifesto on liturgical music.

Praetorius wrote (translated here): “for the completeness of worship it is not only appropriate to have a concio, a good sermon, but also in addition the necessary cantio, good music and song.” By stating that worship would be incomplete without “good music and song”—which he further deemed “necessary”—he was expressing the underlying premise of his entire career as a Lutheran church composer and cantor.

This according to “Concio et cantio: Proclamation and praise in song and music” by Daniel Zager; the article is published online here. Below, the Monteverdichor Würzburg and the Monteverdi Ensemble, conducted by Matthias Beckert, perform Praetorius’s Puer natus in Bethlehem from the same collection.

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