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J. S. Bach and the celebration of the Reformation

The figure most closely identified with the Protestant Reformation is, of course, Martin Luther. But after him probably comes Johann Sebastian Bach, who spent much of his musical career in the service of Luther’s church. As the world marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on 31 October 2017, we can remember that Bach and his contemporaries also took careful note of Reformation anniversaries, commemorating them in liturgy and music.

The year 1755 saw the two hundredth anniversary of the Peace of Augsburg, the 1555 agreement between Lutherans and the Holy Roman Emperor that put an end to confessional war, at least for a time. Bach, who died in 1750, did not live to see this commemoration, but he had his say–Leipzig churches heard a performance of his cantata “Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort” BWV 126 (“Uphold us, Lord, by your word”), which takes one of Luther’s hymns as its starting point.

A couple of decades earlier, 1730, had seen the anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the articles of Lutheran faith presented to the Holy Roman Emperor on 25 June 1530. The Augsburg Confession was a living document to Lutherans in Bach’s time, having been incorporated into the so-called Book of Concord that reconciled several strains of reformed Christianity. Bach, as a condition of his employment as a church musician in Leipzig, was examined on its theological content and had to sign a statement of his adherence to it.

The two hundredth anniversary in 1730 was observed in Leipzig with three days of religious celebration, a duration that put it on par with Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost–the principal feasts of the year. Bach performed a cantata on each of the three days: “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” BWV 190a (“Sing to the Lord a new song”), “Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille zu Sion” BWV 120b (“God you are praised in the stillness of Zion”), and “Wünschet Jerusalem Glück” BWV Anh. 4a (“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”). Complete printed texts for these works survive but no musical sources, though some of the music is known from Bach’s use of it in other works. Another famous piece connected to the Augsburg Confession is Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, composed for the tercentennial in 1830 and quoting Luther’s best known hymn, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”).

One of the earliest printings of Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Geistliche Lieder zu Wittemberg (Wittenberg: Josef Klug, 1544), CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 via Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/Preussischer Kulturbesitz

And 1717 marked the two hundredth anniversary of the most famous Reformation event of all–the appearance of Martin Luther’s Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, an academic and theological position paper on the nature of repentance. The publication was elevated in popular church history to the status of a defining moment–Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses on the topic to the Wittenberg church door on 31 October 1517. Modern scholarship tends to understand this as being more like a posting on a bulletin board than the defiant act it sounds like today (there’s a book of popular history called The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World), but the event took on a symbolic role as the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation.

In 1717, the anniversary year, Bach was in the last months of his employment at the court of Weimar, where the reigning Duke arranged elaborate commemorations. There is no indication that Bach composed any of the music marking the occasion, perhaps because relations with his employer were fraying. Bach had received an offer for a more prestigious and better-paying job elsewhere, and the tone of his demand for release led to his month-long imprisonment just a few days after the Reformation bicentennial.

Even outside the anniversary year, 31 October was celebrated as Reformation Day with a special liturgy throughout Lutheran lands beginning in 1667. Bach composed two cantatas for the occasion: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” BWV 80, possibly as early as 1724; and “Gott, der Herr, ist Sonn und Schild” BWV 79 (“God, the Lord, is sun and shield”) in 1725.  A third cantata may also have been used: the first part of “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” BWV 76 (“The heavens tell the glory of God”), originally for a different time of the church year. It is not certain whether the Reformation Day use of this piece took place under Bach or after his lifetime. But whoever adapted it recognized a connection between its opening text from Psalm 19 (“The heavens tell the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands; there is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard”) and a reading specified for the Reformation Day liturgy: the next verse of the same psalm: “Their sound has gone out into all lands; alleluia.”

The topic here—God’s word and its spread—was closely associated with the Reformation. In place of a gospel reading, the Reformation festival called for verses from the Book of Revelations, and they, too, take up this theme, “Then I saw an angel flying through the heavens, who had an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth, and all nations, tribes, languages and peoples.” To Lutherans, the annual celebration of Reformation Day represented this proclamation of God’s word anew, and texts on this topic were especially appropriate.

Bach’s cantata “Gott, der Herr, ist Sonn und Schild” BWV 79, composed in 1725, was intended for Reformation Day from the start. Its festive scoring with two horns and drums reflect the high solemnity of the feast, and its opening psalm chorus of praise is also fitting. One of its arias refers explicitly to God’s word, the familiar Reformation topic, and promises praise “even though the enemy rages hard against us.” This theme, the threat from enemies, appears several times in the cantata and relates to another Reformation Day topic: the vulnerability of the Lutheran Church, persecuted (in its view) by the Pope.

Bach’s other work for Reformation Day, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” BWV 80, might be his most famous cantata of all. It centers on Martin Luther’s hymn, whose four verses appear in the work in various musical guises. It, too, invokes the theme of protection from enemies. In fact this topic runs through the first three stanzas of the hymn, cast in military terms: a mighty fortress, weapons and arsenals, the field of battle, the defeat of the enemy. This theme is reflected musically in two movements whose agitated violin lines were a conventional eighteenth-century emblem of battle—a musical representation of the way Lutherans saw themselves in the world.

The military topic of the cantata’s music was reinforced by Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, who made Latin-language adaptations of two chorale movements, not surprisingly for the celebration of a military victory. He added trumpets and drums to his father’s compositions; these instruments, which never had anything to do with J. S. Bach’s Reformation Day cantata, were mistakenly incorporated back into “Ein feste Burg” in the nineteenth century, and this is the form in which the piece became famous.

Eighteenth-century Lutherans took such careful note of Reformation anniversaries in part because confessional tensions were still in the air even after two centuries. When Bach’s cantata 126 was heard in Leipzig at the 1755 commemoration of the Peace of Augsburg, its opening movement strikingly retained the original words of Martin Luther’s hymn: “Preserve us, Lord, by your word/And control the murderousness of Pope and Turk.” This was despite ecclesiastical instructions not to sing this hymn or “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” at anniversary celebrations that year, in the hope that confessional strife might be kept to a minimum. But staunchly Lutheran Leipzig, ever wary, used Bach’s music to make a statement as it observed the anniversary of a central event of Luther’s Reformation.

Featured Image Credit: “Luther posting his 95 theses in 1517” by Ferdinand Willem Pauwels. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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