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Reformation’s 500th Anniversary Through Bach


lutherAs the semi-millennial observances of the Protestant Reformation approach, Boston’s First Lutheran Church has announced a series of “Bach” Vespers services beginning next Saturday evening; these will also celebrate the composer who stands at the pinnacle of the Reformation’s remarkable influence on the history of music. Under Bálint Karosi, Organist and Minister of Music, the First Lutheran choir, soloists and period orchestra will weave the Bach cantata liturgically appropriate for the day and motets from the Florilegium Portense and Leipziger Gesangbuch into a Vespers format typical of 18th-century Lutheran practice. As in the services Bach led as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the cantatas will occur as part of the service. The Vespers also occasion new looks at Martin Luther’s theology and the high regard for Luther’s teachings Bach immortally expressed in music. This extensive article explores the question of how we should regard  some of Luther’s better forgotten animosities during this anniversary celebration;  in addition, we salute Karosi, who has been called to be cantor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in NYC.

On September 26th, Cantata BWV 114, Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost will sound. This half-hour, seven-movements, Leipzig work was composed in 1724 and written for the 17th Sunday after Trinity, which this year falls on September 27th. As a Prelude at 4:30 p.m., Boston area From the Top violinist Kate Arndt will play Bach’s solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003. Future Vespers will feature cantatas designated for these occasions: Reformation—October 24, Advent—December 12, Epiphany—January 23, and Palm Sunday—March 19. An Ascension Day Vespers may be added on May 7. The annual, all-day Boston Bach Birthday will be on March 19, with the Bach Vespers ending the day.

Related news announces the calling of Bálint Karosi as Cantor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Lexington Ave., NYC. He will assume his duties there in mid-November but will return to First Lutheran to conduct the December, January and March Vespers as well as Boston Bach Birthday. Karosi joined the First Lutheran staff in 2007. He has made a multitude of contributions to Boston’s musical life as a brilliant organist for both repertoire and improvisation, a composer and candidate for the DMA in composition from the Yale School of Music, and as a conductor and performing member of several early and “new” music organizations—including Antico Moderno, a group dedicated to playing new music on old instruments. We extend congratulations and good wishes for his future career, but he will leave a gap here.

Karosi will nevertheless be able to conduct all Vespers this season, except the one for Ascension Day (TBA). “I am very sorry that the timing worked out this way, but I believe that my successor will continue and grow this tradition. I am certain that Boston, with its Bach loving audiences, will support this endeavor just as it did with our Boston Bach Birthday.”

In preparation for this article and the anticipated emphasis on the Reformation in the next two years, publisher Lee Eiseman asked Karosi to discuss Luther’s influence on church music as well as his published aversions. First come Karosi’s discussions of the music.

Luther psalter
Luther psalter

What produced the idea to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation with a series of Bach vespers? How was Luther responsible for changing worship music?

Most important of the many reasons why a Bach Vespers is appropriate for such celebration is the music itself, so much of which is based on Lutheran hymns: the Chorales. The Reformation (and Luther especially) had enormous impact on worship music and the course of Western music itself. The Reformation initiated a movement of liberating church music from the walls of the church, and used it as a tool for Evangelization in vernacular languages. Luther composed his first Chorales in a strophic structure (following the German Lied) to be easily remembered by laypeople. These easy-structured songs helped Lutherans to remember and understand their own Theology and shape their identity.

Lutheran music became amazingly rich and innovative by the 18th century. Bach incorporated the latest styles in his operatic cantatas (the Italian Concerti, French Overtures, etc.) and combined them with chorales in an unparalleled combination of sacred texts and free libretti.

We want to celebrate the Reformation with its greatest gifts: the chorales, operatic Lutheran church music and J. S. Bach.

My short article about the impact of the Reformation on Lutheran liturgy is here.

How does Bach’s non-Lutheran religious music differ?

The main difference is the use of chorales, operatic styles, original libretti and his innovative interpretive tendencies in his Lutheran works. In his Catholic music (BWV 232-242), Bach uses the Latin text of the Catholic Mass and adheres to more traditional genres (such as the Motet). However, he often sneaks in some Lutheran chorales (such as “Erhebt den Herrn” in his Magnificat), or borrows some of his best music from his Lutheran cantatas, as in many of the movements of the B Minor Mass.

The vast majority of Bach’s vocal music, however, is Lutheran. He never composed an opera, but there are some strikingly operatic moments in his cantatas (the love duet between church and Jesus in BWV 21 is just shy of being overtly erotic). He composed five complete cycles of church cantatas (2/5’s of it lost), all of which were inspired by the Epistle and Gospel readings of the given Sundays, and concluded with a chorale. Our Bach Vespers series will follow the tradition of pairing music, the Holy Scriptures and spoken (sung) word to highlight the inherent connection between text and music. Each cantata finishes with the chorale of the day, which also had interpretive and theological connections to the scriptures. In our Vespers, the congregation will have the opportunity to sing the English version of the chorales (not as part of the cantata, but as a separate hymn), and listen to a short homily that completes a package of three: music, scripture and spoken word.

Why is it important to launch yet another Bach Cantata series in Boston, so rich in such performances?

I believe that our Vespers will be unique, even in Boston. FLC will present the cantatas in a worship setting on period instruments and using period singing techniques (less operatic vibrato and more emphasis on words). Our choir is an auditioned, non-professional choir, open to anybody with good singing and sight-reading ability. Our soloists are professionals. Also, the audience will participate in singing hymns, liturgical responses and will hear a short homily focusing on music, theology and the scriptures.

Another unique element to our Bach Vespers is the inclusion of motets from Bach’s motet book, the Florilegium Portense. In Leipzig, Bach’s cantatas were performed at the Thomaskirche on one Sunday and at the Nikolaikirche on the next. Bach owned a collection of 16th– and 17th-century motets compiled by Erhard Bodenshatz (1567-1637) that enjoyed great popularity and multiple reprints in the early 18th century. Bach’s second choir (he had four) used it in the alternate church, where the cantata was not performed. We are going to hear the appropriate Motets chosen from this collection. There is no modern edition of the Florilegium Portense yet, so I would like to thank Kerala Snyder and Frederick Jodry for their work and research.

Balint Karosi
Balint Karosi

Luther doubted the validity of religious freedom. Do we also ignore his animus against Jews and Roman Catholics during his anniversary year?

Religion was so deeply rooted in a hierarchical and oppressive social system that I do not think anybody really believed in religious freedom back then, especially not in leadership positions (ironic laugh). Religion shaped the entire moral landscape of nations and cultures, and any change in Theology had real impact on how people lived and treated each other.

Luther’s apparent disbelief in religious freedom is a contradiction: he was inside of a religion and a society based on it, and wanted to reform it from inside, not compare it to other religions. Also, he had to pick his battles: imagine what would happen to a Muslim trying to reform ISIS today, and embracing other religions at the same time! I do not think the Catholic Church in the 16th century was as bad as ISIS, however.

The historic blame of the Jews was already foreshadowed in some books of the New Testament, (John’s Passion story is a strong example), and Christians blamed the Israelites for Jesus’s death for centuries. Luther, of all people should have known better. I don’t find any excuse for his outrageous and hateful comments about Jews, Muslims and Catholics alike, but I also acknowledge that much of the Theology Luther inherited was already anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, so in a way, he just failed to reform that part.

With the Bach Vespers, I would rather focus on the positive things the Reformation brought to us: operatic church music, chorales and the music of Bach, as we know it.

Dr. Paul Edmon, a member of First Lutheran, and the congregation’s pastor, the Reverend Ingo Dutzmann, have both added their thoughts for publication by BMInt. Both replies reflect the theological convictions of the Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran church to which First Lutheran adheres.

Edmon: Frankly that question has papers and books written on it, so one could go on. First of all it is important to understand Luther in his context and time. The idea of religious freedom is a recent one. At the time of Luther it was customary to have state churches, and in fact, bishops wielded both secular and ecclesiastical power. Luther did want his princes to support the right faith, however not by coercion (which was a major shift for the Roman Catholic way of governance). Luther is actually the intellectual ancestor that gave us the great freedom of religion we enjoy today. Without Luther that doesn’t happen, especially with his understanding of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.

As to his animus towards the Jews and Roman Catholics, you might also include Calvinists, enthusiasts, Turks (Muslims), and others. Luther is a man of faith who confesses with the church that false doctrine is harmful. He is very gentle and understanding with those who are in the sway of false doctrine, but those who promulgate it he does not hold back in his condemnation. Now to our modern ears his style is very harsh and insulting (see the Luther Insulter for great examples of this). However it was the literary style of the time in writing of both polemics and academic writing. You can find those on the Roman Catholic side that do the same, if not worse with Luther. It is not fair to judge him by our modern standards of politeness; Luther is from a different era.

INgo Dutzman, pastor of FLC (Joyce Painter Rice photo)
Ingo Dutzman, pastor of FLC (Joyce Painter Rice photo)

He is also a pastor, called to call out false doctrine. Chief of which was the pope and the Roman Catholics. Luther was a Roman Catholic and actually had no desire to break from Rome. He wanted to reform the church not break from it. He was zealous for his faith, and believed it strongly. He also believed, and experienced, that the Roman Catholic doctrines and practices that had corrupted the church were wrong, damaging people and causing peril to their souls. For Luther, and all Lutheran pastors, what is at stake is nothing less than the eternal state of those whom were being taught by the church. This is a matter of life and death, not just in this life but the life to come. The revelation of the Gospel for Luther was so powerful that it drove him to unveil this light to all. Thus his zeal in his writing and his condemnation of heretics, including Roman Catholics. Certainly Luther is hyperbolic in his writing, but again it was the style of the time, and yes he does go too far at times. However, see the enlightened political discourse of today and you won’t see much different; we are just more veiled. Luther is always attacking those who should know better, or those, like the pope, whom he viewed as actively deceiving and taking advantage of people. He was harsh and strident against those people in order to get those under the sway of the pope to see the error of their ways and repent. For Luther it is always about repentance. He will preach the Law with fervor and to the point of sending the sinner to hell, and preach the Gospel to the penitent sinner to bring them to heaven.

As for the Jews, this is probably the most lamentable writing Luther does, but it does no good to deny it. We can explain it though. When Luther finds the Gospel he is so overwhelmed that he thinks that if the Jews hear of it they will be immediately converted. He is convinced that the only reason the Jews haven’t converted is that the Roman Catholics had so clouded the Gospel that they had never heard the Gospel’s call. However, things did not turn out as he hoped. The Jews did not convert when the Gospel was shared. This so disappoints Luther that he turns on them. Later in his life, as he is aging, suffering constant assaults from friend and foe, in depression and suffering several kidney stones, he becomes more vitriolic, especially towards the Jews. Thus he goes way too far in his condemnation of the Jews. There have been several good books written on this topic. We do not give Luther a pass on this; he is a man as well. He will be the first to admit that he is a sinner. He is not a sinner though for calling out the false doctrine of the Jews or the fact that they are not saved. Rather he is a sinner in wishing bodily harm on them. We should make that clear. From a Christian point of view the Jews are not saved as they do not believe in the right God or trust in Christ for salvation. So in that Luther is correct; he just went too far in his condemnation.

We should also be clear that Hitler did use Luther as one, amongst many, excuses to kill the Jews. However, Hitler is no Christian and a master propagandist. You can take an entire lifetime of a person’s work and find something wrong with it, but that doesn’t undermine a person’s work or who they are. Also a propagandist will take anything out of context, or things in context to make their point. For Hitler it was expedient.

In summary we mustn’t fall into an ad hominem trap with Luther. Just because a person says some wrong things does not invalidate everything a person says or does. You can look at any person in history and find something wrong; they are all sinners. From the Church Fathers to modern writers and paragons of virtue you can always find something wrong. Actions speak louder than words as well, and I don’t believe there is any case of Luther actually acting out or asking people to act out what he writes in terms of vitriol (unless it was fighting against established governmental entities as with the Turks, which is a separate issue). For Lutherans, who know Luther best, we take what is good from Luther, which is much of what he said and did, and, while admitting he said the bad, we also confess that it was bad and explain why. Fortunately for us we don’t treat Luther like a prophet or God Himself. He is just a man, with much wisdom to teach about God and Scripture. We are not doctrinally bound to everything Luther wrote. In fact I would say he would be shocked if we would treat it that way. Rather, we are bound by the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions. The Lutheran Confessions we confess are in line with Scripture and a correct confession of it, and do contain some of Luther’s writing. However even the Book of Concord is conformed to Scripture, which is the ultimate rule and norm. To which Luther himself would and did believe, teach, and confess.

I could go on. Pastor Dutzmann may have a more pithy way of saying it. It’s a complex issue to be sure, not something that can be summed up in a sound bite. To do that would do disservice to the actual history of the man, and who he was. We should not dismiss what Luther wrote, but we should try to understand it in context and recognize where he was wrong or went too far.

Pastor Ingo Dutzman: Peace all, and well stated, Paul. Leave it to our “enlightened” contemporary society to judge a 16th-century man’s harsh WORDS more critically than our 21st -century ACTIONS which daily cause the death of unwanted infants, elderly and the infirm.

Here’s why Luther still matters to the whole World:

1) The Bible is read in native tongues, not exclusively the language imposed by a ruling elite.

2) The central message of the Bible, Christ’s death and resurrection for our temporal forgiveness and eternal assurance, is more denominationally accepted (even within the Roman Catholic church) than ever before.

3) The power of music to convey the truth of the Gospel is universally acknowledged.

4) The importance of educating boys AND girls (so they can read the Gospel, or anything else, for themselves) is accepted even by most non-Christians.

5) Our inalienable God-given rights and responsibilities are affirmed by our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

6) He spent considerable time with children.

7) He loved his wife!

Manuscript of title page of opening cantata.
Manuscript of title page of opening cantata.

In a word, the Reformation began with Luther’s courage and then changed the world. Outside of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther arguably has had more influence on mankind than anyone else who ever walked this earth. The freedom of language permitted Shakespeare’s Biblical imagery. The freedom of discovery permitted Newtonian inquiry. And the freedom of conscience is the cornerstone of our personal integrity. No wonder J. S. Bach was so taken by Luther’s “opening up” of the message of the Bible that he is acknowledged the greatest of the pantheon of modern composers and that the essence of Bach’s compositions is the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Take away the Christian contribution to music inspired by the Reformation and its musical mentor Luther, and, I suspect, symphonies will close, organists will quit, and worship will lose its luster…Hey, even the Roman Catholic church is beginning to grasp the power of congregational singing!

Dr. Paul Edmon, an astrophysicist, is an ardent Lutheran and member of the First Lutheran Church of Boston.


The Reverend Ingo Dutzmann is Pastor of the First Lutheran Church of Boston and an active promoter of the music of J. S. Bach.


Joyce Painter Rice, an organist, is co-founder of Boston Bach Birthday, representing the American Guild of Organists.


31 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I’d have to check my confirmation materials in basement boxes, but I believe that Midwestern Luther Leaguers 55y ago (LCA, of course, not Missouri Synod) were gently informed that Martin Luther had pretty serious personal failings.

    Comment by David Moran — September 21, 2015 at 1:55 am

  2. Luther’s contribution to antisemitism cannot be underestimated, and cannot be disregarded as an effect of kidney stones or overlooked because he loved his wife. The question seems more analogous to that of Heidegger, in the sense that the antisemitism is central to, rather than parallel to, the intellectual production for which he is celebrated. Encouraging persecution in practice and as the author of On the Jews and their Lies and other tracts and sermons, which explicitly advocated murder and destruction, Luther’s influence of German antisemitism was not restricted to its manipulation by Nazi propaganda. According to Diarmaid MacCulloch and Lyndal Roper at Oxford, it established a major seam of demonological, violent antisemitism in German cultural-religious life, and was a substantial contributing factor to the thought and popularity of National Socialism. I think we must be cautious of apologetics.

    Comment by Concerned — September 21, 2015 at 8:36 am

  3. As someone who is about to lead a seminar on Luther’s “Christian liberty,” written in 1520 when Luther was not yet violently antisemitic, I agree with Concerned that we cannot overlook Luther’s later antisemitism but must grapple with it. One approach might be to examine why other leaders of the Reformation, such as Zwingli and Calvin, were not antisemitic. Bach, of course, transcends any narrow definition of “Lutheran” and belongs to all of humanity — like his fellow-Lutheran Kepler.

    Comment by Ashley — September 21, 2015 at 8:56 am

  4. “I don’t find any excuse for his outrageous and hateful comments about Jews, Muslims and Catholics alike, but I also acknowledge that much of the Theology Luther inherited was already anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, so in a way, he just failed to reform that part.”

    With all due respect, Balint, Luther did indeed attempt to “reform” Roman Catholic teaching on the Jews — but by making it worse, not better. The Church, to its eternal shame, cursed the Jews and made them outcasts. Luther went further, and preached their utter destruction, ISIS-style. How to reconcile Luther’s vile, proto-Nazi writings with his beautiful Bible translation, the chorales, etc. etc? I don’t even try, it’s an impossible task. Let’s concentrate on Bach’s transcendant music instead…

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 22, 2015 at 3:33 am

  5. Of course this is a forum for discussion of music. It seems to me, however, that some of the religious/historical discourse we are reading here puts us at risk, probably unintentionally, of re-opening some old and deep wounds. I therefore have another query, this one for Mr Edmon. He writes, “thus he [Luther] goes way too far in his condemnation of the Jews.” What, pray tell, Mr. Edmon, would be an acceptable level of condemnation of Jews?

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 22, 2015 at 9:07 am

  6. Thank you, Joel Cohen, for emphasizing that Luther “went much further” in his appalling antisemitism than what we find in the Roman Catholic church. Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) welcomed Jews expelled from Spain and from Portugal to Rome. Pope Leo X (Medici), the pope who excommunicated Luther, in turn sponsored Jewish musicians and in 1519, the very same year of Luther 95 theses, granted amnesty and privileges to Jews. Are we not being a bit cavalier in equating the Roman Catholic Church with ISIS? One small difference, at the very least, comes to mind: while ISIS is bent on destroying our classical heritage, no institution did more to preserve Greek philosophy, science and art through the feudal age and into the Renaissance than the Roman Catholic Church. Gersonides and many Spanish Jews found protection and patronage from the Roman church in Avignon in the XIVth century. And let us be clear that the indulgences against which Luther ranted were used to support Raphael, Michelangelo, Palestrina, etc., etc.

    Comment by Ashley — September 22, 2015 at 9:46 am

  7. For a further discussion on from a source far more qualified than I, I recommend:

    Which is what my comments are based off of. Issues, Etc. has many great resources on this topic.

    As to what an acceptable level of condemnation of the Jews would be, I noted it in the article. That is pointing that the Jews are not saved. But I can say the same for Muslim’s, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness’s, Hindus, pagans, atheists, etc. Christ is the only way to salvation, all else are condemned to Hell on the Last Day. This is orthodox, catholic Christianity. There is one Truth and that is Christ and Him crucified for our sins. Any other faith cannot be saved, see the Athanasian Creed ( To not condemn that would be intellectually dishonest on the part of Christians. In addition that is the responsibility of the Christian to preach the Law in the hopes that it might drive some to repent and hear the Gospel that Jesus Christ died to save Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. For further on this I suggest talking with Pastor Dutzmann as he is far more qualified than I to talk on this topic.

    With that I will leave the rest of the discussion about the music to you fine folk. Hopefully you will enjoy the Vespers series and your discussions on the music. I just hope you don’t miss the truly deep theology contained therein. I pray it is enlightening.

    Comment by Paul Edmon — September 22, 2015 at 9:25 pm

  8. Thank you, Mr. Edmon, for restating in clear and simple terms these tenets.

    In a civil society practicing freedom of religion, we are of course obliged to respect the beliefs of our neighbors. At the same time, many of us may be, and are, repelled by a theology that condemns the vast majority of (wo)mankind to an eternal hereafter of torture and suffering. The humans who invented and refined this belief system, Luther included, had darkness, cruelty, and vengeance in their souls.

    One has difficulty contemplating such a mental universe for more than a few instants, before turning away in horror. And, as “Concerned” has pointed out in an earier post, Luther’s vicious antisemitism is not some marginal accident of his thought; it is, rather, deeply connected to the rest.

    And yet, and yet…there is Bach’s music, rooted in Lutheranism, every note and every measure a witness to the power of love and of the human spirit. Can these opposites be reconciled? In some intellectual/logical construct, probably not. Let’s just thank the church authorities for presenting these Vespers, and for allowing the music to soar past doctrinal disputes, leading us towards the Truth.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 23, 2015 at 3:31 am

  9. Since Mr. Edmon has succeeded in making Christianity absolutely abhorrent, I have a duty to reassure Joel Cohen that the view that “Jews cannot be saved” does not represent the teaching of God’s Apostolic Catholic Church. Rather, the Catholic magisterium teaches and firmly believes (1) that God is free to save whomever He wishes, (2) that no Christian can ever be sure of his/her salvation, and (3) that no Christian, not even the bishop of Rome, can ever know or declare that someone is damned. What Mr. Edmon brings to light is the danger of religious fundamentalism and of the kind of Biblical literalism that Luther championed (witches must be burned, homosexuals stoned, etc.). Thus there is a perfectly good way to reconcile Bach’s beautiful music with Lutheranism. Like Kepler before him (astronomy) and Kant after him (Enlightenment philosophy), Bach turned to a universal language, music, in order to escape the narrow fanaticism of the Lutheran church of his time. Music allowed him to reconnect with a universalist humanity and inclusive Christianity. In short, when we go hear Cantor Karosi’s lovely Bach, we need not think of Lutheran theology in any way, shape or form.

    Comment by Ashley — September 23, 2015 at 7:39 am

  10. I usually try to stay out of the fray during discussions like this, but I read this interview with a great deal of alarm—I also found some of the comments in this section very disturbing.

    Perhaps it would be useful to restate the differences in magnitude in what is being stated in this discussion. Luther calls for the systematic exclusion, destruction, and eradication of a system of belief. He wanted people who subscribe to that system of belief should be tortured, then executed—I don’t mean to be too pointed in my language here, but I think “exterminated” would not be too over-the-top here. Luther’s (let’s put it mildly:) antisemitism has had reverberating effects on how Jewish people (homosexuals, people deemed to be witches, &c.) have been treated—even through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I will not get into examples.

    In response to asking how we are to think about this, Pastor Ingo Dutzman, a religious leader in Boston tells us that an “enlightened” people should ignore that and focus on the fact that he spent time with children and loved his wife. Other representatives of FLC chalk it up to kidney stones—worse still, they reiterate the same ideology that Luther invokes in his antisemitism. I am shocked and horrified by this.
    What would I have liked to hear? I would have wanted to hear an explicit acknowledgment of what Luther said. But then I would have liked to read a discussion of how the Enlightenment has changed how we view human worth, and how we are forced to grapple with an ancien régime religious leader’s comments in a contemporary society that values human life and liberty more than faith (as, I presume we all take as given, it should be). Most importantly, I would have liked to read about how contemporary Lutheranism grapples with this—is there acceptance of Luther’s antisemitism? is this something that is actively grappled with? I was sad to read so little of this in the above interview.

    But I’m also not sure that we can separate music from this discussion of Luther—after all, what happens at the MFA or Symphony Hall does not stay at the MFA or Symphony Hall: art is a reflection of what we think and believe, and Bach’s music was a reflection of what the early eighteenth-century Lutheran church thought and believed.

    We must grapple with Bach as a Lutheran musician, working at one of the centers of the Lutheran faith, writing music for Lutheran ministers that supported and advocated what was being preached, and I—perhaps incorrectly—assume that today, we would be aghast to hear what was spoken from those pulpits. I’m certain Mr. Cohen has much more expertise in this than I do, but when I hear Bach, I hear the same exclusive love that Mr. Edmon talks about in his comments here, the same vengeance, the same restrictions—I don’t find it all-encompassing at all, and I can imagine that for Jews (Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses) this can be alienating. Bach was not a product of Enlightenment thinking (certainly not in the same way that Beethoven or Brahms were), and I can only presume that his music was written in the same intolerant and exclusive vein that we now find so objectionable, and rightly so.

    But just like Luther’s preaching, we cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. That said, we cannot excuse it either. To appreciate the beauty of both religion and music (and both are beautiful), we should do something far more difficult: wrestle with it.

    Comment by Sudeep Agarwala — September 23, 2015 at 11:21 am

  11. On the basis of an almost unanimous vote at its 1993 national convention the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a formal repudiation of Luther’s anti-Judaic writings. Addressing the Jewish community, the ELCA Declaration acknowledged and grieved both the hatefulness of Luther’s diatribes against Jews and Judaism and yet more the deadly working of those poisonous words in subsequent generations. The ELCA Declaration concluded with these words: “Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people. We recognize in antisemitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us. Finally, we pray for the continued blessing of the Blessed One upon the increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.”

    I was present at the 1993 ELCA Assembly and it was striking to me in the discussion of Luther’s ugly writings that at first only a very small proportion of those in attendance had any idea how hateful the esteemed reformer could be. His wise and brave, compassionate and lovely and funny, words were all that most had heard before. We who made the motion for this repudiation had to read aloud selections from the 1543 tract “On the Jews & Their Lies” in order for the voters to understand what we were talking about. I recall a stunned silence in the convention hall before the the next speaker was able to begin. Speaking to the gathering I acknowledged at the time that most Lutherans hadn’t learned that part of the heritage, but, I said, our Jewish neighbors knew, and citizens who visited Holocaust exhibits would learn of it, and our own children would read and hear in their history classes of how Luther spoke of the Jews with hatred and called for the very actions which Nazi mobs performed on Kristallnacht, that orgy of hate and violence which at least one German bishop declared as a right and glorious way of honoring Luther’s birthday. I pictured our students calling home, confused and wondering what other dirty little secrets we hadn’t told them about their heritage.

    Luther was great in many ways and there is much that can be admired in his life and writings. There is moreover much of significance in the particularities of Luther’s rages, the distinct ideological sources and historical contexts of his rants against the Jews and others whom he saw as enemies. In both its sources and expressions, historical antisemitism is not one single phenomenon but a much more complicated and varied assortment of notions, fears, and prejudices. It might frequently be helpful to refer to it as a plural rather than a singular noun. Drawing such distinctions of theory or motive, however, does not alter the effect of the antisemitism upon its victim or exculpate the perpetrator. Cruelty done for stupidities of ideology or theology should not be thought less cruel than that done for racism or greed or blind hatred. Luther can be loved for much but the evil in his words here must not be excused. It can be analyzed and explained, but there should be no attempt to explain it away.

    There’s one further point I’d want to note here, though, and that is the way in which Luther’s own thinking and teaching enabled the action of Lutherans who acknowledged the evil in his words and repudiated his anti-Judaic writings. Luther’s insistence upon divine grace as the heart of the gospel carried with it the insistence that we are, every one of us, fallible and sinful. Luther knew he was a sinner, not a plaster saint of perfect virtue. He even recognized that the wrath and rages to which he sometimes gave himself were a particular failing. At its best and properly understood, Luther’s insistence upon justification by grace has meant a capacity for truth-telling about the tragic and sinful, the ugly and shameful in ourselves and in our nation, our church, and our heritage. We don’t have to pretend to infallibility or perfect virtue, for Luther or for ourselves. Luther, among others, taught us that. Confronting the baleful history (and sometimes continuing reality) of antisemitism in our midst with a spirit of repentance is one of the ways we keep faith with the better, wiser side of the reformer.

    Comment by John Stendahl — September 23, 2015 at 2:53 pm

  12. This is thoughtful and lovely, Mr. Stendahl. Thank you.

    Comment by Sudeep Agarwala — September 23, 2015 at 3:21 pm

  13. “I’m certain Mr. Cohen has much more expertise in this than I do, but when I hear Bach, I hear the same exclusive love that Mr. Edmon talks about in his comments here, the same vengeance, the same restrictions—I don’t find it all-encompassing at all, and I can imagine that for Jews (Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses) this can be alienating.”

    I have to admit that there are some Bach works with text that I would rather not hear; perhaps the Saint John Passion tops this list. Most of his music, however, transcends the sterile limits of theological discourse, at least for me. What deeper and more beautiful meditation on death than the Actus Tragicus? What more exstatic celebration of cosmic glory than the opening chorus of “Gott der Herr ist Sonn’und Schild?” I shudder and recoil when I think of Martin Luther’s dark side; conversely, I revere J.S. Bach as a great moral teacher.

    Mr. Stendahl’s welcome post is balm to this reader’s soul.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 23, 2015 at 3:52 pm

  14. Thanks all for taking the time for responding in such detail to this controversial topic. I wanted this article to be a celebration of J.S. Bach, and certainly didn’t want all the discussions to focus on Luther’s antisemitism. I must confess I haven’t read enough Luther to know the extent of his anti-semitism, so I am a bit shocked by this whole discussion. I believe there is a more important underlying issue here, and maybe a broader question: how can we experience J. S. Bach, arguably one of the greatest composers of all times, while rejecting or opposing to the believe system and the cultural environment he had?

    While I agree with Joel Cohen, when he says it so eloquently: “every note and every measure a witness to the power of love and of the human spirit comes to Bach’s music, as a universal, inclusive musical world,” the Hungarian contemporary composer, Gyorgy Kurtag comes closer to a response to my question:

    “Consciously, I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it — as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering in of the nails. . . . That is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.”

    I believe J. S. Bach is a universal composer and we are utterly affected and moved by his art (if we have ears to hear), whether from “inside” of his system as Christians, or outside as Christians, muslims, Jews or atheists. And I don’t think it will ever change.

    Our Bach Vespers, however will present his music with the full liturgical context: motets, hymns and chants, with congregational involvement that I believe is the ideal setting for his music.

    Comment by Balint — September 23, 2015 at 3:53 pm

  15. The moving and eloquent letter from “Mr. John Stendahl” is not at all surprising. He is far too reticent in identifying himself. The fruit does not fall far from the tree, for he is Pastor John K. Stendahl of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons, and son of one of the most brilliant, humane, and honored Lutheran ministers, Krister Stendahl, whose distinguished career included election as Bishop of Stockholm in 1984, as well as 1991-93 Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Theology at Brandeis University, where he was not only deeply respected but deeply loved by everyone with whom he came in contact. The son has done the father proud. The elder Stendahl, who died in 2008, wrote eloquently and convincingly on issues of women’s equality, as well as the history of Christian-Jewish relations. The son’s letter speaks for itself, and is worth reading more than once. Bravo!

    Comment by Alan Levitan — September 23, 2015 at 4:53 pm

  16. >> the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a formal repudiation of Luther’s anti-Judaic writings.

    If you grew up in that tradition, it goes without saying that First Lutheran Boston is *not* ELCA but the more conservative Missouri Synod, whose take on this mishegaas is rather different from the statement Stendahl reported:

    As for poor Bach, Agarwala’s ‘I can only presume that his music was written in the same intolerant and exclusive vein’ may be a bit much; see Christoph Wolff’s comment (para 6) here:

    Comment by David Moran — September 23, 2015 at 9:06 pm

  17. Thanks, David Moran, and I do find the Missouri Synod statement for which you have provided a link to be very enlightening, viz:

    “Resolved, That in our teaching and preaching we take care not to confuse the religion of the Old Testament (often labeled “Yahwism”) with the subsequent Judaism, nor misleadingly speak about “Jews” in the Old Testament (“Israelites” or “Hebrews” being much more accurate terms), lest we obscure the basic claim of the New Testament and of the Gospel to being in substantial continuity with the Old Testament and that the fulfillment of the ancient promises came in Jesus Christ;


    “Resolved, That, in that light, we personally and individually adopt Luther’s final attitude toward the Jewish people, as evidenced in his last sermon: “We want to treat them with Christian love and to pray for them, so that they might become converted and would receive the Lord” (Weimar edition, Vol. 51, p. 195).”

    As famous Yahwist Moses reportedly said to his Israelite brother Aaron, “Oy, Gewalt!”

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 24, 2015 at 2:59 am

  18. SDG, not SLG. Bach composed for the glory of God, not for the glory of Luther. Nowhere is this better expressed than in his beautifully ecumenical Latin Mass, aimed at transcending human divisions, hatreds, shortcomings, in order to lift our hearts to what is higher than ourselves.

    Comment by Ashley — September 25, 2015 at 6:22 am

  19. As the compiler for this article written to inform Boston’s musical community of the new Vespers series at First Lutheran, I want to thank all the commentors for their responses. Especially I hope that Pastor Stendahl will not mind my recounting how I knew his father. In 1975 I worked part-time in the Dean’s office at Harvard Divinity School, primarily typing Krister Stendahl’s letters. I had a fascinating glimpse of the thoughts of this kind, brilliant man, and I learned from him through the opportunity to ask questions. I believe I am correct in saying that he yearned for a closer connection between Christianity and Judaism, and that he even thought the gulf between Christianity and Judaism, its course of history, was not what the founding church fathers had intended. I cannot imagine that Krister gave any credence to Luther’s condemnation of the Jews, other than as lamentable writings to be rejected.

    In December 1986, my husband and I made our first visit to Leipzig, a venture of the two of us into East Germany. At the Saturday Bach cantata concert, the Thomaskirche was full. The Sunday morning liturgy, also with glorious choral music, was somewhat sparsely attended. I noticed that the congregants near me, mostly older women who had come alone, sang the chorales without referring to the words. These were Advent hymns, sung only during this season (and mostly unfamiliar to me), and these congregants sang them from memory, a tradition that goes back centuries. The experience has remained my personal picture of the gift of Luther’s Reformation, still with us and so valued—the chorales.

    Information about tomorrow’s Vespers not previously given in this article is as follows. The homilist will be the Reverend Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown, Associate Professor of Church History, Boston University School of Theology. The cantata orchestra will be Michael Sponseller, harpsichord; Abigail Karr and Asako Takeuchi, baroque violins; Zoe Kemmerling, baroque viola; Cora Swenson, baroque cello; David Dickey and Joyce Alper, baroque oboes. Soloists will be Na’ama Lion, baroque flute; Evangeline Athanasiou, alto; Gene Stenger, tenor; and Ethan Sagin, baritone. Bálint Karosi conducts and is organist for the service.

    Comment by Joyce Painter Rice — September 25, 2015 at 4:02 pm

  20. God uses all means at His disposal to speak to our hearts, including music. I pray these Bach Vespers will help us all to listen to Him, above all our differences.
    I agree that we should not gloss over Luther’s sins when we talk about his life. No one but Christ has lived a life without sin. But we should not forget the magnitude of his contribution to our spiritual lives and to society as a whole. We should not forget what kind of a world he lived in. Did you know that in the year he posted his 95 theses, seven parents were burned at the stake for the crime of teaching their children the Lord’s prayer in English? It makes me sick even to think of it.
    I am glad that we are free to teach our children the prayers of our choosing, even if we do not all agree which prayers those should be. Luther played a role in changing his world into the one we live in. For good and for ill. Lutherans respect the good and reject the ill – we worship Christ, not Luther.

    Comment by Audrey Johnson — September 25, 2015 at 7:03 pm

  21. This thread has passed from comment, to serious reflection, but ultimately to this incomprehension:

    Did you know that in the year he posted his 95 theses, seven parents were burned at the stake for the crime of teaching their children the Lord’s prayer in English? It makes me sick even to think of it.

    Is the author unaware? unconcerned? dismissive? of the millions of humans who have been tortured and murdered for teaching their children anything other than Luther’s prescriptions? And of the generations of the “faithful” who were inured to this violence by their indoctrination in his indictments?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — September 25, 2015 at 9:35 pm

  22. And so now it appears to pass to the offensive impugning of ‘unconcerned? dismissive?’
    ‘My sensitivities about historical evil are more finely tuned than yours’, etc. Please.

    Comment by David Moran — September 25, 2015 at 11:03 pm

  23. I don’t think Pope Francis reads this blog, but he had some appropriate words regarding these issues yesterday:

    “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.”

    OK, time to chill and to listen to Brandemburg #5.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 26, 2015 at 9:01 am

  24. With a Pope like Francis, the Reformation would not have needed to happen. On the other hand, would Francis have happened without the Reformation?

    Does FLC care what the Pope thinks?

    Comment by denovo2 — September 26, 2015 at 9:18 am

  25. So, how did the first Vespers sound? Well, it was interesting to hear it within a worship service in which the congregation participated rather than as an appendage thereto. Some of the singing and playing was excellent, in particular violinist Kate Arndt’s outgoing account of Bach’s second sonata, tenor Gene Stenger’s aria, and Bálint Karos’s dramatic interpretation of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor on FLC’s fine tracker. Was Cantata BWV 144 moving? Not to these ears, yet maybe these ears are to blame. In his homily the Reverend Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown told the congregation that one cannot fully appreciate Bach without embracing the theology he is illustrating.

    Even if the words came first historically and as a weekly assignment to Bach, his music transcends them ( at least to this religious skeptic) even as it illuminates them. And if music is just in the service to reinforce one’s understanding of the theology, as Brown asserted, then why end with a wordless organ piece instead or more words or silence?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 27, 2015 at 6:08 pm

  26. ” In his homily the Reverend Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown told the congregation that one cannot fully appreciate Bach without embracing the theology he is illustrating.”

    I’m sorry to have missed this event. Had I been there, however, you might have heard a loud groan or two from the pews…..What, if anything, is meant by the term “fully appreciate?” I think we can all agree than knowing about Christian and specifically Lutheran theology and liturgy is enormously helpful in understanding Bach’s church music, and even much of his instrumental music. And yet, and yet, Bach’s spirit soars higher, above and beyond the church walls. One does not need to be a Christian, or a member of any religion, in order to apprehend the opening movement of the D major Magnificat as a summum of spiritual joy. Let’s learn all we can from our Lutheran friends, and then let’s let the music go free.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — September 28, 2015 at 7:38 am

  27. I don’t pretend to know what was in Rev. Dr. Brown’s mind when he said, “that one cannot fully appreciate Bach without embracing the theology he is illustrating.” What occurs to me is that when there’s a line which explicitly opposes the Catholic Church or its doctrines, my theological disagreement does somewhat diminish my enjoyment of the piece I’m hearing. When there is no such disagreement, then the music can enhance the words, and the words can enhance the music.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 29, 2015 at 4:24 pm

  28. I’m the son of a lapsed Catholic father and a non-practicing Jewish mother; I consider myself mostly an agnostic. I am *ethnically* Jewish, I went to Brandeis University, I’m well aware of many “this is anti-Semitic” arguments against almost everything! I have performed St. Matthew Passion several times and listened to it several hundred, and a good reading of “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” will bring tears to my eyes, whether or not I believe the theology behind it. When I finish a performance of St. Matthew, I feel like I’ve run a mental marathon in the best possible way.

    I agree with Joel Cohen that the Actus Tragicus is one of the finest meditations on mortality, along with Brahms’ fairly ecumenical German Requiem. The Mass in b minor is one of those pieces that I didn’t fully appreciate until I started to study it for performance as a continuo player and then as a singer.

    I do not think that one needs to *embrace* Bach’s theology by any means, but having at least a passing familiarity with it helps a great deal when dealing with his liturgical works. When I took a Bach cantata seminar with Dr. Eric Chafe, the first thing we did was to learn the structure of the Lutheran church year and learn some of the most important chorales, which certainly enhanced my understanding of the cantatas we went on to analyze.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — September 29, 2015 at 9:08 pm

  29. One must commiserate with Dr. Brown for his his inability to appreciate Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, or any of Schubert’s masses, all the works of good Catholic composers (well, Catholic, anyway). Clearly the doctrine these composers “illustrate”, being in conflict with Dr. Brown’s own, presents an insurmountable barrier to his understanding of their music. Composers before 1517 present a bit of a conundrum; Josquin is known to have been a favorite of Luther’s, but surely his doctrines are in need of Reformation. And of course we who follow no religious doctrine at all are denied everything. This Friday at Symphony Hall, when the chorus sings “et lux perpetua,” I will try to remember to whisper to myself, “but not for you.” However I may forget, being distracted by the music and all.

    Dr. Brown thinks that Bach is merely illustrating his doctrine, but I think he misunderstands the nature of the fictional arts. I don’t think I would be more moved by King Lear, or that my understandinding of it would be deepened, if I were to mistake it for a historical work; the same goes for the St. Matthew Passion.

    Comment by SamW — September 30, 2015 at 8:05 am

  30. Thanks to this thread, I’ve been meditating quite a bit these days on the term “fully understand.”

    And, by now, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossibly to “fully understand” ANY major work of art, by Bach or by anyone else. An important work of art is, by definition, multi-dimensional and multi-layered, which is why we keep returning to it. A large-structured major work by Bach, like the B Minor Mass– or even a much simpler two-part invention — will yield different insights and different emotional responses as we apprehend it at different moments or stages of our lives.

    To the theologians who insist that Bach’s music is “about” Lutheran theology, I recommend a course of study in counterpoint and fugue, so that the extent of Bach’s almost-supernatural command of compositional technique can become at least partly evident. Can you “fully understand” Bach without having delved deeply into his purely musical language? And then, what to make of the mystery that remains?

    One afternoon, circa 1965, during her Wednesday analysis class, Nadia Boulanger was focussing on the b minor slow movement of Bach’s G major gamba and harpsichord sonata. Having discussed some of the graces of that short but exquisite movement, she said, “Well, you see the harmonic progression. But finally, I am not so sure that this music comes from human invention at all.”

    With all due respect to the explainers on all sides, I rather tend to side with Mademoiselle in this discussion.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — October 1, 2015 at 12:34 pm

  31. Although much more could be said about the question of how theology relates to Bach’s music, I wish to comment on something seemingly quite different: the illustration accompanying the article, which is labeled “Manuscript of title page of opening cantata.” What is shown is actually not a title page but the first page of the score of Cantata 114, in the manuscript copy now in Berlin known as P 964. Made in the late 18th century (long after Bach’s death), it was copied from another copy also dating from after Bach’s death (1755). What is the significance of this fact? Not much, except that most readers seeing this illustration probably assumed they were looking at Bach’s handwriting. But not every old manuscript is close to the original composer; copies often lie several degrees of separation away from the latter. By the same token, claims about theology and how it helps one understand Bach are subject to questions about how close present-day understanding of Lutheran theology is to that of Bach, his librettists, and their congregations. There are serious scholars today (such as Robin Leaver and Mary Greer) who approach the issue not simply by reading Luther but by reading theologians of Bach’s time. In what sense this helps us understand Bach, or his music, is open for discussion. But without consulting this scholarship and the writings on which it is based, one is as likely to be as mistaken about “Bach’s” theology as the reader who cannot distinguish the composer’s handwriting from that of a later copyist.

    Comment by David Schulenberg — October 3, 2015 at 12:34 am

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