As 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.