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Notes on Luther's Deutsche Messe (September 2017) 

(Scroll down for notes on Sacred Cantatas in Leipzig, February 2018)

The Protestant Reformation, which began with Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, has recently been called “classical music’s punk moment.” The comparison seems apt at first: punk rock was a rejection of the rock music mainstream of the 1970s, and Protestantism rejected the excesses of the Catholic liturgy, including what was perceived as overly ornate music. Protestantism also democratized liturgical music by endorsing congregational singing, and the punk movement is said to have been similarly liberating for aspiring rock musicians. But an examination of Luther’s reforms immediately after his break with the Catholic Church shows that the comparison with the punk rebellion is a simplistic one. A former Augustinian monk, Luther revered the plainchant of the Catholic Church, and in fact seven of the roughly forty-five tunes (known as “chorales”) that he composed or adapted for congregational singing are derived from Catholic plainchant. He was also a devotee of the Catholic Church’s polyphonic music, particularly that of Josquin des Prez, arguably Europe’s most famous composer at the time of the Reformation. In 1538, after singing through one of the composer's motets with his companions at table, Luther famously exclaimed, “Josquin is the master of the notes, which must do as he wishes, while other composers must follow what the notes dictate.” Luther’s chief musical collaborator was Johann Walter, a supremely talented composer influenced by Josquin. Walter was the first to set many of Luther’s tunes in long notes in the tenor voice surrounded by rich polyphony, a tradition that persisted to the era of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Our program aims to demonstrate Luther’s approach to liturgical music by presenting a Lutheran mass as it might have been heard circa 1530. The program includes a combination of Walter’s polyphonic settings of German-texted chorale tunes, Latin-texted mass sections by Josquin, and plainsong recitation of the Epistle and Gospel using Luther’s procedures. The principal source for our hypothetical reconstruction is Luther’s own Deudsche Messe und ordnung Gottes diensts (“German Mass and Order of Church Service”), printed in 1526. Luther’s text shows surprising flexibility about many aspects of the liturgy, but his emphasis on the engagement of the congregation is consistent throughout. At various points in the service he proposes specific tunes to be sung by the laity, but he is also quick to say, “or another similar song.” Since Luther advocated that trained choirboys (presumably supplemented at times by trained adult male singers) lead the congregation in singing and also sing complex music on their own, it seems plausible that Walter’s chorale settings, which appeared in a printed songbook in 1524, could have been used to supplement singing by the congregation.

Despite their emphasis on congregational singing, Lutherans did not replace all Catholic polyphony with chorale tunes. Recent research on musical sources from Lutheran congregations in the sixteenth century not only reveals that polyphonic mass music was consistently employed in the Lutheran liturgy, but that Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine was the most popular mass to be used in this way. Since Lutherans did not accord the Virgin Mary the same status as Catholics did, the use of this particular piece, which contains Marian tropes (interpolations of text praising the Virgin), is quite surprising. Examination of manuscripts containing the work reveals that Lutherans simply changed the texts of tropes that they felt were too Marian, recasting them in praise of God the Father or Jesus. The Missa de Beata Virgine is a relatively obscure work today, despite the fact that it was Josquin’s most circulated mass during the sixteenth century, with the complete work or portions surviving in forty-five manuscripts and ten prints. Apparently composed late in Josquin’s life, it is a masterful piece, combining rich canonic structure with the composer's trademark expressivity. The chorale settings by the much younger Walter hold up reasonably well in comparison, and there is a freshness and joy in these works that is surely the result of an exuberant new approach to organized religion. 

The Organization of the Mass


The duties of the celebrants and choir of a Catholic mass are traditionally divided into two portions: the proper, which is in principle unique to each day of the year; and the ordinary, which must be performed at every mass. These chants are interspersed with one another, but it was the ordinary that had become the focus of most composers of polyphony by the early sixteenth century. The five major ordinary sections chanted by the choir — Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei — were often set as a polyphonic cycle and transmitted throughout Europe in manuscripts and, after the invention of music printing in 1501, in prints. (Many of these sources have survived in cathedrals and parish churches of various kinds, and scholars continue to study them in an effort to understand how polyphonic settings were used in the liturgy.)


Though Luther does not state it directly, in his Deutsche Messe he essentially replaces plainchant propers with a psalm or “geistlich Lied” — a spiritual song — to be sung by the laity. Recognizing that the corpus of appropriate sacred songs in German at that time was quite small, he suggested specific tunes rather than prescribing them, and he clearly knew that it would be some time before a large number of chorales appropriate to specific days on the church calendar were available. Though Luther composed new German songs, he also adapted many existing ones. Many were part of an earlier tradition of the Leise, a simple spiritual song in German ending with the Greek text “Kyrie eleison” (from which genre’s name is derived). Two works on our program are settings by Walter of melodies in this category: Gelobet seistu, which essentially replaces the plainchant introit, and Nu bitten wir den heiligen Geist, which replaces the Gradual. (The melody is actually based on that of a plainchant sequence, Veni sancte spiritus.) The melodies in Walter’s settings are always heard in a tenor voice in long note values, and it is possible that the congregation was able to sing them with the choir in this context. Other works by Walter are clearly for professional singers only: his Nu freut Euch, which we have placed after the Sanctus to accompany the distribution of Communion, is a florid piece scored for three choirboys.


Because Luther’s focus was on the transmission of Biblical text to the faithful, he composed new formulas for the reading of the Epistle and Gospel as well as the Verba testamenti explaining the Eucharist and the Preface that introduces the Sanctus. His attention to musical detail is remarkable: he employs different pitch levels that contrast at moments when the Evangelist speaks (high pitch) from those when Jesus does (low pitch). We have selected Epistle and Gospel readings for the Feast of the Holy Cross, which is traditionally celebrated on September 14. Unlike the standard Catholic Preface, Luther’s quotes the entire passage from Isaiah from which the Sanctus text (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might”) is derived, leaving no doubt as to the context.


Luther simplified and translated elements of the mass ordinary. It was especially important to him that the Creed, the profession of belief traditionally sung by the choir as the Credo in the Catholic mass, be sung by the congregation. Accordingly, he adapted an existing translation of the Credo into a three-strophe chorale (one stanza for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit). Walter’s setting of Wir gleuben al an einen Gott is a four-voice version in which this elaborate melody is heard in the tenor voice. Surprisingly, both Luther’s Deutsche Messe and the earliest version of Walter’s polyphonic Gesangbuch do not contain melodies setting the Lord’s Prayer, which we have chosen to omit from our concert.


For those with some familiarity with Lutheran traditions, perhaps the most surprising element of our reconstruction is the inclusion of four of the five sections of Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine. After all, Lutheran services have been held primarily in the vernacular for hundreds of years, and there is a tendency to see Protestantism generally as having been separated from Catholicism through its use of the local vernacular rather than Latin until the Second Vatican Council, concluded in 1965. The vast majority of the sacred works of J.S. Bach, Lutheran sacred music par excellence, is in German. But unlike proponents of the English Reformation, a movement that may cloud the perceptions of the Anglophone world to some extent, Luther was not opposed to using Latin text in the liturgy, so long as it did not obscure the understanding of scripture and doctrine. We have seen that he loved many aspects of Catholic music, especially the polyphonic works of Josquin des Prez. He was not alone, even among Lutherans: Alanna Ropchock Tierno, whose research is focused on the early Lutheran liturgy, has established beyond doubt that Lutheran parishes continued to use their Catholic books of polyphony following the Reformation, and that Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine was the most popular Catholic mass employed by Lutherans.[1] She has observed that the work’s Marian tropes — musical interpolations of text and music in praise of the Virgin Mary — were usually altered to reflect Lutheran belief that the Virgin should not receive primacy of place before God. In our text and translation, the tropes, which are derived from a long tradition of venerating the Virgin in votive masses, are given in Italics. Only one text is altered: Tierno has indicated that “ad gloriam Mariam” (“to the glory of Mary”) was changed in one source to “ad gloriam tuam” (“to your glory”).


As mentioned above, the Missa de Beata Virgine is a masterful work. Just as Lutherans would have recognized traditional German melodies in Walter’s polyphony, Catholics (and former Catholics) would have recognized the melodies of Marian votive masses that Josquin used as the basis for the mass. These melodies were only linked by liturgical association and are quite different from one another, which in turn affects the sound of Josquin’s polyphony. The Gloria is in a sunny Mixolydian mode rather than the darker G-Dorian of the Kyrie. In the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei, the texture is expanded to five voices, with the second soprano singing a strict canon with the tenor, following it by four measures. (The part is seldom written out in sources of the period; instead, Josquin indicates the additional voice by writing “Vous jeunerez les quatre temps,” or “You shall fast [for] the four seasons,” indicating the four-measure delay.) The canon forces the second soprano to employ B natural most of the time, which presents a striking contrast with the B flat used by all the other voices. The second Agnus Dei is one of Josquin’s finest duets, and the final Agnus is more celebratory than introspective. Luther’s assessment of Josquin’s music refers to the composer as having “a great spirit,” which, though perhaps flawed like Luther’s, is evident in this work nearly five hundred years after his death. 


© Eric Rice


[1] Alanna Ropchock Tierno, “To the Glory of Whom? Josquin’s Missa de Beata Virgine and its Gloria in Catholic and Lutheran Ritual Contexts,” paper delivered at the annual Medieval-Renaissance Music Conference, Prague, Czechia, July, 2017.

Notes on Christ lag in Todesbanden 

Sacred Cantatas in Leipzig

This concert is the second that Ensemble Origo is offering this season to explore the musical and liturgical traditions that grew out of Martin Luther’s reforms, which began in 1517. (The first concert was a reconstruction of a Lutheran mass as it might have been heard in 1530.) A former Augustinian monk, Luther revered the plainchant of the Catholic Church, and in fact seven of the roughly forty-five tunes (known as “chorales”) that he composed or adapted for congregational singing are derived from Catholic plainchant. Such chorales were often set in long notes in one voice (the cantus firmus) surrounded by rich polyphony, a tradition that persisted to the era of J. S. Bach and is especially important in his cantatas—arguably the finest examples of Lutheran liturgical music.

Though perhaps a dozen of Bach’s roughly 200 surviving liturgical cantatas are performed with regularity, it is the composer’s instrumental music that has been part of the classical tradition for nearly two centuries. Indeed, Bach’s works are among the earliest that many instrumentalists will perform. However, it is possible to see Bach’s music as the end of a great tradition as well as the beginning of one. He was one of the last composers to employ cantus firmus technique, a tradition that originated in the Middle Ages. One aspect of his brilliance was the combination of such old procedures with thoroughly “modern” music. Like a skilled preacher, Bach interpreted venerable Lutheran melodies, imbuing them with new, deep layers of meaning and challenging his listeners to hear them afresh. By the mid-eighteenth century, such musical glosses were no longer in vogue, and much of Bach’s music—though timeless from our perspective—was out of date. 

Despite the attention devoted to Bach’s music, there are many gaps in our knowledge of the tradition Bach inherited. The repertory of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where he held his final position beginning in 1723, is still being brought to light. Our concert offers a modern premiere of a cantata by one of Bach’s predecessors at the Thomaskirche, Sebastian Knüpfer, who is credited with having rebuilt the musical tradition of Leipzig after the Thirty Years War. The work is a setting of Christ lag in Todesbanden, Luther’s chorale adaptation of the folk tune Christ ist erstanden, which is based on the eleventh-century Gregorian Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes. We offer a performance of Bach’s famous Christ lag in Todesbanden for comparison. Though Bach’s Christ lag was composed during the first decade of the eighteenth century, well before his tenure at Leipzig, its relationship to Knüpfer’s work seems stronger than mere shared source material. The manuscript preserving Knüpfer’s cantata, located in the Saxon State Library in Dresden, indicates that it was performed in 1702 and 1714, so that the piece was still in use during the time Bach composed his setting. Knüpfer’s rich scoring for three bombards (essentially shawms, forerunners of the oboe), cornettino, violino piccolo, violin, three violas, and continuo is a hallmark of his style. Our interest in the piece emerged from Daniel Lee’s 2017 doctoral dissertation, “The Violino Piccolo in the Leipzig Orbit, 1650-1750.” Lee’s work distinguishes between a child-size violin and the violino piccolo, which has a full-size neck to accommodate an adult’s hand, and uncovers the degree to which the instrument was used—quite surprisingly—by Leipzig composers, including Bach.  


The other works on our program are examples of Bach’s contrapuntal rigor and his willingness to make adaptations. The first piece survives as a harpsichord concerto dating from late 1730s, but was originally conceived for oboe d’amore; here we present the first movement as a concerto for piccolo violin and strings. The first half closes with a performance of Bach’s four-voice motet Lobet den Herrn, a setting of verses from Psalm 117 that probably also dates from the 1730s and is among the most florid of his choral works. The second half opens with the six-part ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. In one of the most notable events in his life, Bach was invited to visit the Potsdam court of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, in May of 1747. Frederick supplied Bach with a theme upon which the composer improvised a fugue at the keyboard. Upon his return to Leipzig, Bach set about writing down his improvisation, eventually creating a variety of works based Frederick’s theme, including the six-part ricercar, and entitling the group The Musical Offering. Our version of the six-part ricercar is transposed from the original key of C minor to A minor, so that a relatively low combination of strings is needed (two violins, two violas, and two cellos).


As already noted, the two cantatas on the program share some characteristics. In both works, the composers chose to employ the chorale tune as the basis for each section of the work, and no section is in a different key (Knüpfer’s is in the tune’s original key of D minor, Bach’s is in E minor). An instrumental sinfonia precedes the seven verses of the chorale in both works, and the seven sections are organized in a symmetrically according to the vocal forces (soloists and chorus) used in a palindromic structure that many scholars believe represents the cross. Verse IV, the central movement in each of the works, is marked alla breve (at the beginning of Knüpfer’s movement and at the “Hallelujah” of Bach’s), denoting a different character than the other movements.


Each composer employs a chorale-fantasy technique for the opening verse: the tune is heard in long notes in the soprano voice while the other voices elaborate with counterpoint. Knüpfer leaves most of the elaboration to the soloists, who sing with the choir, but also maintain separate parts in the manner of a concertino group in a concerto grosso. Each composer used soloists for verses II, III, V, and VI, but Knüpfer employed a duet and a trio, both of which elaborate on Luther’s melody and end with an instrumental ritornello in II and III (and he simply repeated them with new text for V and VI), whereas Bach employs either duets or individual singers, lending a different character to each verse. Bach’s scoring does not call for the variety of instrumental colors of Knüpfer’s piece (though he does employ two viola parts in the French manner). When he reused the work in Leipzig, Bach added cornetto and sackbuts (early trombones) to the first and last choral sections of the work; we have only added the cornetto.

It is impossible to do justice to the richness of Bach’s setting here, but Knüpfer’s work also deserves attention and respect. In hearing both works on the same program, we hope to shed light on the Leipzig tradition of rigorous counterpoint, canrtus firmus technique, and rich instrumentation.                        © Eric Rice

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