Saturday, March 15, 2014

Conductor's Notes

Cantata 80  Ein feste Burg
          By Stephen Gothold

The importance of Martin Luther to the culture, religion and language of the northern countries during the 16th and subsequent centuries cannot be overstated. His ideas of reforming the church, incorporating the vernacular into the liturgical life of his generation, and his contributions to congregational participation in Christian worship are still central to reformed worship today.

When Luther developed ideas for liturgical reform by using the language of the people and increasing their participation in worship (especially in corporate singing), he faced an enormous problem - there was nothing in German for the layman to sing.  Among his reforms was the replacement of the propers* of the Mass (normally the domain of the choir or clergy) with congregational songs.  He proceeded to assemble a congregational repertoire by: a) translating Latin hymns and chants into German;  b) adding German sacred texts to familiar melodies, often folk songs or street songs  -  the most famous example being “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”, the tune of which was a lilting love song; and c) composing new material himself, or engaging others to compose new items for the new liturgy.

While by legend many original hymns are attributed to Luther, there is ample evidence that he wrote both words and music for Ein feste Burg ( A Mighty Fortress is Our God).  This chorale  (German for hymn) is a paraphrase of Psalm 46.  The original tune in Luther’s time had many syncopations, but by the time of Bach, almost exactly two hundred years later, the tune was sung much as we sing it now.

In Bach’s time in the northern countries, the Feast of the Reformation (last Sunday of October) became one of the very important Feast Days in the Liturgical Year, and called for more elaborate music. Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg, which Chorale Bel Canto will present for the Whittier Bach Festival on April 5, is actually a reworking of two earlier cantatas, and Bach scholar Alfred  Dürr gives evidence that it did not reach this form until 1735. Even so, the trumpets and drums which now are a signature of the piece, were added by Sebastian’s son Wilhelm Friedemann, well after the death of his father.

The piece is a wonder of invention and expression.  All four stanzas of Luther’s hymn are present, each set very differently:
              1.  Chorale motet (or fugato) - the opening movement is a maze of counterpoint by the chorus and orchestra, and in every  measure we hear someone singing or playing one of the phrases of the well-known tune.  Each of the four chorus parts has its turn, the oboes and trumpets are in canon with the bass instruments and organ pedal, and all the while the mood is festive and bright.
              2.  The second stanza is scored for soprano and bass soloists and string orchestra.  The bass sings a very difficult aria proclaiming god’s promise, while over the top, the soprano solo sings the text of Luther’s second stanza.
              3.  The third stanza is number 5 of the cantata, and is a very rare example of Bach asking the choir to sing in unison  - no harmony, no fugues.  The orchestra plays a gigue-like dance while the stanza is proclaimed.
              4.  The fourth stanza, the Schlußchoral (closing hymn) is in the form that now graces many hymnals, to which Friedemann Bach added trumpets and tympani.

We invite you to join us on April 2 at 7:30 p.m. on the Whittier College campus, Hoover 100, to view the feature film Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes, to gain some perspective on the life of this amazing man.

Please visit our website and blog at for more information, tickets, times and locations of the festival events.

* The propers of the Mass are those liturgical items which change daily according to the Lectionary.  The items which might be replaced by hymns include:  introit, gradual, communion, post-communion, etc.  The unchanging part of the Mass is the ordinary, consisting of Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, as well as several liturgical prayers offered by the priest.

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