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Caius Choir stars in BBC celebration of Luther’s musical legacy

  • 29 April 2017

The musical influences and legacy of Martin Luther will be explored in a BBC programme featuring the Choir of Gonville & Caius.

The programme, titled Breaking Free – Martin Luther’s Revolution: A Square Dance in Heaven, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 30 April 2017 at 6.45pm.

The Choir will sing Bach works that famously draw directly on the hymns and chorales of Luther, but will also perform sixteenth century music from which the great Protestant reformer himself drew inspiration.

The programme, presented by trained singer and Bach enthusiast the Rev Lucy Winkett, is part of a range of celebrations of 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the castle chapel in the German town of Wittenberg, and a revolution swept through Europe – theologically, socially, but also musically.

While Luther was a theologian and a reformer, he was also a musician and a composer. Music, with its power to move emotions, was an "inexpressible miracle" second only to Theology, he argued, and when people engaged in music, singing in four or five parts, it was like a "square dance in heaven."

Luther's ideas about music, and the role he granted to choral singing, were to have a decisive influence on the development of music in Germany, providing the seedbed for the choral and liturgical works of Germany's greatest composers.

“One often associates the work of Bach with Luther because of the passions and cantatas, “ says Dr Geoffrey Webber, Director of Music at Caius. “This programme explores that link but also asks the question – what was the music like in Luther’s time, 200 years before Bach?”

Listeners will hear the Choir perform music by Josquin des Prez, a French Renaissance composer much admired by Luther, as well as music used in services in his time. There will also be performances of original versions of Luther’s chorales. “These are more familiar to us today through the harmonisations of Bach,” says Dr Webber, “but we are singing some of the original publications of the tunes and early settings.”

As Luther reformed the liturgy, he gave the sermon and community singing a central role. Choral singing was defined as an assertion of faith, and a spiritual commentary on biblical texts. To implement the change, worshippers had to be acquainted with music practice, and schools or parishes became responsible for vocal training, given by a “cantor”.

Luther’s attitude toward music is clearly set forth in his well known Forward to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae, a collection of chorale motets published in 1538: “I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ! I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God. The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them.”

Echoes of Luther's many hymns and chorales reverberate through modern English hymnbooks - "A safe stronghold is our God", for example, is Luther's "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott".

The Rev Winkett takes the listener on a musical tour of the Reformation. The programme opens in the Georgenkirche in Eisenach where Luther and J.S Bach were both choirboys. Lucy visits Torgau, where the first Lutheran cantor, Johann Walther, set Luther's famous words to music and spearheaded the educational reforms which led to an explosion of choral singing throughout Saxony. The programme ends in Leipzig at the Thomaskirche, where Bach wrote his famous cantatas and other works based on Lutheran liturgy.

Breaking Free – Martin Luther’s Revolution: A Square Dance in Heaven, featuring the Choir of Gonville & Caius, will be broadcast on Sunday 30 April at 6.45pm on BBC Radio 3.

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