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Predigt über eg 362: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" und die Bach Kantate No. 80

Pastor Dr. Otfried Arndt

31.10.2006 in der First English Lutheran Church, Baltimore, MD

"Sola Scriptura - Sola Musica"

Dear Friends:  


As a Lutheran pastor and theologian, I should know a thing (or two) about Protestant theology and "Sola Scriptura", one of the three great principles of the Reformation:
"Sola Scriptura" (Scripture Alone) together with "Sola Gratia" (Grace Alone) and "Sola Fide" (Faith Alone) is the underlying rationale for Protestantism, especially for Lutherans. These words best describe sound and solid Lutheran theology. As a lover of Bach's music, I do know a thing (or two) about the famous Leipzig "Thomaskantor" and composer.
"Sola Musica" (Music Alone) best describes the fascinating, rewarding effort to understand one of the most powerful artistic minds and creative geniuses of all times --- Johann Sebastian Bach, sometimes also referred to as the "fifth evangelist".

"Johann Sebastian Bach needs no introduction. His sacred works -the nearly 200 Cantatas, the large choral works (B-Minor Mass; Magnificat; Christmas Oratorio; the Passions and Motets), the organ works- communicate a deep Christian faith; and together with his secular music (Keyboards and Orchestral Works) bespeak his great genius" ("Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship"; p. 300). That be may be true; but not everyone is a Lutheran; and not every Lutheran knows that there is a "Hymnal Companion..." - or reads it. In fact, Bach's genius was not recognized for quite some time! Shortly after his death in 1750, J.S.Bach and his music almost completely disappeared from the public's eyes and ears. The immensity of his achievements as musician and composer remained hidden from even the most knowledgeable of his successors. During his lifetime surprisingly little of his music was even published. The great works for which he is admired today existed only in manuscripts and copies. "Insiders" such as Mozart and Beethoven surely had an inkling of his greatness, yet the public at large would only "discover" Bach long after his death.
"Here is something we can learn from," shouted the young Mozart whose 250th birthday was celebrated the world over last year while sitting in on a rehearsal of the famous "St.Thomas Boys Choir" practicing Bach's motet "Sing to the Lord a New Song". He also added some mild and well-meaning critique: "The only thing missing ... is a full orchestration ... I, myself, should try it...". And Beethoven, playing with the very common German name "Bach" -meaning "little river" or "brook"- once snorted, "His name should not be 'Bach'; his name should be 'Ocean'"!
While just about every musician of stature in his time had something similar to say about Bach and his music, the truly "oceanic" depth of his work only became obvious some 100 years after his death. It was not until the late 19th century, that the efforts of skilled and enlightened performers such as Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy initiated a Bach revival. Together with the nascent academic discipline of musicology, it created a "tidal wave" of publications and research, Bach festivals, and Concert Series which continues into our days.  


What a challenge and a task this is --- to speak knowledgeably and responsibly about Bach and his music is an arduous and perplexing assignment, especially for someone who loves Bach's music so much. I do love and admire Bach's music; in fact, I grew up with it. But I am eager to admit that I do not like "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott"!

Nevertheless, popular piety and -even somewhat misled- devotion has made "A Mighty Fortress" the Reformation hymn and the musical symbol of Lutheranism. The "Hymnal Companion..." states, "One thing is certain; the hymn is one of the great hymns of the Church and deserves the widespread popularity it has achieved" (p. 307f.).
While I do not debate this, I still do not like it! My own personal experience is very different, very unpleasant, even traumatic! It brings back memories which I would rather not have:
As a four year old, I heard the opening of this Cantata with its magnificent trumpets almost every day, and sometimes several times a day, sitting in front of a "Volksempfänger", a simple one-wave "people's radio" - another of the Nazi's "inventions" along with the "Volkswagen" and the Autobahn!
I was so enchanted, so smitten by the music, I soon started to whistle with it. Little did I know or care that it was used as the signal to broadcast the Nazi's military and war news.
Here was this wonderful, soul-stirring music, the glorious "victory fanfares". But why would the person that this innocent boy loved the most, be upset and cry when she heard this music? For quite some time, at the sound of these trumpets, my mother would break into tears - and they were not tears of joy!
I was irritated, confused; I did not understand. I did not know that my father's death -"Ltd. Major Otto Arndt, killed in action"- was announced on one of these broadcasts. Neither was I allowed to attend his memorial ser- vice where the choir and brass ensemble performed this hymn, where the pastor declared that my father died as a hero for God, Fatherland, and 'Führer'!
Today, reflecting back, I would have very much preferred and loved that my father would have lived for God, Fatherland, and Me! And I share my grief, my sorrow, my ambivalence, my dislike, my protest, --- and some healing:
What an abuse and aberration it was to use this sacred music to report on a war that wiped out millions -among them, my own father, a man I never had a chance to really know!
Truth be told: the Nazis were not the first to do so: in 1631, Gustav(us) Adolf(us), the King of Sweden, ordered his army to sing this hymn before the battle of Leipzig - presumably with trumpets, pipes, drums, and all. And in 1732, the Salzburg Emigrants adopted it as their traveling hymn, "marching as to war".
Indeed, it was Martin Luther himself, who gave us the words and the tune of this hymn. And in the 16th century, the chorale's powerful text and beacon-melody exemplified both, the defiant and the confident spirit of the Reformation. These connections were revived some 300 years later as common language and other forces tried to bring national unity out of fragmented German territories.
In 1870, the popularity of Cantata 80 was enhanced when the "Bach Ge- sellschaft" published it with enlarged orchestration - trumpets and timpani. Unfortunately, this also marked the beginning of even more shameful misuses.
In the wake of the German-French war of 1870/71, the cantata's opening victory fanfares and Luther's "revolutionary hymn" were appropriated by a rising nationalistic movement. Luther's concluding words, "Ours remains the Kingdom", became the quintessence of a pan-German secularized Protestantism.
During World War I, the German emperor, the Kaiser, used music to com- bine military, nationalistic, and religious themes. For instance, the "Patriotic Overture" by Max Reger was not only dedicated to the German Army, but it also cavalierly combined "The Watch on the Rhine" and "Now Thank we all our God"!
In the next war, the Nazis amplified the sacrilege. "A Mighty Fortress" was integrated into the soul stirring beat of wartime rituals, ultimately degrading it to announcing the military news broadcasts. I do not like it!  


"Healing" is needed and necessary, beginning with the 'healing of memories' - and 'healing memories' has a double meaning: memories can and do heal; and there are memories that need to be healed!
Getting the facts straight can help the healing process. It can be revealing and healing to separate fact and fiction, to divide between real facts and mis-led devotion - in theology, in music, in politics, and in life!
Luther's hymn, based on Psalm 46 ("God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble"), was not intended by Luther to be the "Refor mation Chorale" that history and reverence has made it! Luther wrote "A Mighty Fortress" to "interpret and apply this psalm to the church of his own time and to its struggles" ("Hymnal Companion..."; page 307). On a personal level, he may have written it in a response to the persecution and burning at the stakes of a very good friend, Leonhard Kaiser. The exact date and circumstances for this hymn may never been known, however, it this good (and healing) to remember that Luther's first and foremost "Reformation Hymn" was and is "Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein..." ( LBW No. 299 "Dear Christians, One and All rejoice..." ). Healing memories...
Even more surprisingly (in view of its reception and formal development), Bach's "A Mighty Fortress" Cantata was not really intended for Reformation Day! I learned that much later when my love of Bach's music caused me to do a little "scholarly digging":
"A Mighty Fortress" is based on a cantata that Bach composed for the 3rd Sunday in Lent while he was in Weimar as organist and chamber musician (1708-1717) with the title "All that which of God is Fathered" (No. 80a). This 6-part cantata, for which the music has been lost, ended with the second verse of Luther's hymn. Its text (by a Weimar court minister, Simon Franck) follows Lenten themes without specific reformation concepts. The chorale also reappears in two of Bach's other works (BWV 302 & 303).
Because original sources of Cantata 80 have not survived, the exact date and circumstances of its composition may never been known. Recent studies indicate that sometime after 1728, Bach, now in Leipzig, occupied himself with the earlier Weimar cantata arranging it for a performance on Reforma- tion Day - with three oboes. There were no trumpets or timpani.
Then in 1821, two fragments were combined appearing in print as "Reformation" Cantata. In fact, it was the first sacred cantata published after Bach's death, even before the "St. Matthew Passion" and before the "B-Minor Mass".
The trumpets and drums with their effective sounds were most likely added to the cantata by one of Bach's sons, Friedeman. Extracting two movements from the cantata, he adapted them to a new text "Manebit Verbum Domini" (The word of the Lord endures forever) and new instrumentation: Sola Scriptura - Sola Musica! Healing memories...

It is indeed revealing and healing to separate reverence and devotion from the facts and events:
Bach research has long recognized that the somewhat bombastic addition of trumpets and drums -as effective as it may be- derives from a later hand.
Albert Schweitzer, who you see portrayed on the mosaic behind me, both a theologian and musician, understood quite well that "Protestantism and Mysticism" were to be the creed which Luther and Bach put forth for Reformation Day: Sola Scriptura - Sola Musica! And mysticism -not militarism!- does offer the right key to interpret this exceptional and impressive hymn and cantata.

A last example for a -somewhat misled- devotion and reverence:
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy never wrote "A Reformation Symphony"! In his Fifth Symphony, he does quote Luther's hymn and incorporates the tune of "A Mighty Fortress" prominently. However, he called it "Symphony in Celebration of the Church Revolution". It was most likely written in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the "Augsburg Confession". Reverence and devotion made it what it is to us today: Mendelssohn's "Reformation Symphony"!
As we -once again- cherish and appreciate "healing memories" on this very special day, I now invite you to join voices and sing with me Luther's 'real' reformation hymn: "Dear Christians, One and All rejoice..." ( LWB No. 299 ).



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