Bach, Mendelssohn, Luther and Leipzig: Musical Echoes of the Reformation

Bach, Mendelssohn, Luther and Leipzig: Musical Echoes of the Reformation

Carla Waldemar shares her thoughts on music and the Reformation, inspired by her recent travels to Leipzig, just in time for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Reformation-themed concerts from November 2 to 4.

This year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being celebrated throughout Germany. Its musical echoes are being heard near and far, as well—including through the music of Bach, Mendelssohn and even Martin Luther himself. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit the country and reflect on these connections while traveling the Luther Trails that comb everywhere the reformer lived, travelled and preached his message.

Luther famously translated the Bible from scholarly Latin into German, so the common people could read and make up their own minds on its contents. He also ardently believed they should take part in—not merely witness—church services. So he also wrote and published hymns. Lots of them. Perhaps the most famous is “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), based on Psalm 46. Luther considered music to be a vital tool of faith; music, he stated, is “the gift of God that drives away the devil and makes men happy.” A century after Luther began his movement, his many hymns inspired Johann Sebastian Bach—a devout Lutheran—to use his mentor’s poetry in many of his own chorale cantatas and organ compositions.

The city of Leipzig, one of my stops earlier this year, links Luther and Bach, and both men are being honored there during the Reformation anniversary in 2017. In Leipzig, Luther carried on a famous debate with Catholic clergy that is now known as the Disputation. In 1539 he preached at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, which was so packed with fans, or the merely curious, that ladders were put up to open windows to provide a peek. In the next century, Bach served as cantor at St. Thomas Church for 27 years, during which time he was responsible for its illustrious boys’ choir and composing cantata after cantata for Sunday services.

Today Bach’s statue overlooks St. Thomas Church’s cobblestones and his tomb, always strewn with flowers from admirers, is now under the nave. The Bach Museum, standing just across the street, invites visitors to inspect his organ console and the family tree he compiled, along with many manuscripts, then listen to recordings via headsets. Choir concerts at St. Thomas still thrill the public today, especially during the annual summertime Bach Festival. As we disembarked at the city’s train station, we were treated to a free concert, right there in the Arrivals Hall, as part of the “Bach in the Subways” program of promoting the composer’s music in nontraditional venues throughout Germany, and the world.

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

In Leipzig, I found music everywhere. Where else can you toss a euro in the hat of a busker playing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus on a tuba? Or pop into a church for Bach’s music tootled by a combo of recorders?

Leipzig is Felix Mendelssohn’s hometown, too. Although a statue of the composer (born Jewish but a young convert to Christianity) was razed by the Nazis, it’s been reconstituted and stands not far from the church of the musician he most admired, J. S. Bach. The proximity is fitting: Mendelssohn is credited for the revival of interest in Bach, which had lapsed.

Mendelssohn’s own home has been converted into a museum where devotees can admire the study with his writing desk, his piano, and the many watercolors this multi-talented artist created to commemorate vistas on his European tour. The highlight of my visit was in the Effectorium, where one may pick up a baton at the podium and “conduct” a composition of one’s choice (mine: Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, which honors Luther and the founding of his Church). One can choose the volume, tempo and sound of each individual instrument, represented by bollards rising from the floor, as well as choose between choir and orchestral music, modern or historic instruments, and salon or concert hall  “performance.”

Felix Mendelssohn’s piano at the Mendelssohn House in Leipzig.

Alas, I was not offered a contract. But Mendelssohn was—that of leader of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; a model of the famous performance hall is on display here in his home, along with information that portrays Mendelssohn as a lobbyist for his players’ interests, both in time and salary. I relaxed in Felix’s garden, then headed to Coffe Baum, the oldest coffeehouse in all Germany, where Robert Schumann, a regular, sipped many a kleine tasse. My advice: find your way to Leipzig one day and experience all of the above. Meanwhile, revel in the music of all these master composers.

Carla Waldemar

Carla Waldemar, a former editor of the Minnesota Orchestra's Showcase magazine, writes about travel and food for publications nationwide.