Virginia Symphony: Bach to Reformation – Dinnerstein Dazzles

The occasion of the Virginia Symphony’s FROM THE MUSIC OF BACH TO THE REFORMATION SYMPHONY raises the subject of the overwhelming amount of Christian music associated with historic Protestantism.

Why is that?

The answer begins in the religious practices of the ancient Hebrew people.

Jews, at the time of Jesus Christ, had a tradition of worship almost 1500 years long. The tradition involved a full liturgical interaction with the God Who had called them to be His people, and who had revealed to them specific instructions as to offerings and sacrifices, a part of the way He was to be worshiped.

The continuity of temple and synagogue worship practices characterized the early Christian Church, and the synagogue form became the basic order of worship for the Christian Church. This liturgical order was set very early during the New Testament era while the Church was still seen as essentially a nascent Jewish sect, a messianic sect, believing in Jesus to be the Christ. Besides the structure or order of worship that came from Judaism into Christianity, one also finds the cycles of liturgy — the daily, weekly and yearly cycles of worship-coming from the Old Testament as well.

The original Christian worship was not simply one of words and music. In addition to prayers, hymns, and scripture readings, worship involved numerous ceremonies, gestures, and processions. The early Church freely made rich use of non-verbal symbols to express God’s presence and their relationship to Him. Early Christian worship, like Orthodox Christian worship today, involves the whole person – one’s intellect, feelings, and all the senses.

Statues, altarpieces, carvings, stained glass windows and icons glorify God with the eyes. Prostrations, venerations, and kissing glorify God kinesthetically. Incense offers olfactory prayers to God. The Eucharist involves the gustatory sense in the holiest of ways. And music glorifies God auditorily.

Protestant liturgical reform, especially its theological thinking on artistic imagery, arose in the fourteenth century, if not earlier. John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384), the English reformer, and his “Lollards” (mumblers) debated the value of imagery and sought the destruction of human-figured forms. With the appearance of Martin Luther, centuries of total sensory worship in north-eastern European churches came to an end. Art, it seemed, was about to be eliminated by the word of God.

The movement of Christian religious reform inaugurated by Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1517 quickly targeted the veneration of images as a damnable superstition, the idolatrous confusion of gross matter with an invisible God who was pure and eternal spirit. Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) banned religious art as a distraction from worship and supervised the closing and cleansing of churches by both whitewashing the interior walls and removing all statues, images, and stained-glass windows.

The Kingdom of Christ, Luther declared, “is a hearing kingdom, not a seeing kingdom: for the eyes do not lead and guide us to where we know and find Christ, but rather the ears do this”.

All sensory objects of worship, save music, were banned from Protestant churches. In Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford, in 1563, four months before his son William would be born, John Shakespeare was forced, on penalty of severe punishment, to whitewash the medieval religious paintings covering the walls of the guild chapel. The destruction of Christian art works rampaged across Protestant England and Europe.

However, the wholesale devastation of Christian art would come to demonstrate what Emerson called “The Law of Compensation”:

[T]he compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts.[i]

The “calamity” was the destruction of all but one sensory avenue through which to glorify God. The “deep remedial force” was the product of that single avenue– music. Protestant composers made music  flourish as never before, producing some of the most glorious sacred music in world history.

At the age of age 48 Johann Sebastian Bach received a copy of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. He cherished the possession, underlining passages, correcting errors, and making his own notes in the margins:

At 2 Chronicles 5:13 he wrote,

“At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”

Bach had a vested interest in Luther and Lutheranism. Not only was it the state’s religion, but Bach had attended the same school as Luther in Eisenach, Thuringia. Bach scholar Gerhard Hess writes,

“During his whole life Bach faithfully adhered to the way of life and belief of the old Thuringian family of the Bachs. It never occurred to him to be different from his ancestors who, for five generations, had been musicians in the service of the Protestant church or of Protestant towns.”[ii]

The Virginia Symphony began its concert with Bach’s Cantata No. 80, which includes the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” –  “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”

Based on Psalm 46, the hymn is a celebration of the sovereign power of God over all earthly and spiritual forces, and of the sure hope we have in him because of Christ. After the hymn’s publication, it gained immense popularity throughout Reformed Europe.

“It was … the Marseillaise of the Reformation. It was sung at Augsburg during the Diet, and in all the churches of Saxony, often against the protest of the priest. It was sung in the streets; and, so heard, comforted the hearts of Melanchthon, Jonas, and Cruciger, as they entered Weimar, when banished from Wittenberg in 1547. It was sung by poor Protestant emigrants on their way into exile, and by martyrs at their death. It is woven into the web of the history of Reformation times, and it became the true national hymn of Protestant Germany.” [iii]

Bach wrote the cantata in Leipzig for Reformation Day, 31 October 1723.

If the supertitles used for operatic productions were employed for this hymn’s  German lyrics, audiences would be surprised at the zealous hardcore Protestant theology the vocalists are singing. For example, in the Recitative:

Consider yet, child of God, the so great love, that Christ himself with his blood to you wrote down /By which he you to battle against Satan’s hosts and against world and sins enlisted has!

Give not within your soul to Satan and corruption place!

Let not your heart the Heaven of God upon the earth, to wasteland become!

Rue your guilt with sorrow, so that Christ’s Spirit may now to yours bond strongly!

Under the baton of Benjamin Rous, the combined Virginia Symphony orchestra and chorus got off to a rather mushy start with the Cantata’s initial chorus. Gradually, however, things got sorted out under Mr. Rous’ dispassionate leadership. Unfortunately, a couple of the soloists proved more lyrical than dramatic as they could not project their voices over the sound of the orchestra.

The first half of the program ended with what, for me, was the evening’s highlight – Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D, minor featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein. Within Bach’s rigid, almost mathematical structures, rages a serious, passionate soul. A Bach performer must find the “happy medium” which keeps the two aspects in dynamic tension. Finally, the heart and emotion one associates with the courageous reformers appeared on the Chrysler stage, as Ms. Dinnerstein became one with the music, as it ebbed and flowed over a dense emotional terrain. The audience rightly thundered its approval at the end.

After the intermission, the orchestra turned to Bach’s  ricercare from “Musical Offering”,  arranged by modernist Anton Webern. The addition of Webern to the proceedings seemed to energize Mr. Rous who steered the orchestra enthusiastically through  various atonal intricacies surrounding Bach’s music.

The concert concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 107.  Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was the grandson of the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), but was not raised in the Jewish faith. On March 21, 1816 – as it happened, the birthday of Bach – he was baptized, along with his three siblings, as a Lutheran. His parents, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, were baptized a few years later. To acknowledge their new spiritual identity, the family adopted a second surname, so that Felix Mendelssohn became Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

In Mendelssohn’s mind, this Symphony No. 5 was inextricably tied to the Reformation celebration for which it was intended. He uses two themes with overt Protestant overtones that would ordinarily have no place in a symphony. To honor Luther, Mendelssohn includes in his finale, (what else?), the beloved hymn, “Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott”.

By this time, the charged spirit of the Reformation was in full control of  the orchestra and conductor alike. The piece clearly revealed Mendelssohn as an important precursor to Richard Wagner’s later musical invention.

Unfortunately, once again too many symphony patrons arrived dressed as empty chairs. It is good to support one’s symphony by purchasing tickets. It is even more supportive to use them.

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[i] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays. First Series “Compensation” (1841).

[ii] Gerhard Herz, “Bach’s Religion”, Journal of Renaissance and Baroque Music, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun. 1946), pp. 124-138

[iii] Louis Benson, Studies of Familiar Hymns, Westminster Press, 1903.

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