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Ludwig MEINARDUS (1827 - 1896): Luther in Worms

Catalina Bertucci (Katarina), soprano; Annette Gutjahr (Marta), contralto; Clemens Löschmann (Justus Jonas), Corby Welch (Kaiser Karl V.), tenor; Ansgar Eimann (Georg von Frundsberg), Markus Flaig (Kurfürst Friedrich der Weise, Glapio), Clemens Heidrich (Ulrich von Hutten), Matthias Vieweg (Luther), bass
Rheinische Kantorei; Concerto Köln
Dir: Hermann Max

rec: Sept 26 - 29, 2013, Cologne, WDR Studio Stolberger Straße
CPO - 777 540-2 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.43'40")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Quite a number of discs have been released as part of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation. One of the most unusual and surprising contributions - although not specifically connected to the celebrations - comes from Hermann Max, who is a specialist in music of the 17th and 18th centuries, but has also recorded several German oratorios from the 19th century. The present recording is another one, written by Ludwig Meinardus and devoted to Luther's appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he defended his views for Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Meinardus is a largely unknown quantity, if one compares him with his contemporaries, such as Schumann, Liszt or Wagner. The article in New Grove comprises only two paragraphs, six lines in total. The booklet to the present disc gives much information about him, both as a person and in his development as a musician and composer. One could probably say that his life was a matter of a dozen trades, thirteen miseries: often he started something, and after a while he quit. That was probably partly a consequence of his character, but if one looks at his career, it is not unfair to conclude that his ambitions were larger than his skills. However, it had also to do with his development in spiritual matters. In 1853 he became director of the Singakademie in Glogau (Silesia), where he performed compositions by the main composers from the 18th century and from his own time, but he also became involved in a Protestant pietistic movement, which resulted in his turning to a rather conservative style of composing. An oratorio, which had success in Glogau, did not find a good reception in Berlin. In 1865 he left Glogau and settled in Berlin as a music teacher. He also started to be active as a writer on music, and wrote two books about Johann Mattheson and Mozart respectively, which were positively received. He also wrote for the Hamburgischer Correspondent, Hamburg's oldest daily. But in 1887 he was fired because of his anti-semitic leanings. That same year he became conductor of the choir at the Zion Church in Bethel near Bielefeld. He started to compose again, especially works for choir, including an oratorio and a cantata.

First something about the historical background of the oratorio Luther in Worms. In June 1521 Pope Leo X issued the Papal bull Exsurge Domine ("Arise, O Lord"), outlining forty-one purported errors found in Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses and other writings related to or written by him. Luther was summoned by the emperor. Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, obtained an agreement that if Luther appeared he would be promised safe passage to and from the meeting. Emperor Charles V commenced the Imperial Diet of Worms on 23 January 1521. Luther was summoned to renounce or reaffirm his views (Wikipedia). Ulrich Kahmann, in his liner-notes, points out that 1871 was not just a year in which the Diet of Worms was commemorated. It was also the year the German empire was founded. "The fact that Martin Luther became a German national hero, he of all people, the man who (certainly against his will) had so permanently divided the German nation along confessional lines, has the effect of a paradox. It is explained by the fact that the various German states had not found their way together, so to speak, eye to eye, but under Berlin's political and military leadership. In the Kulturkampf the Luther cult of the early years of the empire was an excellent instrument for the assertion of Prussian hegemony and thus of Protestant hegemony."

Meinardus composed Luther in Worms, his Op. 36, in 1871/72; it received its premiere in 1874 in Weimar on the recommendation of Franz Liszt. It was revived in 1883, when the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth was celebrated. It was performed across Germany, in Switzerland and even in as a remote a place as Philadelphia in the USA. Meinardus called Luther in Worms an oratorio and linked up with German oratorios of the past, by the likes of Bach and Mendelssohn. It is scored for nine solo voices, all representing a character, a large choir, which is now and then split into two, and an orchestra of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion

The oratorio consists of two parts. In the first Luther goes on his way to Worms. He is accompanied by a chorus of pilgrims, his friend Justus Jonas as well as the nun Katarina, who was later to be Luther's wife. It is notable that there is not that much firmness here. Luther's followers are full of fear: "Deliver us out of the hand of strange men whose doctrine is of no use. (...) Have mercy on us, God, according to your great mercy". Luther shares their fears: "How the flesh is so weak, and the devil is so busy. How one alone regards what is great and mighty and what has prestige." One of his followers, Marta, encourages them: "Trust in the Lord and not in men. Do not fear!" Then they meet Glapio, the emperor's confessor. He urges Luther to go home: "Be wise, Martin, turn back; then you'll surely be given a bishop's staff. You'll be given many people to shepherd." Luther refuses: "You blaspheme the holy office of the Lord. Away, out! Clear out of here!" Then the imperial knight Ulrich von Hutten offers the armed support of the imperial knights, but Luther declines the offer: "The right weapon of war is God's word, with which we must smite and defeat the devil."

In the second part Luther meets his opponents, and especially emperor Charles V. A chorus, representing the Diet and the people, sings in praise of the emperor, "the anointed of the Most High", the 'protector of the church'. They ask to wipe him out, but Charles insists that he will keep his promise to give him safe-conduct. Luther is encouraged by his supporters, singing a chorale: "He who builds under God's protection, he whom the Almighty's wings shelter, he knows in whom he trusts; the Evil One's threats can't scare him." Charles addresses him: "You, Martin Luther, the church accuses of false teaching. So now do give answer: Are you willing to submit to the pope and the law of the councils? Are you willing to recant what you've written and taught? Bear in mind the end! Repent before you suffer eternal damnation! So now give a short, simple answer." Luther stays firm: "Unless you overpower me by the Holy Scriptures, by the Scriptures and bright, clear reasons, then I won't recant because it isn t advisable to act against one's conscience. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen!" Both camps make themselves heard: "Put him to death!", the adherents of Rome exclaim. "The Roman idol is no more", the adherents of Luther sing. Luther is supported by the Prince Elector Frederick the Wise: "If this work is from men, it will fail. But if it is from God, do you intend to dampen it?" Again Charles insists - against the wishes of his adherents - that he will keep his promise of a safeguard, but: "For the protection of the commonweal, as the administrator of the law, by virtue of my imperial office, I pronounce on you, Martin Luther, the imperial ban!" Luther is cursed by Glapio and the adherents of Rome, but Katarina and Marta praise God for his redemption. Luther breaks into his famous song 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott', and he is then joined by his followers. The chorale and the oratorio ends with "Amen".

Kahmann rightly observes that it is remarkable that Meinardus keeps the original rhythm of the chorale. That was something of the distant past; even Johann Sebastian Bach uses the version on equal notes which had become common, probably during the 17th century, as so many chorales. Throughout the oratorio several chorales are sung. The 'song of the Pilgrims' is set to the melody of Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, later the choir is split into two, singing Wo Gott, der Herr, nicht bei uns hält (If God, the Lord, isn't on our side) and its 7th stanza Die Feind sind all in deiner Hand (Our foes are all in your hand); later the 6th stanza is sung: Ach, Herr Gott, wie reich tröstest du (Ah, Lord God, how richly you comfort). The first part ends with the chorale In Gottes Namen fahren wir (We journey in God's name). In the second part the chorus of Luther's adherents, "The Roman idol is no more" (Der römisch Götz ist ausgetan) is sung to the melody of one of Luther's most famous hymns, Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.

The libretto has one very interesting feature: the close connection to the narrative of Jesus's life and passion in the New Testament. Kahmann mentions several examples, but there are even more. When Luther declines the protection of Ulrich von Hutten's imperial knights there is a clear parallel with the scene in Gethsemane, when Peter cuts off the right ear of Malchus, one of the high priest's servants. (Kahmann makes a serious error here, calling Malchus Jesus's follower.) Jesus rejects the action and says: "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" Compare this with Luther's words: "Not like this, noble knights, dear sirs! Don't interfere with God's government. He's against having us operate with our own craft and might, as if all the world were ours. If he wanted to intervene, legions of angels would be standing ready for him. Let the sword rest; the word will get things done!" It seems reasonable to compare Glapio's effort to tempt Luther to return with the suggestion he might be given "a bishop's staff" with Jesus's being tempted by the devil in the desert, who promises him "the kingdoms of the world and their splendour" if he bows down and worships him (Mt 4). In John 18 Jesus is questioned by the High Priest; when he answers, one of the officials slaps him in the face, and Jesus says: "If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" When Charles V asks Luther to recant what he has written, the Reformer replies: "[The] Lord's word over man's word - that's what I've taught. If I've done evil in this, then I expect testimony against me. Unless you overpower me by the Holy Scriptures, by the Scriptures and bright, clear reasons, then I won't recant." In the second part we also find an almost litteral quotation from Acts, another book of the New Testament. When the apostles are arrested for teaching the people, one of the Pharisees, Gamaliel, tries to convince the members of the Sanhedrin to let them go. "For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." These are the words of Frederick the Wise: "If this work is from men, it will fail. But if it is from God, do you intend to dampen it? Then engage in battle with the Lord and let this man go." It is obvious that the librettist, Wilhelm Rossmann, wanted to show that Luther did not act on his own behalf, but did the work of his Lord and followed in his footsteps.

Is this a masterpiece which was unjustly forgotten? No, it is not. Is it worth being performed and recorded? Definitely yes. It is a highly interesting document of the spiritual atmosphere in Germany at the time it was written and demonstrates how in the age of nationalism historical and religious subjects were used for political ideals. At the same time I have to say that this work would probably fall through, if it would be performed with a modern symphony orchestra, a traditional choir and operatic soloists. Historical performance practice and period instruments really save this kind of works. Here we have an outstanding choir which is larger than usual - although probably smaller than what was common in Meinardus's days - but sings with utmost clarity; even in choruses with orchestra the text is intelligible. Concerto Köln is a period instrument orchestra whose core business is the music of the 18th century, but is also experienced in later repertoire, as this performance shows. The wind section plays an important role, and that comes better to the fore here than in a modern orchestra, whose string section is usually much larger than that of Concerto Köln in this performance. Add to that the excellent contributions of the soloists. With Hermann Max conducting one doesn't need to fear a wide and incessant vibrato from the singers. They all act on the same wavelength and that lends this performance a strong amount of artistic consistency. I would like to mention especially Matthias Vieweg, who perfectly portrays a rather thoughtful Luther. Markus Flaig has a stronger voice and is perfectly suited for the role of Glapio. It is a bit unfortunate that he also sings the part of Frederick the Wise, who is from the other camp, especially as the two appear in the same scene. Corby Welch does very well in the part of Charles V.

Even if you don't care about this kind of music, you may enjoy the performances, vocally and instrumentally. But I would urge anyone with a curious mind to give this production a try. This is not the kind of music I am eager to listen to, but I am happy to have had the opportunity to become acquainted with this work. I hope more sacred works of the 19th century will make it to disc, provided they are performed as well as Meinardus's oratorio Luther in Worms.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Catalina Bertucci
Markus Flaig
Annette Gutjahr
Clemens Löschmann
Matthias Vieweg
Rheinische Kantorei
Concerto Köln

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