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"Zu Gottes Ehr und Deinem Trost - Luther Hymns and Contrafacts from Northern German Sources"

Ensemble devotio moderna, Hannover
Dir: Ulrike Volkhardt

rec: April 18 & 19, 2012 (live), Kloster Isenhagen
Cantate - C 58047 (© 2012) (72'25")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Alles was Gott uf Erd geschaffen hat (Herzogin Clara) (tune: Wan ich der zeitt; setting: Gregorius Langius, c1540-1587); Belobet seistu Jesu Christ (anon/Martin Luther) (setting: anon [Witzendorf ms, Lüneburg]; Die Passion Aus den vier Euangelisten (O Mensch bewein dein Suende groß) (Sebald Heyden) (tune: Es sind doch selig alle die; Hans Leo Hassler, 1564-1612; Caspar Othmayr, 1515-1553); Die Sonn verbirget ihren schein (Martin Luther) (tune: Sie ist mir lieb doe werde Magt; setting: Michael Praetorius, 1571-1621); Herr, leite mich in deinem Wort (Herzog Johann) (tune: Nu freud Euch lieben Christen gemein; settings: Hans Leo Hassler, 1564-1612; Caspar Othmayr, 1515-1553); Hilf mir, du mein getrewer Gott (Herzog Bogislaw) (tune: Ein feste burgk ist vnser Gott; setting: Martin Agricola, c1486-1556); Mit luest vnnd liebe ich weiche dahin (Elisabeth von Calenberg) (tune: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin; settings: Martin Agricola; Michael Praetorius; Johann Walter, 1496-1570); Myne Seele erheuet den Heren (Martin Luther) (tune: Magnificat; setting: anon [Cantionale Wittenberg]); O Herr erhalt mich bei deim Wort (Herzog Friederich Wilhelm) (tune: Aus tieffer noht schrey ich zu dir; settings: Lupus Hellinck, c1494-1541; Caspar Othmayr)

Veronika Winter, soprano; Florian Lohmann, tenor; Ulrike Volkhardt, recorder; Christian Zincke, viola da gamba; Ulrich Wedemeier, lute

The Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther are generally considered the beginning of the Reformation in Germany. They were written in 1517, and therefore the year 2017 will be Reformation year which will be commemorated in various ways, not the least in music. Since a couple of years discs with music related to the (Lutheran) Reformation are released in Germany, and this is one of them. It is especially interesting as it sheds light on the widespread practice of the creation of contrafacta: the writing of new texts on pre-existing melodies. It also shows the influence of the Lutheran Reformation on the liturgy and on music-making at home.

Martin Luther had a lively interest in music and was also musically educated. This partly explains why he paid to much attention to the role of music in liturgy, in education and in the life of the faithful. He wrote new texts himself and encouraged poets to follow his example. These texts were set to music by composers who converted to Lutheranism; one of the most famous was Johann Walter. However, Luther did not completely break with tradition: some old chants were translated into German and, if necessary, musically adapted. This disc includes several examples. Belobet seistu Jesu Christ, better known today in a somewhat different spelling, Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, is based on a chant from the 15th century found in prayerbooks from the convent of Medingen. It originally had only one stanza, but Luther expanded it to seven. The melody is by Johann Walter, but that also seems to be an adaption of a pre-Reformation tune.

Myne Seele erheuet den Heren (Meine Seele erhebet den Herren) is also a text by Luther, a German rhymed version of the old chant on the text of the Magnificat. The melody was also adapted to the new text. Die Sonn verbirget ihren schein is an example of a typical contrafactum: the new text is set to the tune of a pre-Reformation hymn, Sie ist mir lieb die werde Magt, which reflects the veneration of the Virgin Mary.

Luther was not the only one who used existing melodies for a new text. This disc includes various examples of such contrafacta made by followers of the Lutheran Reformation, especially in aristocratic circles. Count Bogislaw is the author of Hilf mir, mein getrewer Gott. He used the melody of Luther's most famous hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The booklet doesn't give much information about the authors of the texts. This Count Bogislaw is probably Bogislaw XIII who also published Luther's translation of the Bible, the so-called Barther Bibel. It is typical of such contrafacta that the melody is only indicated: in German im Thon, translated: 'to the tune", followed by a title. This can cause some problems, as the texts which are indicated were not always sung to the same texts in every region. This means that performers have to do some research in order to determine where a text was created and to which tune the text indicated by "to the tune" was sung in that region.

The most remarkable contrafactum on this disc is the rhymed setting of the Die Passion Aus den vier Euangelisten. In contrast to, for instance, Count Bogislaw, Sebald Heyden who wrote (translated) "The Passion from the Four Gospels to the tune of Blessed are they", was a writer, teacher, music theorist and composer. He spent most of his life in Nuremberg. He turned to Lutheranism in the early 1520s, and in 1523 he presented a contrafactum for a Salve Regina antiphon, to be sung at the Nuremberg Reichstag. This Passion is a rhymed account based on the four Gospels, and to a pre-existing tune: Es sind doch selig alle die. This melody was written by Matthias Greitter in 1525. It is rather odd that the liner-notes don't mention the fact that this Passion is nothing else than the complete text of O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, which is one of the best-known Passion hymns in Germany and is still included in the Evangelisches Kirchengesangbuch, although only with the first and last stanzas.

Apart from the question which melody to choose a performer has to decide how to perform this repertoire. Of all the pieces on this disc only Belobet seistu Jesu Christ has been preserved in a four-part setting. The interpreters have taken this as a pretext to perform all the pieces with more than one voice. To that end they have used settings by composers of the 16th century, among them Caspar Othmayr, Johann Walter, Hans Leo Hassler and Michael Praetorius. It is probably impossible to determine how this kind of contrafacta may have been performed at the time. The fact that some of the authors were from aristocratic circles it could well be an argument in favour of a performance with an ensemble of voices and instruments. However, I could also imagine that some of these hymns were sung by just one voice, without any accompaniment.

The way the Passion is performed is the little problematic in this regard. Two different settings are used, by Caspar Othmayr and Hans Leo Hassler respectively. The problem is that there are some melodic differences between these two settings. In Hassler's setting the last line of every stanza is repeated a couple of times, and this seems not very appropriate in some stanzas. It would be interesting to know if Hassler has set all the stanzas or just a number of them, but I have no access to the score, so I can't check.

The performances are very good, and especially Florian Lohmann is admirable in his interpretation of the Passion. More than 30 minutes of uninterrupted singing is not an easy task. During a studio recording one can take a break, but the performances on this disc were recorded live, and that makes his effort all the more remarkable. The delivery is excellent, but I have my doubts about the way he treats the text. He apparently aims to sing expressively, for instance by singling out some words or phrases and by dynamic shading. But that seems more in line with the performance practice in the 17th century than with what was common practice in the 16th. A more 'neutral' delivery would probably be more appropriate, but that is hard to prove.

Whatever the historical truth may be, this is a most fascinating disc which sheds light on a little-known aspect of the Lutheran Reformation and Luther's influence on sacred music in the broadest sense of the word.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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Ulrike Volkhardt

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