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"Luthers Laute" (Luther's Lute)

Franz Vitzthum, alto; Julian Behr, lute

rec: Nov 18 - 20, 2014, Propsteikirche St. Gerold (A)
Christophorus - CHR 77388 (© 2015) (59'47")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Nun treiben wir den Babst hinaus; Surrexit Christus/Christ ist erstanden; anon (?Heinrich FINCK, 1444-1527): Nigra sum, sed formosa; Claude GOUDIMEL (1500-1572): Etans assis aux rives aquatiques; Raitis GRIGALIS (*1975): Aus tiefer Not; In pace in idipsum; Non moriar, sed vivam; JOSQUIN DESPREZ (1440-1521): Mille regretz; Martin LUTHER (1483-1546): Das Patrem zu deutsch; Ein neues Lied wir heben an; Frau Musica singt; Sie ist mir lieb, die werte Magd; Hans NEWSIDLER (1508/09-1563): Benedetur; Ein seer guter Organistischer Preambel; Ic seg adiu; Nunnentanz; Thomas RAVENSCROFT (1590-1633): O sing ye now unto the Lord; Arnolt SCHLICK (1460-1521): Maria zart; Ludwig SENFL (1489/91-1543): Ecce quam bonum; In pace in idipsum; Mein Fleiss und Müh; Non moriar, sed vivam

The Lutheran Reformation which will be commemorated in 2017, changed not only the religious and political landscape in Europe, it also had lasting effects on the course of music history. The oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance, would have been completely different if the Reformation had not taken place. There is also a more direct connection between the Reformation and music. Luther himself was very interested in music and considered it a major tool for the dissemination of his ideas.

Martin Luther was born into a fairly prosperous family and therefore we may assume that music was part of his education. However, from early on he had a more than average interest in music. It is said that he was a good singer and he also learned to play the lute. In order to become a lawyer he entered the University of Erfurt in 1501, where he took the bachelor's and master's degrees. During his time in Erfurt he also studied music theory; a fellow student called him "a learned musician and philosopher". He also mastered the technique of intabulation, the arrangement of a polyphonic piece for a plucked instrument.

The present disc includes a programme of pieces from Luther's world. That doesn't mean that every single piece can be directly connected to him. That goes especially for the lute solos. However, most of the vocal works can be linked to parts of his biography. The programme opens with a piece by Luther himself, a song of praise for Frau Musica, the muse of music, which begins as a secular song but then turns into a thanksgiving to God who has created music. It has a melody which was later given to Psalm 140 in the Genevan Psalter.

Among the composers Luther especially admired were Josquin Desprez and Ludwig Senfl. The first is represented with his most famous chanson, Mille regretz which is said to have been the favourite piece of Charles V, ironically one of Luther's most vehement opponents. There is some confusion about the connection between Luther and Senfl. When he was severely depressed as a result of the opposition he faced ("the world hates me and cannot stand me") he asked Senfl to compose an antiphon on the text of In pace in idipsum (In peace I will lay down and sleep). Senfl sent him his setting but added a piece on a verse from Psalm 118: Non moriar, sed vivam (I will not die but live). This clear sign of encouragement has led to the assumption that Senfl had embraced Luther's ideas. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that Senfl also stood in contact with Duke Albrecht of Prussia who had adopted the Lutheran Reformation. However, it is also possible that Senfl merely wanted the two parties in the religious conflict to come to a truce. He composed the motet Ecce quam bonum for the Diet in 1530 which Charles V had called to discuss the religious and political situation in Germany. The text is Psalm 133 (132): "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" (King James version). The first verse is repeated several times as a kind of refrain and this piece seems to reflect Senfl's personal feelings in this matter.

How strong the differences between Protestants and Catholics were at the time is expressed in the militant song Nun treiben wir den Babst heraus - "Let us now expel the Pope" who is called the "red bride of Babylon", an "abomination" and "the Antichrist". At the same time the programme shows the continuity between the traditions of the Catholic Church and Luther's thinking, for instance in the strong interest in Mary, the mother of Christ. That comes to the fore in Luther's Sie ist mir lieb, die werte Magd (She is dear to me, the dear virgin), although the name Mary is never mentioned explicitly.

The programme includes two pieces from outside the German world. Claude Goudimel composed the melody for the versification of Psalm 137, Etans assis aux rives aquatiques ("By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept") as it would be included in the Genevan Psalter. O sing ye now unto the Lord is a setting of Psalm 98 by Thomas Ravenscroft. The liner-notes don't mention these two items; they are probably included to underline the international character of the Reformation which Luther initiated. The disc ends with a liturgical piece by Luther himself: the versification of the Credo, Das Patrem zu deutsch ("Wir glauben all an einen Gott"). Like the Credo in the Catholic Mass this was to be sung in every Lutheran service and was still in use in Bach's days.

All the vocal items on this disc are polyphonic, probably with the exception of the contemporary pieces by Raitis Grigalis. It doesn't happen often that such music is sung with one voice and one lute. However, this was a quite common practice at the time. The voice sings the upper part and the lute plays an intabulation of the remaining parts. In his liner-notes Julian Behr underlines that this is more than just transcribing the vocal parts for the lute. He refers to the theorist Sebastian Virdung who offered a more or less 'note for note' transcription but added that in another book he would provide a more elegant style of intabulation (which never appeared). This is what inspired Behr to a less than literal transcription of the vocal parts to his lute. He also had to find solutions for the sustained notes in the vocal parts. One could ask what is the aim of a performance with a voice and a lute. Behr suggests that lutenists may have wanted to play at home the music they liked, either as lute solos or accompanying themselves while singing the upper part.

This kind of performance lends the music a strong amount of intimacy. Senfl's motet Ecce quam bonum was written for a performance of a vocal ensemble in a larger space, but in a performance by solo voice and lute it gets a new dimension. As Behr observes this way of performing a polyphonic piece also makes it much easier to understand the text. That is one of the strengths of this disc: Franz Vitzthum's delivery is excellent, and even without reading the lyrics in the booklet one can hear every word. He has a beautiful and agile voice and is at ease in every register; even on the top notes there is not a hint of stress. Julian Behr is a sensive accompanist and plays the solos beautifully.

This is a fine disc with some little-known music and an original approach to polyphony. It is a shame that the booklet omits English translations of the lyrics. Especially some uncommon texts - for example the pieces by Luther - may not be easy to find on the internet. That is a not insignificant blot on this production.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Franz Vitzthum

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