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Johann WALTER (1496 - 1570)
Geystliches Gesangk Buchleyn - Martin Luthers Lieder
Weser-Renaissance Bremen/Manfred Cordes
rec. 2016, Kirche Sankt Damian und Cosman, Thedinghausen-Lunsen, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 134-2 [72:04]

One of the main contributions to the liturgy in the western world is the hymn in the vernacular. This was practically an 'invention' by Martin Luther. In 1523 he started to write hymns himself and began publishing them soon after. Several reached something like cult status, such as Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, Christ lag in Todesbanden and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. The latter has developed into a kind of 'national anthem' of (German) Protestantism. Many of Luther's hymns have found their way into hymnbooks across the world.

Initially, Luther did not intend them to be sung by the congregation during worship, but in the homes of the faithful and in schools. This way his ideals found their way to the hearts and minds of common people. Two factors strongly contributed to the dissemination of the hymn repertoire. One of them was the music printing industry, the other the practice of singing in schools, for which Luther and other Reformers wrote regulations.

Luther's hymns consisted of a single melodic line. That was the way they were sung by the people at large. But, in particular for singing practice in schools and for singing in the homes of the more educated, polyphonic settings were needed. This explains the publication of the collection of hymns which is the subject of the present disc.

These settings are from the pen of Johann Walter, who is generally considered the main promoter of Luther's ideals with regard to the liturgy. Walter was born in Kahla in Thuringia and may have received his first musical education as a choirboy at the local school, and later in Rochlitz. In 1521 he entered the service of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III the Wise. Here he became acquainted with the repertoire written by representatives of the Franco-Flemish school, such as Josquin Desprez, Heinrich Isaac and Pierre de La Rue. Whether he already sympathised with Luther's ideas at that time is not known. However, the Elector certainly leaned to Luther's views, and his son John the Steadfast, who succeeded him in 1525, reformed his chapel in accordance with Luther's ideals.

Walter's first published collection of music bears witness to his adoption of Luther's theological views. The Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn of 1524/25 includes five Latin hymns and 38 hymns in the vernacular. Among the latter are 24 from the pen of Martin Luther. They are set for three to five voices, with the melody in the tenor. This way Walter links up with the typical German tradition of the Tenorlied; one of the main exponents of this genre was Ludwig Senfl. Walter's collection was the first printed edition of polyphonic settings of German hymns. It was reprinted a number of times during the 16th century, and Walter's model was followed by other composers, a clear token of the dissemination and popularity of hymns.

The present disc includes twelve hymns from the edition, mostly by Luther. Several feasts of the ecclesiastical year are represented: Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of the best-known hymns for Easter, Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist and Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott are for Whitsuntide. Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir is Luther's versification of Psalm 129/130 (De profundis), one of the penitential psalms, just as Psalm 50/51: Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott. Mitten wir im Leben sind is one of the most famous hymns sung during funeral services; another one is Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. The disc ends with Wir gläuben all an einen Gott, Luther's adaptation of the Credo of the Mass. This hymn was to become one of the fixed parts of the liturgy in Lutheran churches; it still was in Bach's time in Leipzig.

All the hymns included here appear in Bach's oeuvre in one way or another: as part of cantatas or in the form of organ arrangements. In his time most of these hymns had considerably changed, sometimes in melody, but particularly in rhythm. The original rhythms were mostly equalized; the original rhythms gradually disappeared during the 17th century. That makes it particularly interesting to hear these hymns as they were originally intended. The rhythmic liveliness is one of the things which makes this repertoire particularly appealing.

The liner-notes don't touch the issue of performance practice. The line-up with one voice per part seems historically justified. In this recording every piece is performed with a mixture of voices and instruments, and this raises the question of what the performers had in mind. Jürgen Heydrich, in his liner-notes, states: "Walter's achievement involved the adoption and adaptation of a pronouncedly 'plebeian' genre, that is, one that was neither courtly nor liturgical." From that perspective the use of instruments is questionable. One cannot exclude that sometimes instruments were used in schools, but that can hardly have been the rule. There hymns were probably mostly sung a capella, and it would have been nice if some hymns had been performed this way. It is more likely that instruments were involved in domestic performances among the higher echelons of society. Even so, the use of viols in that kind of performances was probably far more likely than the involvement of instruments like cornett, sackbut and dulcian.

That said, the performances as such are excellent. The singers are all versed in this kind of repertoire and as a result we get fully idiomatic performances. The text is always clearly intelligible. We hear the hymns complete: no stanzas are omitted. And there is also considerable variety in the line-up for each stanza: often we hear a solo voice and instruments, which allows the hymn melody to be heard very clearly.

On balance, this is an important contribution to the commemoration of the Reformation. Walter is well known for his historical role in the dissemination of Lutheran hymns, but his own settings are little known. With this disc his contributions to music history are given the attention they deserve.

Johan van Veen

Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist [6:40]
Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein [6:47]
Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott [4:05]
Mitten wir im Leben sind [8:31]
Gott sei gelobet und gebenedeiet [4:12]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir [6:42]
Christ lag in Todesbanden [8:20]
Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin [3:52]
Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn [3:19]
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland [5:24]
Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott [7:09]
Wir gläuben all' an einen Gott [6:55]


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