Bach’s liturgical compositions comprise the vast majority of his output, as the relentless pace of weekly worship required an equally relentless development of musical resources. Bach was a Lutheran—the state church was his employer and the beneficiary of his beautiful choral writing. Luther apparently called music the handmaiden of theology, but in Bach’s music, theology found its intellectual and creative equal. Bach’s liturgical music adds a kaleidoscope of nuance and illumination to Luther’s theology.
Luther was also a composer: his hymns and chorales were sung both in worship and in community settings. Choral singing in worship developed in the Lutheran liturgy, and parishes became responsible for teaching and promoting singing within the congregation. By the time Bach was writing for weekly worship, the liturgy and congregational singing were both at a very high level.
Our North American Protestant tradition has both Luther and Bach to thank for our own history of hymn-singing. So, on Reformation Sunday, as Luther’s well-known hymn A Mighty Fortress echoed throughout the land, it seemed like a good week to listen to some of Bach’s music written to memorialize the equally well-known beginning of the protestant reformation, the posting of the 95 theses.
If we mark Reformation Sunday in the humble confession and joyful conviction that God is not done reforming the church and the world, then perhaps this reformation music will help us continue the “reformed, yet always reforming” work.
This week’s playlist includes Bach’s BWV80: Reformation Cantata, Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, and Luther’s A Mighty Fortress.