In 2024, we will celebrate a double anniversary in church music. This is because Martin Luther’s hymns and the first Protestant hymnbooks from 1524 exist exactly 500 years this year. And in addition, Johann Sebastian Bach’s series of chorale cantatas from 1724 celebrates its 300th anniversary this year. Lydia Vroegindeweij discovered that these two collections have everything to do with each other during her PhD research and she subsequently started this project L500B300, to share and expand that knowledge with everyone.

What are chorale cantatas?

In June 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach started as cantor of the Thomas Church in Leipzig. From then on, he wrote a weekly cantata. In it, the Bible reading for that Sunday was explained as a musical sermon in a modern form, with arias and recitatives that were very popular in opera at the time. The cantatas had a fixed place in the liturgy, after the gospel reading and before the sermon. In his second year in office, from June 1724, he followed a new recipe. No longer was a Bible text central, but a well-known church song and especially the oldest Protestant church songs. No fewer than eight of these are by Martin Luther himself from 1524, such as Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38) and Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (BWV 125), and other well-known old songs, such as Wer nur den lieben Gott läst walten (BWV 93) are also part of this year’s edition of 40 so-called chorale cantatas.

Explaining each song was the main objective, leaving the text of the first and last verse of the song the same in the cantata text. Bach composed an opening chorus reflecting the character of the song and provided the closing couplet with a simple four-part setting to conclude the cantata. The (unknown) poet formed recitatives and arias from the intermediate stanzas of the song. In the process, the sometimes very compact, rhyming poetry of the song was grammatically rearranged to make the content more comprehensible or better explain the doctrine of faith. Moreover, this gave Bach more room to musically portray Baroque themes such as battle, the devil and hell, as well as consolation.

Soprano BWV 38/1, fragment

The birth of hymnology

In my research on the theme of ‘ comfort’, I first looked for how Luther defined it in his early writings and also in his songs from 1524. I then delved into the handling of this song heritage in Bach’s time, and in doing so I came across a large number of sources that had not yet been studied by Bach researchers. Indeed, around 1700, discussions about the oldest Protestant songs arose because of ingrained printing errors and ambiguity about poets. Some theologians therefore set to work to find out and document the factual information – such as the poet, the original text and the time of origin – of each song. One of them was Johann Christoph Olearius, who in 1702 started building a song library in Arnstadt (where Bach was organist from 1703 to 1707!). The pioneers of this research published their findings in essays and songbook commentaries. Thus was born the new discipline of hymnology, the study of church song.

The old songs criticised

Fierce theological debates soon arose about the desired content and quality of chorales. Indeed, at the beginning of the 18th century, numerous new songs and songbooks were being added. Large cities like Leipzig and Dresden had to decide how to include these new songs in their already thick hymnbooks. One option was to delete the older songs, as critics felt that they were sometimes too “düster” (obscure) due to difficult rhyme twists and outdated words, making them incomprehensible to people. The researchers of Lutheran song heritage – they called themselves the Lieder-Freunde (Friends of song) – did not agree with this at all. Instead, they tried to save the older songs, arguing: if people no longer understand the old chorales, we should not discard them, but explain them better. The comforting value of these songs for simple believers was their main motive, as the songbook was considered a ‘bible for lay people’. After all, people in distress or sorrow were more likely to find comfort in a line from a well-known song than in a Bible text.

The Lieder-Freunde searched intensively for the most convenient form to share their knowledge with ordinary churchgoers, but that proved complicated. A lot of information requires thick books and a hymnbook offers limited space. Moreover, not everyone could read. Johann Martin Schamelius from Naumburg, found the most compact form with word explanations per song stanza and an interpretation per song in his two-volume standard work Evangelischer Lieder-Commentarius (1724/1725).

Explanations with music

There are indications that Bach played an active role within the Lieder-Freunde group and provided an even stronger form with his chorale cantatas to contribute to explaining the old Lutheran chorales for churchgoers. The many hymnological sources from the early 18th century provide new insights not only into the texts of Bach’s chorale cantatas, but also into Bach’s musical choices. For instance, in many recitatives, the original song lines are interspersed with lines of explanation that follow the ideas of the Lieder-Freunde. This is especially true of the work of Schamelius, whose comments are sometimes even found literally in the cantata text, such as the words “Süßigkeit” and “Himmelsbrot” in the first recitative of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1).

Another example is the tenor aria of the cantata Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (BWV 178) where the text is clarified by inversions. While in the song the Vernunft (reason) speaks, the aria says: “Schweig, schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!” (Be silent, be silent, staggering reason!). The consolation from the first line of the song strophe now forms the aria’s actual ending. Bach’s music vividly expresses how repentance and trust in God can bring comfort despite all adversity. Schamelius’ explanation provides all the ingredients for this approach.

The opening chorus of the cantata Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38) contains a repetition of the first line of text, with a different melody. In his commentary on the first line, Schamelius refers to Veit Dietrich’s interpretation of Luther’s penitential psalms, which explicitly links Psalm 130 and 51. The melody of Bach’s second inset turns out to be that of the song Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (Hegenwald’s 1524 arrangement of Psalm 51), and fragments of this melody appear in more places in this movement.

Without Bach no Luther (anymore)

People sometimes claim ‘without Luther no Bach’, but the reverse is also true. If the old Lutheran chorales had not had such a prominent role in Bach’s work, we might not sing them today. Now they have been preserved worldwide with translations and retellings. A good example is Wer nur den lieben Gott läst walten which in the Netherlands was known as ‘Wie maar de goede God laat zorgen’ and of which Sytze de Vries made a new translation for the Liedboek (Dutch hymnal from 2013) ‘Wie zich door God alleen laat leiden’. Again with the same objective as in Bach’s time, namely to continue to understand what you are singing and to find comfort in the familiar church song as a life companion. So there is every reason to add lustre to this double anniversary of Luther’s songs and Bach’s chorale cantatas with various activities. Our project L500B300 is happy to help congregations and choirs on their way, for example with lectures, workshops and singing eventss. All information can be found on this website L500B300.

Lydia Vroegindeweij