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A ‘Feste Burg’ Martin Luther would affirm

AP Newsfeatures

On Nov. 3, Emmanuel Music and guest conductor Grant Llewellyn perform J.S. Bach’s Reformation Day cantata “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80) at Emmanuel Church’s 10 a.m. service. Bach’s is the most famous arrangement of Martin Luther’s most famous hymn, but plenty of other composers have appropriated Luther’s tune, tracing a path from religious evocation to nationalism to benign universality.

Felix Mendelssohn borrowed it for religious triumph (in his 5th Symphony, commemorating the Reformation), Giacomo Meyerbeer for religious tragedy (in his opera “Les Huguenots”). Richard Wagner elevated it to Teutonic nationalist glory in his 1871 “Kaisermarsch,” celebrating victory in the Franco-Prussian War and Wilhelm I’s elevation to emperor.


Twentieth century wars turned “Ein feste Burg” to acid. Claude Debussy pitted “the hymn against “La Marseillaise” in two works written in 1915, the height of World War I: the two-piano “En Blanc et Noir” (where the tunes are easily recognized) and his Cello Sonata (where they are thoroughly disguised). Igor Stravinsky (dedicatee of the last movement of “En Blanc et Noir”) fashioned his own distortion of the chorale for “L’Histoire du Soldat,” over which the narrator moralizes: “No one can have everything: It is forbidden.” In Viktor Ullmann’s “Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” written while the composer was interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the chorale becomes a plea for the bleak comfort of a natural death.

With the rise of ecumenicalism, “Ein feste Burg” is, perhaps, no longer the call to arms it once was — Canadian bishops even made room for it in their “Catholic Book of Worship,” a belated détente between Luther and the papacy he took to task. Still, the chorale’s most effective infiltration into popular culture did come via Luther’s church, by way of the Lutheran-produced television show “Davey and Goliath.” The arrangement (credited to stock-music specialists John Seely Associates, though most likely by Guenther Kauer and Douglas Lackey, whose other credits included a host of low-budget horror films) recapitulated the chorale’s cultural progress: stern, heraldic brass giving way to winds and celesta in an ingratiating wash.


Emmanuel Music performs J. S. Bach’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80) and Heinrich Schütz’s “Selig sind die Toten” as part of Emmanual Church Sunday worship, Nov. 3,
10 a.m. 15 Newbury Street. www.emmanuel

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at