Schlagt sie tot!
Schlagt sie tot!
Schlagt sie tot! is an opera about radical change and religious fanaticism. It paints a multifaceted portrait of a complex figure who transformed the world, namely the controversial catalyst of the Reformation, Martin Luther. He was a charismatic, uncompromising artistic personality, at times hateful and in constant struggle with his inner demons. Five hundred year old events, not unlike the politics of our own age, are brought to life in Bo Holten’s and Eva Sommestad Holten’s music drama, which reflects human emotion in a society set ablaze by the fire of change.
A huge experiment
By Bo Holten
Writing an opera about the Reformation and Luther requires something very special in terms of the nature of the music. For most people in the Lutheran-Protestant world, the Reformation is very much associated with the Lutheran hymns, not just their lyrics but especially their melodies. ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ is simply so immensely iconic that it has been coined ‘The Marseillaise of the Reformation’. ‘From Depth of Woe I Cry to Thee’ has become the epitome of Easter sorrow, just as ‘From Heaven High’ is the essence of Christmas.
Bringing people and situations from 500 years ago to life cannot be achieved with just any kind of music. A splintered tonality or an Impressionistic score would not evoke late medieval moods, so something quite different was required. During a stay at the splendid convent of San Cataldo in southern Italy, at which time I had not yet received the final libretto for the first act of Schlagt sie tot!, I therefore intuitively set about working intensely on the melodies of Luther’s hymns. The latest research in the field has revealed that Luther was not only the poet behind the lyrics, but also the composer of the music, a fact of which little had previously been known. The melodies are ingeniously shaped, usually following Gregorian ideals, and created for congregational performance, thus designed to be learned by heart after singing just a few verses. These melodies have demonstrated their immense strength by being constantly performed for 500 years.
Schlagt sie tot! is an opera centred more on the historical Luther than the theologian, and it therefore offers an image of Luther shaped by a strong mix of good and evil, as is so often the case with great and defining figures of history. This being the case, I thought it would be a glorious paradox to this complex portrait to rely entirely on the ingenious Lutheran hymnbook, emphasising Luther’s artistic mastery of this genre. There is hardly a single moment in the 160-minute opera where a tune by Luther is not represented somewhere in its musical sea, but not in the sense where you as a listener constantly register familiar material, because this is indeed not the case. Sometimes familiar material does appear, but often in completely novel or strange forms. Indeed, I simply had to invent a whole new way of composing opera for this work. From this perspective, Schlagt sie tot! is a huge experiment on my part, the likes of which I have never previously composed.
The opera is a great musical essay, where Luther’s hymns form the backbone, both in terms of basic musical structure and in the elaboration of the small details. This has meant that the music often unfolds over long stretches broken only by the gestural qualities of the vocal drama, without the orchestral music immediately reflecting upon this. Rather, to a greater extent they are dedicated to defining the basic character of the totality as well as adding nuance to its musical universe. In doing so, I have dared to compose an opera in an unusual way – at least for me.
The fire of change
– thoughts on the lyrics for Schlagt sie tot!
By Eva Sommestad Holten
Since writing the libretto for the opera Schlagt sie tot! in 2015, the parallels to our present times have increasingly become strikingly evident. The dynamics of the Reformation also mirror today’s polarisation, aggression and fears. We recognise, not least, the corrupt and greedy elite that fails to reform. Now, as then, there is every reason to demand change and a new morality.
So, the opera is equally about the world today, and a central theme is how violence can flare and take hold. The Reformation was a revolution, and no one is by default a peaceful, democratic being. Our own history is one of radicalisation, murdered monks and ransacked churches.
It is also an established fact that it took more than a century of religious wars before an exhausted Europe accepted pluralism – to live side by side. In the 20th century, it was only after two devastating world wars that dialogue, compromise and reconciliation really came to set the agenda.
Now, it is as if all this has been forgotten – confrontations and provocations abound, and the internet has become an inferno of senseless hatred. Back in the 16th century, it was Erasmus of Rotterdam who warned that Luther’s hot temper and harsh words could incite fanaticism and trigger violence and war – the Latin tumultus. He could not have been more right. Indeed, he himself was forced to flee from the mob. What happens when excitement ensues and violence and vigilantism are suddenly perceived as permissible?
But the opera is also about Luther as a human being and about music as a great divine power. It’s about those who truly sought change. But nothing is straightforward, and one can easily cause harm without evil intent. Life is full of challenges, and our human weaknesses often set the boundaries.
Luther himself was charismatic and artistic, with a strong ego. He was probably more sensual and pleasure-seeking than is generally portrayed, but also more irrational and hateful. His understanding of the power of the media was unparalleled, but he was not always fully aware of the consequences of his actions. Doubt and anxiety often clawed at him and theologically he found the key to peace in divine grace. Inevitably, you find yourself asking how those closest to him managed to navigate the force field of his psyche, which was also coloured by issues that resembled bipolar conditions and alcoholism.
After all, nothing turned out the way Luther had imagined. He neither triumphed nor was burned at the stake. Rather, it all became a little pale and unresolved – a divided church in a divided Europe, immersed in eternal strife. But Luther himself still ended up as a saint of sorts. He was so succesfully marketed that we are arguably still seduced to this very day.
The subject itself is very suitable for an opera, which with its powerful physical presence displays a unique ability to portray the great, often frightening forces of society. As the fire of change engulfs us, all our emotions and conflicts become entangled and explosive. Music has the ability to convey these complex undercurrents. That the protagonist, Luther, oscillated between so many extremes also offers very special dramatic and musical opportunities.
Bo Holten and I basically work dramatically – a ‘here and now’ situation charged with tensions both within the text and between the lines unfolded in music. I also experience that the emotional power of opera can be a path to deeper understanding. Emotions make us more sensitive and actually strengthen our ability to reflect and analyse.
The libretto is based on research. Woven into the fabric of the final opera are many quotations by Luther and other sources. But The Luther legacy also entails the whispered layers of history: his texts have been translated, abridged and censored over the course of 500 years and the many variations clearly lead their own lives.
I have interpreted a few external circumstances just a little freely, and naturally I have also in dramatic terms added a little and drawn my own conclusions. But as a whole, I have pursued a kind of truth. After all, the opera is about reality and about a personage who still wields great influence.
Luther’s last utterance about seeking refuge in Christ from the wrath of God – as under the wings of a brooding hen – is taken from his last sermon in Eisleben.
Music as God’s tool
By Eva Sommestad Holten
During the Reformation, art and music came under attack. The contention was that the saintly depictions and theatrical liturgy of Catholicism were pure idolatry, and that the sensual seduction that art in all its shapes and forms represents was a barrier to reaching God and true faith. This notion especially came to dominate the Swiss movements of the Reformation, with Zwingli and Calvin, who did not hesitate to ban music during liturgy, and purge churches of even the slightest ornamentation.
But Luther was different! Although church ornaments were also destroyed and icons burned in Lutheran areas, visual art and music still held a place in the Lutheran interpretation of the new faith. Nonetheless, there is nothing to suggest that Luther had a personal relationship with visual art. It was probably his friendship with Lucas Cranach that helped him embrace a gentler and more pragmatic view of how images could be instrumental. Together with this titan of art, Luther developed a didactic programme that defined the principles behind the way the new faith was illustrated. In parallel, Cranach’s workshop developed imagery that portrayed ‘the meek Luther’, ‘Luther, the married man’, and ‘Luther as a figure of authority’ as part of an ongoing PR campaign. Scathingly satirical drawings were also known to be produced by the workshop in large editions. Illustrations were also made for Luther’s German Bible.
But when it came to music, Luther sought more than mere compromise. Rather, he afforded music a central role, second only to theology, as a divine tool on Earth that represents God’s presence. Music is God’s precious gift to humanity – only the Word of God is greater! Thus, in Luther’s music theory, sensuality and beauty, which the Reformation otherwise feared and rejected, became nothing less than a path to God.
As was so often the case, Luther relied on his own subjective experiences when distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. And the music worked! It restored in him an appetite for life when grief and turmoil of the soul weighed on him, suffusing his body and mind with joy and peace. In Luther’s world, Satan and the devils are the architects of despair, anguish and anxiety. But they disperse when subjected to the Word or music of God. Satan hates music!
Luther’s rival and peer, Zwingli, had banned music outright from religious worship, a decision that Luther showed no mercy. With characteristically broken logic, Luther stated that since Zwingli hated music, it followed that he must be Satan incarnate. To his good friend Senfl, Luther wrote, ‘My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary’. And – drawing on the opposite experience – he also wrote, ‘A person who…does not regard music as a marvellous creation of God…does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs’.
It can therefore come as no surprise that Luther sought to maintain the amazing music of the Catholic Church, now set to new lyrics that he himself ensured were published. His appreciation of polyphonic music was very real and he considered the unfathomable complexity of polyphony as representing divinity on earth. This in contrast to a strongly held opinion, also among Catholics, that lyrics in polyphony are inaudible, which is why the music ought to be banished.
To validate the exalted position of music, Luther also made use of the music theory that he had studied at the University of Erfurt. This allowed him to logically substantiate his own experience of music as God’s life-giving power.
This approach was based on the medieval system of seven liberal arts, where music was linked to arithmetic, astronomy and geometry, the study of which was combined in quadrivium. The logic of this interconnection, as Pythagoras had already established, was that music is based on mathematical relations. By modifying the length of a string, we get a fourth, fifth, or octave. As a logical consequence, the mathematical relations of planetary orbit were also seen as the ‘music of the spheres’. Later, music was seen as the very bridge to trivium (rhetoric, grammar and dialectics) and thus a key that unites all knowledge.
The music philosophy of this period is extremely complex and scholastically subdivided into an infinite number of departments and divisions – musica mundana, musica humana, music coelestis and so on, which also serve to separate what has been artificially created by man and considered to be art.
As part of quadrivium, music was an entity guided by numbers and relations and thus far more encompassing than what was called ‘harmonics’. The assumption was that all movement produces sound, even if it is not audible, and that music is thus a parameter for the universe at large. It is simply one of the ‘primary essences’ that have existed since the very beginning of time. All movement is music – creation is music!
So, Luther concluded that God and the Holy Spirit can act upon and influence us and the whole world through music. In harmonics, we can even feel God’s powerful forces in play. He influences our emotions, and thus our actions. But through music, God also awakens the good in us and causes darkened gloom and devils to flee. Could anything be greater?
This is Luther’s view of music, where his own transcendental experiences of the power of music and the comfort it offers gain theological reach. We can envision how Martin as a young schoolboy would sing at the church on the market square in Eisenach, and how his restlessness, anxiety and depressive thoughts eased as he stood in the chancel embraced by heavenly polyphony. Here, 200 years later, Johann Sebastian Bach stood in the very same chancel, soon to translate Luther’s dreams into heavenly music, which in unity with the Word of God represents the most powerful proclamation of divine grace and love.
We can be truly grateful that Luther loved music and was not ashamed to stand by his conviction at a time guided by very different currents of thought. Unlike his peers, he was not afraid of the passions and forces that music stirs and unleashes.