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Ribe Cathedral, in the Southwest of Denmark, is one of the few places in the world where the earliest Lutheran church music practice can be reconstructed. Thanks to the Danish hymn collector Hans Thomissøn (1532-73), music director at Ribe Cathedral School around 1560, a clearly shaped liturgy was equipped with the relevant music. In exemplary manner this recording reflects the elements that made up an early Lutheran feast-day service in Denmark, including a fashionable Mass cycle by the Flemish master Jacobus Clemens non Papa.
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Luther, Ribe, Thomissøn: a lucky find of sacred music
by Konrad Küster
Luther wanted the faithful to be able to experience the text of the Bible in their own language in the services. From then on readings, prayers and above all the sermon were held in the vernacular – that is, in Luther’s circle in German, and in Denmark from no later than 1536 in Danish. It is often thought that Luther introduced the ‘typically Lutheran’ congregational singing in the church services. Generally consi-dered a distinguishing musical feature of Luther’s concept of divine service, this is however an ideal from as late as the eighteenth century.
On the contrary, Luther insisted on the traditional chants from the old Mass: not only the Kyrie, Gloria etc., which are normally called the ‘musical movements of the Mass’, but also the chants which varied from one service to the next: above all the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia and the Sequence. Since the fourth century texts from the Vulgate had been used for these. Luther had no objections to this, since the conveying of the Biblical message was his main concern. True, the texts were form-u--lated in Latin and thus could not be understood by members of the poorer part of the population. Luther therefore wanted these traditional songs to be translated. But the idea of letting the people sing the melodies was foreign to him. As in the time before the Reformation, this task was reserved for a group of singers, which was from then on recruited from the Lutheran school system, also in small rural parishes. It was thus the local school pupils who were responsible for the singing of the Mass, with a teacher as conductor.
The larger a town was, the more often there was a ‘Latin school’ (i.e. a gram-mar school) which gave the boys access to the international language Latin. The church service was a part of this educational concept, so it was Luther’s express wish that Latin components were preserved in the services in these larger places. This applied in particular to the chants in the celebration of the Mass. It also made the situation more interesting for the younger musical public.
Danish Lutheranism after 1536
After the civil war known as ‘the Count’s Feud’ was brought to an end, Christian III decided in 1536 that from then on Luther’s interpretation of Christianity was to prevail in Denmark. In fact King Christian thereby proclaimed Lutheranism the state religion; no one had done so before him. So it now had to be clearly defined (among other reasons to avert any negative repercussions of the civil war) how ‘Luther’s interpretation of Christianity’ was to be expressed: Luther’s ideas had to be recog-ni-zably present. There was thus no place for vague, indeterminate attitudes like those that typified the situation in Germany. Luther had even left it open how a church service was to take place: he was afraid that the framework might become far too rigid, because he thought that routine leads to boredom. Danish theologians did however insist on quite particular Lutheran positions. In the course of a few years, with the Lutheran Ordinance of 1539 and some later adjustments, a coherent con-cept of the Lutheran service in Denmark was formulated, including all the chant tones for the readings or texts and the melodies for collects and prayers. Everything was to be sung: in fact, only the sermon was spoken.
Before the sermon the service could proceed in the usual way; thus the pre-Refor-mation practice continued in this respect. After the sermon the focal point was the Communion, the theological meaning of which was, however, dispu-ted: in the new, Lutheran view it was to be about actively commemorating the death and resur-rection of Christ and at the same time acknowledging the consequent salvation of mankind. For that reason the old chants after the sermon had to be replaced with new ones.
The idea of fixing every detail was apparently an aspect of Danish domestic policy after 1536; but the components (taken separately) were Lutheran to the core. Thus if one wants to experience what an ‘original’ Lutheran service looked like, the Danish prescriptions offer an ideal guide and in this lies their international signifi-cance. In addition they are an indispensable basis for an approach to the sacred music of the Lutheran era on the whole.
Lutheran music at the Ribe Cathedral School
In all Lutheran areas a new stage of the Reformation was reached around 1540. Now the question also arose of which polyphonic music was to be sung in the service. This option was only considered for the larger cities, for only there could one find advanced Latin pupils, as well as more adult singers and perhaps also instrumen-ta-lists. Precisely in such places, the liturgical chants were already sung in Latin; con-se-quently it was not a problem to include international music with Latin texts in the service.
In some places in the subsequent period large manuscript musical collections were drawn up which could then be used in services just as regularly as a missal. A comparable repertoire was made available by the Wittenberg printer Georg Rhau: music for all feast day services in the liturgical year, including music for Vespers and for performing in the schools. And of course the Latin compositions could also be integrated in the Danish High Mass.
In many places, especially in Saxony, a very large quantity of music was pro-cured at that time, and sometimes it is not clear what function the music was to perform in the life of the church (High Mass, Vespers or school music). At the Ribe Cathedral School the situation was different: the teachers who were responsible for the music in the Cathedral worked in a more goal-oriented way. In accordance with the clear Danish rules for the course of the service, they procured a standardized musi-cal repertoire. In the end they had exactly one music collection available for every sacred music task. This consisted primarily of music from the printer Georg Rhau.
The actual copies of the music are not preserved. Around 1580, however, Peder Hegelund (1542-1614), later Bishop of Ribe, collected in one comprehensive manual eve-ry-thing that was important to the functioning of the Cathedral School; this included the school charters, its budget and not least the music that was used for the per-formances in the school. He described the pieces so precisely that they can be unam-biguously identified; he even noted which of his -predecessors had procured them. Thus the definition of the Lutheran musical repertoire had begun in Ribe around 1550; similar conditions probably prevailed at other large Latin schools in Denmark – that is, in Roskilde and Viborg, in Copenhagen and at Herlufsholm. At the same time it became evident where the Wittenberg repertoire could not be fully integrated into Danish practice.
Traditionally, on feast days the three sections of the Kyrie (Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison) were sung three times each – that is, as a ninefold chant; and the music Rhau offered conformed to this. In Denmark, however, each movement was in general only meant to occur once. And in Wittenberg the Credo was normally sung in German by the congregation as an individual profession of faith; for that reason the Credo is not included in Rhau’s print. In the major cities in Denmark, however, it had to be performed with its traditional Latin text. In these places special solutions thus had to be found, and this too is reflected in Hegelund’s inventory. At first an old pre-Reformation music book was still used; in 1558 Hans Thomissøn (1532-1573; he became famous for his Danish Hymnal of 1569) procured Mass com-positions by the Flemish musician Jacobus Clemens (called ‘non Papa’, that is ‘not the Pope’) which could in future be inserted in the traditional empty spaces as modern music, and thus concluded the building-up of a repertoire in Ribe. It was a minor problem that in some places hymns were to be sung after the sermon by the pupils; for this purpose German hymns were not considered. From no later than 1533 they were also available in Danish.
It is thus possible, as an example, to reconstruct a complete Danish Lutheran feast-day service as already celebrated at the time around Luther’s death (1546). The ordinary Danish rules for divine service constitute an ideal, reliable basis for this, and it can also be filled out musically thanks to Hegelund’s repertoire list. It is thanks to Thomissøn that the musical material has been completed.
As mentioned, almost everything in the service was sung. In this way an impressive stylistic diversity of sung texts arose. The congregation experienced the simplest type in the prayers; they were chanted by the priest on a single note. Only slightly more flexible was the music of the readings (the Epistle, the Gospel): in these the ‘sentence melody’ is imitated. For this Luther had assembled a complex system of melodic formulae in 1526; Thomissøn simplified it in his Hymnal (the recording stays close to this). If one listens very attentively, one can hear where a verse ends and where a new one begins; and in the same way one can experience whether there is a question mark or a full stop at the end of the sentence. Even more melodious are the sung Lord’s Prayer and the initial words of the Communion. All these sung texts from the priests (some in antiphony with the parish clerk or the local schoolmaster) formed the basis for the aural impression conveyed by a service.
Some of the other chants (the Kyrie, Gloria etc.) could occur in the same way in any service; for others again only the timing in the order of the Mass remains con-stant, but another chant that fits the day in question can be added. After the Introit in Danish practice, it was the Gradual, Alleluia and Sequence; after the sermon the traditional chants were replaced by new hymns – only the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei were retained.
In Thomissøn’s repertoire for High Mass the polyphonic songs are also stylis-tically different. The Introit, Gradual and Alleluia come from a music print by Rhau; in these the soprano consistently sings a Gregorian melody. To that extent the music has the effect of a polyphonic version of the old Mass chants. The Sequence, the medieval strophic poem, too, has a liturgical melody as its basis. This is however reworked with imitation in the parts in a diversity of ways. Even more free is the form of the Kyrie, Gloria etc., which are the most modern parts of this repertoire: as a thematic basis the composer has here used the melody from the chant Virtute magna, which was used for the Hours in Easter Week.
Unlike in a concert performance of a Mass by Haydn or Mozart, one Mass move-ment does not succeed another directly (like the movements in a symphony); only the Kyrie and Gloria are directly adjacent. Nor are they surrounded by ‘spoken text’, for before the Kyrie comes the Introit, and after the Gloria comes a sung prayer. Music is in other words the indispensable basis for celebrating a service in the spirit of Luther.
Most of the music that Georg Rhau used in his prints comes from composers who had already been active long before the Reformation. From the printed edition (pub-lished in 1539), which contains the chants for the time between Easter and Ascen-sion Day, the Hungarian court composer Thomas Stoltzer (d. 1526) was the com-po-ser who lived longest after the year (1517) when Luther set up his 95 theses. At the end of his life he was active at the Hungarian Royal Court.
We know least of all about Johannes Alectorius, who is also called ‘Johannes Galliculus’. Around 1518 he collaborated with Georg Rhau while the latter was the cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.
Particularly interesting for the Danish Reformation is the music of Conrad Rein. Born around 1475 in Arnstadt (230 years later the young Bach worked there!), in 1502 he was a teacher in Nuremberg; among his pupils was the later Meister-singer Hans Sachs. His life took a crucial turn in 1514: Godske Ahlefeldt, Bishop of Schleswig, went on a diplomatic mission to Linz ahead of King Christian II’s mar-ri-age to Isabella of Austria; on the way, in Nuremberg, he recruited the members for a new Danish court kantorei, and Conrad Rein became their bass and ensemble director. He died around 1522, probably in Copenhagen.
None of Rein’s music from his time in Copenhagen is preserved. However, those of his works that Georg Rhau included in his music print are stylistically similar to those that Rein presumably performed in Copenhagen. They could be heard there in Christian II’s services, and the young reformer Hans Tausen may have made their acquaintance then. Tausen, who later became the first translator of the Bible into Danish, was Bishop of Ribe around 1541-61 and experienced Thomis-søn’s musical practice there. With Rein’s music the tradition behind this High Mass reconstruction thus goes all the way back to the period when Christian II began to develop an enthusiasm for Luther’s ideas.
Alongside this ‘old’ music the newest element to appear is the Mass by the Flemish composer Jacobus Clemens. It is featured in a collection of Mass compositions which appeared in print in 1557, a year after his death. From the four works included, Thomissøn, with a given key as his criterion, could select a work that suited the character of the feast day to be celebrated.
Thus while the recording refers specifically to Ribe and Danish Lutheranism, it reflects in exemplary and comprehensive fashion the elements that made up an early Lutheran feast-day service. Only the sermon is absent from this reconstruction.
Konrad Küster is Professor of Music History at Universität Freiburg (Germany). He is specialised in Lutheran music culture, focused on Northern Germany and Denmark.