Luther, Bach and a U-boat

The cathedral marked the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day (31 Oct 1517) with a special choral and orchestral Evensong that included J S Bach’s Cantata Ein feste Burg, based on Martin Luther’s famous hymn and melody, together with the Magnificat by Francisco Durante (formerly attributed to Pergolesi). 

Each of our handful of Bach Cantata services has been a highlight of my nigh on three decades in the choir.  They have been offered at Evensong with the notable exception of the Sunday morning setting ‘Bach in B minor’.

Although Bach was in his early twenties when he wrote his only surviving Chorale Prelude for organ on Luther’s famous tune, his appointment in 1723 as Cantor of the St Thomas Church in Leipzig obliged him to provide appropriately magnificent music for the Reformation Festivals of this stronghold of Lutheran ideas.  Three of Bach’s Reformation Day Cantatas survive, of which the opening chorus of number 80 is arguably the most contrapuntally elaborate treatment of a chorale in all choral music. A clearly illustrated explanation of the inner workings of this mind-boggling movement is given by Richard Atkinson here

As one orchestral leader remarked after a run-through of another of Bach’s opening Cantata choruses, if it had been the only surviving fragment of his work, he would still have been recognised as one of the greatest composers of all time.  Our orchestral leader, on being thanked for giving freely of his services, replied that is was an absolute pleasure to come and play for Chris and the choir; how fortunate we are. 

 Overexcitement almost choked my final phrase ‘He has no equal on earth’ on a descending D major scale in canon with the orchestral bass six bars earlier. The Choir of St John’s, Cambridge enjoyed the splendid contributions of a sackbut plus organ pedal to thunder out this line in their similar Cantata-Evensong attended by our girl choristers.  Their back row of seven basses can be heard here echoing the sackbut prominent at the front here

 Luther was, of course, referring to the Devil, though I had the composer in mind.  Bach devotee Ralph Vaughan Williams realised it was a devil of a good tune by using a menacing version of it as U-37 surfaces having sunk an allied ship in the Powell-Pressburger war film 49th Parallel.  I wonder what JSB would have made of that.

Marc Gregory, Senior Lay Vicar of Truro Cathedral Choir.