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Singing the Reformation

Friday, 28 October 2016

Reformation service Oct 2016 300px.png

Martin Luther's sermon against the practice of indulgences ('Ablaß') which popularised his Latin theses in German; image from the cover of the copy in the Taylor Institution Library, ARCH.8o.G.1518(6)
Martin Luther's sermon against the practice of indulgences ('Ablaß') which popularised his Latin theses in German; image from the cover of the copy in the Taylor Institution Library, ARCH.8o.G.1518(6)

In Germany, 31 October is celebrated as 'Reformation Day', remembering that on the eve of All Saints in 1517 Martin Luther published his 95 theses (or, as popular myth has it: nailed them to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg). As a start to the quincentenary of this event, the St Edmund Hall choir is going to sing a Reformation-inspired programme of music in evensong this Sunday in the College Chapel. The service starts at 5:30pm and all are welcome to attend.

The musical journey begins with plainchant 'Magnificat' and 'Nunc Dimittis' - the monastic soundscape which students at St Edmund Hall would have experienced in the same way as the young Augustinian Friar Martin Luther. We then move on to the tunes and texts shaped by Luther from this medieval heritage, notably his setting of Psalm 46 which inspired the hymn 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott'. In the context of the evensong, his tune is combined with the words of the Book of Common Prayer - a translation venture which owes a lot to the Reformation drive to make the biblical message accessible in the vernacular.

The two hymns continue the idea of singing the message of grace in the vernacular: hymn 280 'Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness' and hymn 413 'Now thank we all our God', translated into English in the 19th century in a congenial way by Catherine Winkworth. The setting for both of these is by J S Bach, sometimes dubbed as the "fifth evangelist" because his music conveys the gospel message in such a powerful way. His organ piece based on 'Deck thyself' (in German: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele) will also be the voluntary at the end of the service.The anthem for the day then transfers Luther's translation of a medieval prayer for peace, 'Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich', into the Romantic period in the very melodic setting by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

The sermon will pick up on the theme, text and music, and combine them in a reflection of what is actually meant by 'Reformation'. The preacher is St Edmund Hall Fellow (and choir member) Henrike Lähnemann who currently coordinates a programme of events around the Reformation such as the tour of the Oxford Bach Soloists conducted by Tom Hammond-Davies - who appropriately will also be the guest conductor of the chapel choir for the evening. The tour to record the sounds of the Reformation in Northern Germany was filmed by St Edmund Hall lecturer Alex Lloyd and will launch on 11 November, at 5pm in the Taylor Institution - so watch out (and listen out!) for more Reformation-related events running through the coming year!