This evening marks the eleventh-annual fall concert celebrating the musical treasures of the Richard C. Kessler Reformation Collection in the Pitts Theology Library at the Candler School of Theology.

Featured tonight is Geystliche Lieder or Spiritual Songs, the very last hymnal overseen by Martin Luther. This hymnal, which we possess in a 1567 edition, is very rare indeed and is one of the more recent acquisitions of the Kessler Collection. First published in 1545 in Leipzig by Valentin Bapst, Geystliche Lieder represents the most mature collection of German congregational hymnody available within Luther’s lifetime. Indeed, the preface is written by the reformer himself, just one year before his death.

Our theme is the angelic phrase sung at Jesus’ birth, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” From this phrase evolved the Gloria, the canticle that constitutes the second part of the Ordinary of the Eucharist liturgy. Originally in Latin, the Gloria received vernacular settings in the Reformation. One German setting, by Luther, is found in Geystliche Lieder. Another version, by Luther’s contemporary, Nikolaus Decius, is the German hymn “Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr'”. We will sing this chorale together, in an English translation (“All Glory Be to God on High”). The tune most associated with this hymn is also found in the historic Geystliche Lieder.

The Gloria theme continues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata BWV 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme. The final stanza is a glory to God, sung in German as “Gloria sei dir gesungen.”

Organ music associated with this Gloria theme ties together both the chorale and cantata discussed above. Early Baroque variations of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck on the Gloria hymn “Allein Gott” are paired with an organ solo version Bach himself made of the fourth movement of Cantata BWV 140.

Spoken commentary and the assembly’s singing of Luther’s great hymn of faith, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” round out the program.

—Timothy Albrecht


The organ compositions heard tonight are directly related to this evening’s chosen theme “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Dutch composer and master teacher of especially foreign students (he is known as the “maker of German organists”), must have learned of this German chorale, Allein Gott in der Floh sei Ehr’, from one of his German pupils. Sweelinck, city organist at Amsterdam’s famous Oude Kerk and member of the Dutch Reformed Church, would not have been allowed to play such a hymn paraphrase of Scripture during worship services. In Calvinistic circles, only the very words of the Bible—i.e., not scriptural paraphrases—were permitted. However, this lovely tune, for whatever reason, inspired Sweelinck to compose four exquisite early Baroque variations. Harmonic progressions include some of the older modal cadences as well as some of the newer Baroque preference for triadic tonality. The absence of a pedal part in any of the variations reflects the Dutch organ-building practice of the time. Marvelous indeed is the increase in density (variation two is in two parts, variation three in three parts, variation four in four parts), as well as the gradual acceleration of rhythmic intricacy from variation one through the final, fourth variation.

Bach’s organ version of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 645 is fascinating. Although it is from one of the very last organ chorale collections* of the master, it still shows something completely new. The innovative side is that all six of these pieces (mostly arrangements of earlier cantatas) adopt a new form, one never before used in Bach’s organ chorale writing. This new structure is the ritornello, where one presents a completely self-sufficient and autonomous melodic and harmonic unit and then combines or alternates this with a hymn tune. Although Bach had used this compositional technique countless times in his chorale cantatas (including the Cantata BWV 140), he had not before used this technique in his organ chorale settings! Therefore, although this organ arrangement is a very close reworking of movement four of the cantata we will hear at the conclusion of the evening, this technique, found in a solo organ chorale composition, is very new with late Bach. After Bach, this ritornello form becomes a favored device of many hymn prelude compositions. Indeed, it is heard this evening in the three Grace Notes of my own (two serving as introductions to our singing of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and one as a final epilogue after our singing of “All Glory Be to God on High”).

*Six Chorales—nicknamed the Schabler Chorales—date from approximately 1746, just a few years before
Bach’s death.

Copyright © 1998, Timothy Albrecht


Some of the most joyful music is created in the midst of difficult circumstances. Displaced while his home underwent reconstruction, Bach wrote this most famous of his cantatas, BWV 140; Philipp Nicolai, composer of the chorale tune, found comfort in the midst of the death of a pupil by contemplating eternal life.

Exactly four hundred years ago, in the historic town of Tubingen, the pupil, a fifteen-year-old nobleman, succumbed to the scourge of the bubonic plague. His teacher and pastor, Nicolai, who had watched upwards of thirty burials a day, penned the chorale “Wachet auf” in memory of his young student. The chorale text, based on the parable of the wise virgins in Matthew 25, is a sacred recrafting of the old Minnesinger tradition. Instead of the watchman on the tower who warns the lovers to part as dawn approaches, this watchman’s midnight cry announces the heavenly Bridegroom’s arrival.

During Bach’s time, “Wachet” was the principal hymn for the twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity, a rare occurrence in the church calendar. This service, for which Bach wrote cantata 140, fell on November 25, 1731. The gospel reading for this last Sunday before Advent is Matthew 25. In shaping the overall form of the cantata, Bach used each verse of Nicolai’s hymn as a structural pillar in the work: verse 1 in movement 1, verse 2 in movement 4, and verse 3 in the closing chorale. The structure of the entire cantata is chiastic , with movement 4 as the centerpiece.

In movement 1, festive royal processional music imitates the midnight tolling as the wise virgins heed the watchman’s call to action: “awake!, prepare!, arise!, go forth!” Bach sets the chorale tune in the sopranos, doubled by the watchman’s instrument, the horn. The three lower voices represent the scurrying to action, literally falling upon each other in joyful tumult, with ascending melodic leaps and brilliant voicing of rising chords on texts depicting “high up.” All the time, the orchestral wedding procession continues relentlessly on its course to meet the Bride-Church-Sion.

The third and sixth movements, duets for soprano and bass, are dialogues between the Soul and Jesu. Each duet is prefaced by a recitative. The first duet, in question-answer format, is orchestrated as a quartet: the two solo voices, an obbligato violino piccolo, and the continuo.

Movement 4, one of Bach’s more beloved choruses, depicts Sion’s joy in greeting the descending Groom. The musical construction is stunning in its simplicity: the continuo supports a unison string melody of three basic motives over which the tenors, also in unison, float the second verse of Nicolai’s chorale. This wedding song of the Bride Zion (church) and the Returning Bridegroom (Christ) leads all to the feast, the Lamb’s eternal Supper.

The second duet, movement 6, musically exemplifies the union of the soul and Christ: the oboe presents material that is then shared by the voices. The textual references from Song of Solomon in the previous recitative are fulfilled with joyous ebullience in the duet. The phrase “love never separated” literally takes musical life in the melding of a four part texture (two voices, oboe, continuo) into a trio (a united voice, oboe, continuo).

And so, in the final chorale, the host of heaven—humans and angels—gather in the Eternal City at the twelve gates of pearl, raising voices, harps, and cymbals to proclaim the great “gloria” (Revelation 21). All of the instruments join with the choir, but this “joy no ear has heard” takes on an added brightness by Bach’s use of the violino piccolo playing the melody an octave above everyone. Surprising harmonic colorations on the final phrase’s quotation of the ancient “in dulci jubilo” melody depicts the brilliant and eternal rejoicing in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Copyright © 1998, Marian Dolan