As you have undoubtedly heard, 1517 was an important year in the Christian church—this was the year that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, thus marking the Protestant Reformation and the birth of what would become the Lutheran Church. To mark the 500th anniversary of this monumental event, I've been exploring the hymns of Martin Luther as part of my "other" job as music director of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Decorah.
Luther wrote at least 50 hymns, possibly more, and composed several hymn tunes as well. Some of these hymns are paraphrases and translations of pre-existing hymns, while others are entirely original. The accompanying tunes come from a variety of sources, some of which are difficult to definitively pin down.
For this blog post, I'll share a composition of my own for organ and viola based on Luther’s Easter hymn, "Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der den Tod überwand" (Jesus Christ, our Saviour, who conquered death), featuring Spencer Martin on viola and myself on the organ. The text and this particular tune first appeared in 1524; a second, more well-known tune (utilized by J. S. Bach in at least one composition) appeared in 1529. Good Shepherd’s own Jutta Anderson has graciously provided the following translation (intended to communicate meaning, not necessarily Luther’s poetic voice):
Jesus Christ, our savior,
he who vanquished death,
he has captured sin.
He who was born without sin
bore God’s wrath for us
has reconciled us
so that God may grant us his mercy.
Death, sin, life and also grace,
all that He has in his hands;
he can save
all, who approach him.
Brooke Joyce is associate professor of music and composer-in-residence at Luther College. Joyce's music has been described as "vividly pictorial" by the San Francisco Chronicle and "exceptionally gripping" by the Los Angeles Times. His works have been performed by soloists and ensembles around the world, including the Indianapolis Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic, the Brentano Quartet and tenor James Gilchrist.