It’s 500 years since Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking what would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. His superficial complaint was against the corrupt practice of indulgences, the Catholic Church teasing money out of the gullible and persuading them that they could buy their way into Heaven. But what Luther, a professor of theology, really wanted was for God to be made accessible to everyone and for worship to be more intimate, more direct, and in the vernacular, not Latin. We think of him now as a man of the text, who believed that faith was so important its meaning should not be withheld by the priesthood or clouded by that ‘dead’ language. Radio 3, though, has chosen to mark the anniversary with a series of programmes highlighting the importance of music, not words, to the Reformation.
Why focus on Luther as a musician? I asked the Revd Lucy Winkett, rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, who presents tomorrow night’s Sunday Feature: A Square Dance in Heaven (produced by Rosie Dawson). Winkett, a former professional singer and choral scholar who has been singing Bach since she was a child, says she was ‘really interested in Luther as a musician’ because ‘everyone associates him with words’ but much more significant was the way he transformed church music, using it ‘to help people understand that God was with them and for them’. He recognised, says Winkett, ‘that music is the language of the human spirit’ and because of that he got everyone singing in Saxony. Four hours of music each week was introduced into the school curriculum and choirs sprang up in every town. Music, she argues, was at the heart of the Lutheran reformation. He famously said, ‘When people engage in music, singing in four or five parts, it’s like a square dance in heaven.’ This leads her to wonder whether Bach would have created his St Matthew Passion without Luther?
In the programme she travels to Eisenach in Germany, to the church where Luther was once a choirboy, followed coincidentally 200 years later by J.S. Bach. As a chorister, the young J.S. would have sung hymns and metrical psalms written by Luther, both the words and the music. Lutheran melodies are threaded through Bach’s work. She goes to see the first Lutheran chapel, which was built at Torgau (close to Wittenberg) in 1544, where she discovers that the altar was positioned at the east end, as is traditional, but above it was placed not the crucifix you might expect but a massive organ, in full view of the whole congregation. Every member of the congregation participated in the service by singing the hymns and metrical psalms. This meant that for the first time women’s voices were being heard in church.
As a boy chorister, Bach would have begun each day at 6 a.m. by singing something written by Luther. But, explains Winkett, his musical genius then turned the melodies he grew up with, such as Luther’s hymn on a text from Romans ‘The spirit gives aid to our weakness’, into choral motets whose harmonic complexity reflects the deeper meaning of the text. Luther’s melodies are often very lively, syncopated, like the rhythm of life; you can imagine running along to them in the gym. Bach, in contrast, forces you to stand still, to be in awe of the music and of its ambition, inviting us individually through the music to contemplate the mystery of God. It’s like ‘a sermon delivered through music’.
Her programme, too, was like a lively Lutheran sermon delivered through a radio feature; an opportunity to reflect not just on Luther or Bach but on the meaning of belief. Through her work as a priest, and as a regular broadcaster, she talks every day to those who need a listening ear as they disclose their grief, or fear of death, or the fact that they have absolutely no money, or that they’re fed up with their work and are desperate to find something to do that means something. ‘At its best, that’s what religion is for,’ says Winkett, ‘…for the life that people are actually living, not some fantasy gleaned from TV or social media.’ She believes fervently that there’s ‘a quality of listening that the Church can offer… and which radio can also do because it’s a really intimate medium.’
‘Radio’s like being a passenger in the car where you’re sitting alongside someone and talking to them, but you’re not looking at each other. It’s much easier to say things, but no answers are required. That suits a religious sensibility, which is often unfinished. People will bring to church situations that are unmendable. It’s very important that there are places where those unmendable things can be said — and listened to.’
We are living in ‘a credulous age’, says Winkett, and people are ready to believe almost anything. In such a time religious broadcasting becomes ever more important by shining a light on what is happening in church, making it accessible, as Luther believed, but also challenging and asking the difficult questions posed by Bach in his music.