Suite Luther for Orchestra
I. Motet – A Fortress Strong
II. In Peace and Joy I Now Depart
III. Chorale Fantasy – Ein Feste Burg
IV. From Deepest Depths I Cry to You
V. Ein Feste Finale
In 1517, Martin Luther purportedly nailed 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in the German town of Wittenberg. His criticisms challenged the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and led to a split with the Church, giving birth to the beginnings of Protestantism and the Reformation which, as it spread throughout Europe, was marked by horrific episodes of warfare and violence. The 500th anniversary of the nailing of the theses has spurred many creative projects, and as Barbara Harbach was a Minister of Music at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Missouri, she, too, was inspired to pay homage to Martin Luther.
Harbach’s five-part Suite Luther for orchestra follows the centuries-old practice of invigorating traditional melodies with contemporary harmonizations, rhythms and orchestral colors. The melody she uses in three of the five movements (I, III and V) is A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott), one of the best-known hymns by Luther, who wrote the words and music sometime between 1517 and 1519. Ein’ feste Burg is also known as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation” since it increased support for the Reformation movement. The Luther hymn of the second movement, In Peace and Joy I Now Depart (Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin), is a paraphrase in German of the Nunc dimittis, the canticle of Simeon written in 1524, often used for funerals. The third Luther hymn, heard in Movement IV, is From
Deepest Depths I Cry to Thee (Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir). Written in 1524, it is a paraphrase of Psalm 130.
I. Motet – A Fortress Strong is an exuberant arrangement of the original rhythmic melody of Ein’ feste Burg. Harbach follows the form of the hymn, AABA1 (A1 indicating a variation of A), featuring counterpoint preceding each presentation of the phrases with “pre-imitation” as did Buxtehude, Pachelbel and J.S. Bach. Opening with a five-note timpani fanfare with cymbals, the trumpet and trombone announce the first phrase of the hymn, seemingly in double time. The woodwinds follow with new material, and then close the introduction with the ending phrase of the ‘A’ section. A short imitative section precedes Luther’s original rhythmic notation, with the flute regally playing the melody soaring above the orchestra. The lively middle ‘B’ section has transitional material featuring the brass instruments in close harmony and a more subdued presence for the words “And armed with cruel hate.” This is followed with cascading flourishes in the strings before the echoes of the familiar opening phrases herald the end of the movement.
II. In Peace and Joy I Now Depart is a six-phrase hymn by Luther. Harbach was inspired to write a two-part piece with the form of ABA1B1. The ‘A’ parts are newly composed with the ethos underscoring a feeling of Peace, while the ‘B’ portions evoke the feeling of Joy. The ‘A’ section begins with a decorated flute melody, with the oboe taking over the melody with comments from the lower woodwinds and horn. The Joy section is reminiscent of a Renaissance dance, with the trumpet presenting the chorale melody with decorations, and then being joined by the horn with string accompaniment. The flute melody heard at the beginning of the piece returns, but with the decorated melody in a major tonality. ‘A1’ returns with a fuller and richer harmonization while the xylophone and timpani enhance the musical fabric in ‘B1’.
III. Chorale Fantasy – Ein’ feste Burg, or “Christ, the New Contender,” is a powerful and lively setting of the second verse of Ein’ feste Burg, which announces Christ as the triumphant advocate. The melodies of the imitative introduction are derived from the first two phrases of the famous hymn melody, with conversations between the woodwinds and strings. The woodwinds state the ‘A’ section followed by more introductory material. The brass section and flute lead the next ‘A’ section, while the winds and brass alternate in the ‘B’ portion with strings, busily commenting on the introductory material. The entire orchestra joins in the noble final phrase.
IV. From Deepest Depths I Cry to You (Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir) is a newly harmonized rendition of the fourpart chorale in AAB form. The movement creates a mood of introspection with recurrent plaintive petitions, with an orchestra here of only flute, horn, trumpet, trombone and strings. The pre-imitation is original material as well as utilizing some motives derived from the original melody. The horn and trombone play the melody in unison with the counterpoint weaving around them. The rising motives reflect the pathos or word painting of trying to climb out of the depths to a holier place.
V. Ein’ Feste Finale marks the return of Luther’s famous hymn, Ein’ feste Burg, but this time with more familiar rhythmic notation. The hymn tune pulsates with many different simultaneous rhythms and key changes, with trombone and tuba in unison and in canon, and sections with three-part canons. The triumphant ending is rendered by full orchestra in traditional harmony for the final iteration.