The Lovely Gift of Music

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Composer Joanne Forman has penned a fanciful short playlet to introduce modern readers to Johann Walter, one of Martin Luther’s “inner circle” of friends and collaborators in the early years of the Reformation.

(Music: the Kyrie from Josquin des Pres’ Ave Maris Stella.)

(As it progresses, JOHANN WALTER enters, rapt, listening as it ends.)

Beautiful, beautiful! Ah, there never was a composer like Josquin. (Looking about) I don’t know why that particular piece of music should have summoned me back—(looks about, a trifle baffled) but I’m not complaining. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but….what year is it? (listening to answer) Really? No wonder you’re all dressed so strangely. But I see you’re all in church. That at least hasn’t changed.

Yes, that piece was by Josquin des Pres, a Flemish composer. Catholic, of course; Martin would have heard his music that time he went to Rome in 1511. That wasn’t the first time he had doubts; oh, he was a wrestler, that one, wrestling with God, wrestling with his own fears and doubts…

Oh, I beg your pardon. I’m Johann Walter. The composer, you know…maybe you’ve heard of me? No? (sighs) Oh well, you have now. I hear they’ve named an asteroid after me. (baffled) What’s an asteroid? A heavenly body? Named after me? Remarkable. Well, I’m not too surprised, after all,(preening) I was pretty well known in my own time. I wrote a lot of music. But I suppose the most lasting are my hymns. (a little put out) Look at the bottom of the page in your hymnal—you know, the small print. (proudly) Yes, I composed many of them. I worked with Martin, you know. Oh yes, I was his friend, I was in the thick of things. It was a time of troubles, but, looking back, it was also a marvelous time to be alive. (reminiscently) Martin certainly turned things upside down, didn’t he?

And the funny thing is that he didn’t start out to do that at all. No, when he nailed up those things on the church door, he had no idea he was starting a revolution.

(reminiscently)
It was a special time … It was a time out of time … Wars and rumors of wars … famine … plague … strife … backbiting … jealousy … and yet for that time … that time that was so brief … all was—it was (wonderingly) geniality … community … and … and (striving to explain) commonality of purpose … and … and somehow, despite everything, we felt safe … yes, that’s it … and snug … and excited … we were up until all hours … and yes, yes, we did feel, we did feel for those brief days that the kingdom of God was within us … well, (rather sheepishly) I suppose it’s not surprising for a composer to feel close to God when he’s working. (thoughtfully) I only wish everyone could feel that way.

Well! The thing that made it even more special was that Martin so loved music. I remember well … “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Not a bad thing for a composer to hear, eh? And he said, “I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music.” He said that. Really! I was there. (chuckles reminiscently) And I remember well the time he said, “A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God must be a clodhopper.” Martin could be very direct.

What a wonderful musical world we helped create, so different from that other one, where the congregation sat dumb, ignorant, (indignant) forbidden to sing, forbidden to read the Bible. Well! We changed all that. We understood well the power of congregational singing, and no one more so than Martin himself.

I’ll never forget that time in 1524 when Rupfg and I were Luther’s guests for three glorious weeks. While Rup and I sat at the table, bending over the music sheets with pens in hand, Luther strode up and down, trying on the fife the tunes that simply poured from his memory. And his imagination. (slightly patronizing) Martin was not a bad composer for an amateur. I don’t mean to say anything against him! After all, he had (facetiously) a few other things to do. Like creating a whole new religious world. (thoughtfully) And a lot of other things followed, many which we’d never expected or thought of. It was a remarkable time.

Yes, indeed, we composers could really pour out our hearts, and we did. Do you know one of the hymns I composed, Savior of the Nations, Come? I thought you did. (exuberantly) Why don’t we sing it now? It’s #332 in your hymnal. (They all sing)

Not bad! A trifle rough around the edges, but not bad at all.

We were a varied lot. There was Paul Eber, the gentlest man you’d ever want to meet. Poor soul, he was dragged by a horse when he was just a boy, and crippled for life. He was certainly accommodating, he even married a woman chosen for him by Melanchthon. In their case it worked well enough; so far as any of us knew, they seemed to be quite happy. You probably know one of his best, “When in the Hour of Deepest Need,” No. 615. Let’s try it; Paul will be deeply gratified. (They sing.)

What a poet Martin was! So simple, so direct. And yet he said it all, the deepest yearnings of all of us. I said he was an amateur as a composer, and so he was. But maybe just because of that, because he had no aspirations but to create music that was of use, none of the fears and hesitations that beset us who do it for a living—because he was free of that, he created one hymn of pure genius, so unpretentious, so perfect that it enters us like the purest honey. You know the one I mean. Yes, of course, number 656 or 657 in your hymnal. Hmm, I think I prefer 657. (They all sing.)

That was truly splendid. (He listens) Oh, I must go now, I’m being called back. But thank you so much for summoning me. It’s been very refreshing. Even if you do all dress oddly. Thank you, God bless you all. (strides out)

Joanne Forman is a composer currently working on KATHE, a short musical drama about the wife of Martin Luther, Katharina von Bora. Copyright 2011 by Joanne Forman. All rights reserved.

A Guide to the hymns in “The Lovely Gift of Music.” The hymn numbers included in the original text are from the Lutheran Service Book Hymnal. If the hymns mentioned are not in the hymnal used by your local church, you would obviously substitute the corresponding hymnal number. If, as may be the case, your hymnal does not contain “Savior of the Nations, Come” or “When in the Hour of Deepest Need”, you may find these at Hymnary.com. The final hymn reference is Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” If your local church hymnal does not contain this hymn, we respectfully suggest it’s time for your church to order new hymnals.