With the Lutheran Reformation, the popularity of a new musical form, the chorale, did much to influence the sacred compositions of German musicians. Long after his own soul-emancipation had been attainedwhen, in mounting St. Peter’s staircase at Rome as an act of penance, a divine voice seemed to whisper in his ear, “The just shall live by faith”Luther found the chorale one of the greatest of exhilarating influences upon the minds of the people whom he sought to elevate and instruct. And it was this very Lutheran chorale, upon its being introduced with all the most expert devices of musicianship into the oratorios of Bach and Mendelssohn, that gave to oratorio, when transplanted from Italy to Germany, all the majesty, grandeur, and intensity which characterize this noblest of all outcomes of musical art.
Being himself an enthusiastic musician, and possessing not only a fine voice but the composer’s instinct, Luther conceived the idea of writing hymns in the vernacular; and these, with the help of his professional friend Walther, he had the satisfaction of seeing arranged to strong flowing melodies which could be easily taken up and memorized by a large body of people.
The chorale also made its influence felt in nearly all the higher departments of German sacred music of the epoch that followed. Particularly was this so in the great examples of passion music which preceded the noblest of all passion oratorios, that ac-cording to St. Matthew by J. S. Bach. Among the predecessors of Bach in this form of music were Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), “the father of German music,” Johann Sebastiani (born 1622), and Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739)
Through the strong popular element of the Protestant chorale, the earnest and solemn recitatives of Schutz and Sebastiani, and the infusion of a certain dramatic element into the sacred narrative of Christ’s sufferings and death by Keiser and his librettist, oratorio form, transplanted from Italy to Germany, gradually assumed elements of construction which were destined to be evolved and glorified to the highest degree by two of the greatest of the tone-poets, J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel. To Bach himself it was re-served to give to the world, in his passion oratorios, work that has hitherto been unsurpassed for dignity, grandeur, depth. and devotional expression.
Bach’s famous Matthew Passion was produced forthe first time on the evening of Good Friday, 1729, in the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, the sermon coming between the two parts after the manner of Neri’s procedure at Rome.
The Matthew Passion is written for two complete choirs, each accompanied by separate orchestra and organ. The chorales are particularly solemn and impressive: they are supposed to convey the sentiments of the whole Christian Church, and are such as an ordinary German congregation could render, although the inner harmonies are by no means simple. These majestic hymn-tunes should be sung very slowly. The instrumentation of Bach in this noble masterpiece is wonderful, and the polyphony marvelous. The richness of the general tone-painting grows upon us the more intimately we become acquainted with the eminently modern construction of the fine choruses and stately recitatives. “In this great work,” says W. S. Rockstro, “the German form of `Passions Musik’ culminated ; and in this it may fairly be said to have passed away: for, since the death of Bach, no one has seriously attempted, either to tread in his steps, or to strike out a new ideal fitted for this peculiar species of sacred music.”
Besides the Matthew Passion, the only one of the five sets composed by Bach that we now have, and know to be his work, is the John Passion. In this are found many resemblances to previous Lutheran settings of the sacred narrative. Chorales are numerous throughout the work, and are remarkable, in many in-stances, for their chromatic treatment. An exceedingly beautiful aria is that entitled “I follow thee also, my Saviour, with gladness.” It might well be considered the song of “that disciple whom Jesus loved.” It is written for a treble voice, and while not free from difficulty in phrasing and execution, yet there is a certain ingenuity and simplicityalmost childlike confidence and faithabout the flow of the melody that invests this number with peculiar charm for singers and listeners.
Thus we see how Protestantism, with its distinctly human badge of the people’s sacred song, or chorale, added the finishing touch of solidity, universality, and grandeur to the sacred edifice of the oratorio. It was as if, through the newly erected cathedral of noblest tone-forms, the grand voice of the organ pealed forth for the first time, filling every nook and crevice with glorified sound, the music ascending, in wave upon wave of vibrating air, to the highest pinnacle and dome. and shaking even the “storied windows” with the throbbings of its mighty pedal pipes.