Five hundred years ago, in 1517, Martin Luther made public his theses condemning corruption in the Catholic Church. The numerous consequences of the Reformation extended into the realm of classical music — 17th— and 18th-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote music heavily influenced by his Lutheran faith.
To commemorate this anniversary, Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music presented a Reformation Concert last night in New Haven’s Trinity Lutheran Church, featuring Bach’s two surviving Reformation Cantatas, written in honor of Reformation anniversaries during Bach’s lifetime. The concert featured Yale’s Schola Cantorum choir and graduate student soloists from the Institute’s Early Music Voice program, and was led by internationally acclaimed conductor Masaaki Suzuki, the principal guest conductor of Scola.
“It’s no accident that they chose Bach, and particularly the cantatas, to celebrate the Reformation,” said Stefan Jones ’20, who attended the concert.
The performance in the High Victorian Gothic church began with two cantatas, “Gott der Herr ist Sonn’ und Schild” and “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Suzuki invited the audience to sing along to short hymns at the beginning of each cantata, and he faced the audience to lead the group.
Jones added that the program choice and audience involvement recalled the participatory nature of the Protestant Church.
“Whatever you picture stereotypically about classical music, this is the opposite of that,” said James Reese MUS ’18, a tenor soloist. “You might think of walls and formal barriers, but this music is the exact opposite of that, especially with Suzuki.”
Reese added that Suzuki’s conducting created a churning energy on stage for audience members to absorb and made the experience of singing “almost athletic.” He also described Suzuki as a preeminent conductor of Bach’s music and attributed Japan’s early music movement and interest in Baroque-era classical compositions to Suzuki’s work.
Addy Sterrett MUS ’18 said Suzuki is “like a wizard.” Sterrett, a soprano soloist and student in the Institute of Sacred Music’s Early Music Voice program, added that Suzuki’s rehearsal technique focused on providing the musicians with more general comments rather than giving them specific answers. Sterrett said this method of preparation is very effective.
“The entire ensemble just gets it, and then we can make the beautiful music,” she said.
While applying Suzuki’s broader guidelines, Sterrett also exhibited the specificity and attention to detail required when singing Bach’s music.
Sterrett said Bach’s particular written directions in the music add clarity to conversations about how Bach intended his music to sound, but the specificity of the directions makes achieving this vision difficult.
The texts of Bach’s cantatas are usually drawn from the writings of Martin Luther and his followers, who wrote in their vernacular language, German.
“People tend to think of German as very ugly and coarse because they are familiar with a caricatured version,” Reese said. “But German is a very colorful language.”
The period-instrument ensemble Juilliard415 accompanied the singers. Founded in 2009, Juilliard415 is based at the Juilliard School and comprised of students in the Historical Performance program at the conservatory. Artistic Director and violinist Robert Mealy doubled as concertmaster of the ensemble during the performance.
Sterrett said her singing changes when she performs with historical performance groups like Juilliard415. The “415” in the ensemble’s name refers to the tuning note it uses: Rather than tuning to a pitch of A at 440 Hz as is customary in modern performance, Juilliard415 tunes to an A at a much lower 415 Hz. This change in tuning shifts Sterrett’s approach to the music she sings.
Sterrett added that the ensemble produces a different texture of sound because of its commitment to using Baroque instrumentation, which denotes the number of musicians and the particular instruments they play. The ensemble also uses Baroque instruments such as Baroque violin bows and Baroque flutes, which have a gentler sound than the modern flute.
Reese connected Bach’s music to the composer’s Lutheran faith.
“People often say that Bach was to music as Luther was to sacred poetry and prose, so the two of them together is a perfect marriage,” Reese said. “Bach’s cantatas are really a full sweep of Bach’s Lutheran frame for the world.”
The Yale Schola Cantorum was founded in 2003.
Julia Carabatsos | firstname.lastname@example.org