Martin Luther, the German reformer, was a great lover of music.
He also was quite knowledgeable, had a good singing voice and
was able to accompany himself on the lute. He also composed,
and some of his music has been preserved. He particularly admired
Josquin Desprez whom he considered the greatest composer of his
time. This disc sheds light on another composer he rated highly
and whom he knew personally: Ludwig Senfl.
Senfl was born in Basle in Switzerland, but seems to have lived
in Zürich from 1488. As early as 1496 he went to Augsburg
to become a choirboy at the chapel of Emperor Maximilian I. As
a composer he was trained by Heinrich Isaac, one of the main
composers in Europe at the time, in reputation and in the dissemination
of his oeuvre second only to Josquin. In 1513 he succeeded Isaac
as court composer to the Emperor in Vienna.
In this capacity he was present at the Diet in Augsburg in 1518.
It was there that Luther was examined. He also attended the Diets
of Worms in 1521 and Augsburg in 1530. Senfl did not convert
to Protestantism, but there are strong indications that he sympathized
with Luther. Since 1530 he was in regular correspondence with
him, and also with Duke Albrecht of Prussia, who had adopted
Luther's beliefs, and for whom Senfl composed many songs and
In 1530, when Luther was depressed after the Diet of Augsburg,
he wrote a letter to Senfl, asking him for a polyphonic setting
of the text In pace in idipsum
(Psalm 4): "I will
lay me down in peace and sleep, for thou, Lord, only makest me
dwell in safety." As he didn't know if Senfl knew the melody
he sent it to him with the words. It is not known whether Senfl
indeed composed a setting for Luther. The worklist in New Grove
mentions one setting with this title, but that piece is lost.
To compensate for the lack of a motet by Senfl with this text,
the words are performed here as plainchant.
Senfl did send Luther a motet on another text in reply to his
letter: Non moriar, sed vivam
. With the choice of this
text Senfl may have wanted to give him courage: "I shall
not die, but live, and proclaim the deeds of the Lord".
Interestingly Luther himself had also set this text to music,
probably shortly before Senfl sent him his motet.
The title of this disc may cause some surprise, in particular
in regard to the programme performed here. It consists of a mass
setting, and a number of motets, and all in Latin. Is this music
for the Reformation? It is important to note that Luther wanted
the congregation to sing, and to do so in the vernacular. But
his reform of the liturgy took place over a longer period of
time, and was less radical than that of his French counterpart
Jean Calvin. Whereas the latter banned all singing in Latin from
the church, Luther kept a number of elements of the Latin liturgy
Martin Luther and in particular the most prominent Lutheran composer,
Johann Walter, selected music for the choirbooks of the first
Lutheran communities. Composers who had converted to Luther's
confession or sympathized with it, were invited to compose music
for these choirbooks. Among the music selected were pieces by
Walter himself, but also by Ludwig Senfl. One of them was the
motet Nisi Dominus
, a setting of Psalm 127 (126). The Missa
is based upon the musical material of this motet,
and there are reasons to believe that Senfl had dedicated this
mass to Luther, because he had expressed great satisfaction about
The separate setting of the Gloria
is one of the anonymous
pieces which were selected for the Lutheran liturgy. The last
item on the programme, Senfl's setting of Psalm 47 (46), Omnes
gentes, plaudite manibus
, is also found in one of the manuscripts
with music for the Lutheran liturgy.
In 1999, when this disc was first released, most music on the
programme was being recorded for the first time. It was also
the first disc of the ensemble officium. This has been followed
by a number of recordings which have found wide acclaim. It is
noticeable that the ensemble does not perform this music with
one voice per part which today is more the rule than the exception.
The director, Wilfried Rombach, stated in an interview with the
German magazine FonoForum that he prefers a choral performance,
because it is more 'objective' than a performance with one voice
per part. I find this reasoning not very convincing: I fail to
see why a soloistic performance should be 'subjective'. That
is all a matter of choice.
I agree that renaissance polyphony doesn't require a personal
and emotional approach. That doesn't mean that it should be given
a bland performance. I am not saying that this disc is bad, but
the approach is a bit superficial. The singing is indifferent,
and the voices are too pale. Greater dynamic shading would not
have gone amiss either. The more recent recordings by this ensemble
are much better.
Even so, this is a very interesting programme with music by a
composer receives little attention. If his music is performed
at all it is mostly the German songs that get the attention.
This disc is an important contribution to our knowledge of his
sacred music and his ties with the reformer Martin Luther.
Johan van Veen