Ludwig SENFL (1486 - 1542)
Works for Martin Luther and the Reformation
Ludwig SENFL
Nisi Dominus a 5 [06:11]
Veni Sancte Spiritus a 4 [06:57]
Missa super Nisi Dominus a 4 [21:16]
In pace in idipsum & Psalm 4 [04:14]
Ludwig SENFL
Non moriar, sed vivam a 4 [03:20]
Gloria a 4 [06:06]
Ludwig SENFL
Omnes gentes a 5 [10:28]
ensemble officium/Wilfried Rombach
rec. 24-25 April 1999, Evangelische Kirche, Hoffenheim, Germany. DDD
CHRISTOPHORUS CHE 0147-2 [58:50]

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 motets.

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 alive.

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 Nisi Dominus 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 motet.

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