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Music made by one of Catholicism's biggest rebels is being celebrated in Dublin

The festival Mighty Fortress pays tribute to Martin Luther’s music, which played a big part in his religious world.

Image: Jim Killock/Flickr/CC

500 YEARS AFTER he first wrote his 95 theses – which led to the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s contribution to religious music is being celebrated in Dublin.

The festival, Mighty Fortress, will take place from Tuesday 20 to Sunday 25 June in the capital, with virtuoso organists and choral ensembles taking part – and a special event where the audience will be encouraged to sing along.

Luther was a professor of moral theology at Germany’s University of Wittenberg when he wrote the theses, after becoming upset with the idea of indulgences, and purgatory and repentance in Catholicism. He was excommunicated in 1521, but his impact on religion was major, as it paved the way for a schism in the Catholic Church caused by the Protestant Reformation.

What some may not realise was that, along with his beliefs that, for example, priests should marry, Luther also had a deep love for music. He wrote chorale works and believed that the congregation at church should perform music – it shouldn’t just be for the priest or choir.

And that’s where the inspiration for Mighty Fortress comes from.

“We thought it would be a good opportunity to explore what that bequeaths us musically,” said the festival’s artistic director Mark Duley.

“Luther was himself a great musician and he really responded to the power of music. We knew he thought [music]t was next to the Bible itself, it was closest to God – that God could speak through music. That was his big thing. He listened to music, he performed himself, and he could also compose music.”

Duley said that the Reformation “was couched in music”.

So music and these chorales, that was the most important way he got the message across, it was a way for people being able to participate. He wrote these chorales so people could sing in the services.

Of course, the words of these songs were important. They were, said Duley, “teaching [people] things as well – not just that they could participate but they could learn something about their religion and theology through singing”.

“He saw that the part of people was paramount,” said Duley of Luther’s vision of a new church. “He was trying to get away from the idea of priests being all powerful and mediators of things in heaven and things in earth.”

Luther adapted old plainsong melodies and turned them into hymn tunes that everyone could sing, said Duley. He also used familiar older songs that “bridged the gap between sacred and secular”, and folk songs that would have been familiar to his congregation.

(left-right) Music artists Sebastian Adams, Yseult Cooper Stockdale and composer Tom Lane who feature in Pipeworks 2017 Organ Festival 20-25 June Pic  Monika Chmielarz Music artists Sebastian Adams, Yseult Cooper Stockdale and composer Tom Lane who feature in Pipeworks 2017 Organ Festival Mighty Fortress. Source: Monika Chmielarz

“For all of them we can see he had a real sense of how people could pick something up quickly,” said Duley. “The rise and fall structure of them was memorable, people were able to learn them very quickly.”

The festival is named after Luther’s well-known 16th century hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser God, or A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Influences

Lutheran chorale didn’t just stand on its own – it also influenced composers like Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Bach, and this will also be explored during the event. The young contemporary composer Tom Lane will also take a fresh look at some of the music from this time.

Duley said that the chorales are notable today “because they are so timeless and they have lasted so long – they have been the inspiration for many composers over those years”.

“In some cases, [there are pieces that] people might know well or have heard in concert hall and not realise they are based on a chorale,” said Duley.

“He was a very interesting character,” added Duley of Luther. “He was an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic church so he was taking it from that position. Once he was excommunicated he got married – we know he was quite a vivacious character and liked a good party. He thought everyone should be married – clergy, the lot – and thought marriage was a natural state.

“He didn’t see any real divide between the sacred and the secular. For him it was part of one great continuum so he thought of good music in church as essential.”

Overall, Duley indicates the festival is a way of appreciating good art and how it can intersect with religion – but the festival is not just for the religious.

“[Luther believed] if we can appreciate good art in our lives, we should do that in church as well,” said Duley. “The Lutherans still appreciate that very much – they would be very much attuned to great art.”

To book tickets, visit the ticket selling site pipeworksfestival.eventbrite.com

Read: Huge growth in numbers attending Irish Christian conference for ‘anyone who loves Jesus’>

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