Nicolaus Selnecker Organist, Composer, Theologian

By Petty, Bynum | The Tracker, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Nicolaus Selnecker Organist, Composer, Theologian


Petty, Bynum, The Tracker


NICOLAUS SELNECKER (1530-1592) was born during the infancy of the German Protestant Revolution, and as a young man was caught up in the struggle to define the revolution. In the years immediately following the death of Martin Luther (1483-1546), Protestant theologians differed on the correct interpretation of Luther's doctrine. The crypto-Calvinists, organized by Casper Peucer and Christoph Pezel, both students of Philipp Melanchton at the University of Wittenberg,1 thought Lutherans should rid themselves of all remnants of Rome. Other students of Melanchton were known as Philippists, as they were disciples of their teacher who held an irenic position of both Catholicism and Calvinism. Eventually it was the centrist efforts of Martin Chemnitz, Nicolaus Selnecker, David Chytraeus and Jakob Andreae, all students of Melanchton except Andreae, that brought peace and unity to the followers of Luther with the publication of the Formula of Concord in 1577, Chemnitz and Selnecker being the primary authors.

Named for the patron saint of his birth date, Nicolaus Selnecker (also known as Selneccer and Selneccerus)2 was born on December 6, 1530, at Hersbruck, near Nürnberg, although some sources cite his birth date as 1528 or I532.3 In 1534, his family moved to Nürnberg, and at age 12, Selnecker became organist at the Kaiserburg Doppier Kapelle in that city.4 In 1549, he entered Wittenberg University to study law at the request of his father. Under the influence of Melanchton and with the approval of his father, Selnecker pursued a theological education. In addition to participating in the disputes between orthodox Lutherans and other groups, he was appointed assistant court chaplain and director of the court's choir in Dresden, taught theology at the University of Jena, and later taught at the University of Leipzig. In 1574, while retaining his post at the latter, he was appointed pastor of Thomaskirche where he founded the famous Thomanerchor that would be led by J. S. Bach 150 years later.

Selnecker was also a successful author of hymn texts, a composer, and an organist; indeed, one of the few known contemporary images of his likeness shows him seated at a small organ. He was one of the most prolific writers of his era, and is credited with publishing over 150 monographs, over 200 hymn texts and metrical psalms, and about 130 hymn tunes.5

The engraving of Selnecker seated at an organ is a recent acquisition added to the Archives' collection of portraits, drawings, sculpture, and photographs. The woodcut of Selnecker at the organ appears on the title page of his Der gantze Psalter des königlichen Propheten Davids außgelegt und in drey Bücher getheylt [The Whole Psalter of the Royal Prophet David, explained and divided into three books], published by Christoff Heußler as one volume in 1565.

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