Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Sunday Feature: A Square Dance in Heaven

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Sunday Feature: A Square Dance in Heaven

Article excerpt

It's 500 years since Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking what would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. His superficial complaint was against the corrupt practice of indulgences, the Catholic Church teasing money out of the gullible and persuading them that they could buy their way into Heaven. But what Luther, a professor of theology, really wanted was for God to be made accessible to everyone and for worship to be more intimate, more direct, and in the vernacular, not Latin. We think of him now as a man of the text, who believed that faith was so important its meaning should not be withheld by the priesthood or clouded by that 'dead' language. Radio 3, though, has chosen to mark the anniversary with a series of programmes highlighting the importance of music, not words, to the Reformation.

Why focus on Luther as a musician? I asked the Revd Lucy Winkett, rector of St James's, Piccadilly, who presents tomorrow night's Sunday Feature: A Square Dance in Heaven (produced by Rosie Dawson). Winkett, a former professional singer and choral scholar who has been singing Bach since she was a child, says she was 'really interested in Luther as a musician' because 'everyone associates him with words' but much more significant was the way he transformed church music, using it 'to help people understand that God was with them and for them'. He recognised, says Winkett, 'that music is the language of the human spirit' and because of that he got everyone singing in Saxony. Four hours of music each week was introduced into the school curriculum and choirs sprang up in every town. Music, she argues, was at the heart of the Lutheran reformation. He famously said, 'When people engage in music, singing in four or five parts, it's like a square dance in heaven.' This leads her to wonder whether Bach would have created his St Matthew Passion without Luther?

In the programme she travels to Eisenach in Germany, to the church where Luther was once a choirboy, followed coincidentally 200 years later by J.S. Bach. As a chorister, the young J.S. would have sung hymns and metrical psalms written by Luther, both the words and the music. Lutheran melodies are threaded through Bach's work. She goes to see the first Lutheran chapel, which was built at Torgau (close to Wittenberg) in 1544, where she discovers that the altar was positioned at the east end, as is traditional, but above it was placed not the crucifix you might expect but a massive organ, in full view of the whole congregation. …

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