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Volume 15, Issue 2: Musica

Growing up Lutheran

Kim Schuler

What civilized Mediterranean type of old would have ever thought that a group of barbarians like the Germans could produce anything of cultural value? These are the people who have a verb prefix devoted just to destroying things; read through the zer- words in a German dictionary sometime and tremble. Martin Luther said, "We Germans are a rough, rude and reckless people, with whom it is hard to do anything, except in cases of dire need." True, those of us with German surnames may have had forebears who were a little, shall we say aggressive, but when these same people baptized, by God's grace there was no stopping them either.

Case in point: the closing chorus of Handel's oratorio Solomon. We picked up this recording around twenty years ago because it featured our favorite conductor and tenor. On first hearing a work, I'm usually a little slow in picking up on greatness; but the first time I heard the closing chorus on this recording, I was astounded. Subsequent hearings gave me a strange flood of emotion. That kind of experience often wears off, but twenty years later, I still get a lump in my throat even thinking about the piece. My six-year-old son cries out, "Again! Again!" with Teletubbic enthusiasm every time it ends. So what makes this piece so compelling?
The emotion always starts welling up toward the end of the chorus when a chorale-like melody is sustained in longer notes over roulades of ascending and descending scales. I was curious about the chorale, yet the text gave me no clues. I checked the liner notes, which assured me that it was "A Mighty Fortress"; not a very accurate quote by my estimation. I remained completely puzzled until one Sunday last year on the way home from church I decided to write down the notes of the chorale. We stopped the CD while I improvised some staff paper on my bulletin. This was it, the great melody. We started the CD. First phrase down; second phrase is the same; well, that's normal enough for a chorale. Third phrase—wait a minute—it's all the same. Three phrases exactly alike. Why did Handel repeat a single phrase of a chorale three times?
That afternoon I was playing the phrase on the piano still trying to work it out when Duck said, "Wait a minute, I know that. It's not the beginning of anything, it's the middle of `Isaiah Mighty Seer.'" Sometimes it pays to grow up Lutheran. We got out the Lutheran hymnal and sang through the tune. It is the German Sanctus, paraphrasing Isaiah 6:1-4, words and music paraphrased by none other than Martin Luther. Two pages of melody derived from plainchant climax dramatically at the words, "Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth. Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth. Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth." Three phrases exactly the same.
We sat amazed as we listened to the chorus with our new knowledge of its masked message. Was this a wink-if-you-get-the-inside-joke kind of thing that Credenda readers complain of? But Handel wasn't writing Solomon for a bunch of German Lutherans. This was a piece written for Anglicans, who for the most part tried assiduously not to sing anything German. Why did he put the German Sanctus in here with different words? The text he was setting was "Let the loud Hosannas rise, widely spreading through the skies. God alone is just and wise." In the context of the oratorio the Queen of Sheba has just expressed her admiration of the temple that Solomon has built. "Here, purest gold, from earth's dark entrails torn: and gems resplendent that outshine the morn; . . .Yet of ev'ry object I behold, Mid the glare of gems and gold, The temple most attracts my eye, Where, with unwearied zeal, you serve the Lord on high." Zadok the priest then has an ebullient aria proclaiming the beauty of the new temple. Solomon and the Queen of Sheba sing their parting blessings. Then comes the magnificent chorus in question for two choirs and full orchestra. If two choirs are singing and a full Baroque orchestra including trumpets and timpani is playing, how can you turn up the heat any more than that? Handel's answer apparently was by going back to the sublimity of the climax of this Luther chorale, learned in childhood. In contemplating Solomon's temple, the sixty-three year old Handel had the vision of God on His throne surrounded by the six-winged seraphim, calling back and forth, "Holy, Holy, Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth." The forty-three year old Luther some two hundred years before had had the vision of all the little Lutheran boys and girls growing up singing about God as He is presented in Isaiah chapter six in every worship service. When Luther published his German service, he said, "[The orders of worship] are essential especially for the immature and the young who must be trained and educated in the Scripture and God's Word daily so that they may become familiar with the Bible, grounded, well versed and skilled in it, ready to defend their faith and in due time to teach others and to increase the kingdom of Christ. For such, one must read, sing, preach, write, and compose. And if it would help matters along, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing and have everything ring that can make a sound." Two hundred years after that it bore fruit in the mind of a great composer. Two hundred and fifty years after that it brings tears to the eyes of those still privileged to hear it.

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