Luther’s Law and Gospel in Josquin

There has been quite a lot of Reformation-themed posts going around on these Ad Fontes blogs (can anyone tell me why? I don’t get it, is something going on this week?) and so I figure I had better contribute something before Sunday when I will be busy with Halloween, All Saints, All Souls, the feasts of several martyrs, etc. [Davenant donors: please note: this is a joke. I am a Protestant and I like the Reformation.]

I would like to focus on the lovely essay by Rob C. Wegman which I would recommend to any lover of Luther and the Reformation, “Luther’s Gospel of Music,” from the volume Luther im Kontext: Reformbestregungen und Musik in der ersten Hälfte des 16. Jahrhunderts (2016). Wegman used to have this up on his Academia.edu page for free and I believe he has plans to move it (still free) to his Humanities Commons page (I have an in with him and may be able to bug him about this), but once it is free to access, please read it vitement. In the meantime, I will quote two sections of Luther which he focuses on.

From one of Luther’s Tischreden for 26 December 1538, he describes the composition Haec dicit Dominus by Josquin in the following terms.

It is an extraordinary motet, comprehending Law and Gospel, death and life. Two plaintive voices are lamenting Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis etc., then four voices exclaim upon these Haec dicit Dominus, de manu mortis liberado populum meum etc. It has been very well and consolingly composed.”

Wegman finds this revelatory because it reveals that Luther was reading his Law/Gospel distinction into the compositional structure of the Josquin motet. As most composers in this period would have, Josquin chose a pre-existing chant tune, Circumdederunt from Psalm 17, “the groans of death compassed me about,” but the other voices wrap that old text in the comfort of the promises of Christ in Hosea: “I shall deliver my people from the hand of death.” The contrapuntal voices are the Gospel, re-interpreting the old law (the chant) and blunting its deadening, sorrowful force with comfort. This is the sort of magic only counterpoint could achieve. And it should not be surprising that Luther and Melanchthon considered Josquin a model of musical composition which they could get behind.

The Josquin is linked below: if I understand the story correctly (I am actually not a Josquin scholar so I may have gotten this wrong, that’s why this is a blog and not a peer-reviewed publication), Josquin wrote the motet Nymphes, nappés which was retexted by a fellow named Conrad Rapusch with the outer voices singing a Biblical rather than secular text (a common practice in this period). And it was this retexted Josquin that Luther was singing.

I will also just quote at length Wegman’s translation of Luther’s famous encomium to music in his preface to Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae. It bears reading again and again. And Wegman’s translation really gets it in a zippy way that many miss.

But when, finally, human effort is joined with all of this, and man-made music, which improves on the natural kind, develops and unfolds, we can sense (but not comprehend) with astonishment the absolute and perfect Wisdom of God in His wondrous work of Music, in which nothing is more excellent than this, that when one sings with one and the same voice pursuing its own course, several other voices play around it in the most marvelous manner, exulting and adorning it with the most pleasing gestures, and seeming almost to present some kind of divine dance, so that it will seem to those with even the least bit of feeling that there exists nothing more marvelous in our time. Those who are not moved by this are indeed unmusical, and deserve rather to listen to some shit-poet [Merdipoetam] or to the music of swine.

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